"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
October 7, 2013
Szyk Sticks It to the Axis
by Lawrence Jeppson

The most valuable book in my library (apart from Book of Mormon French and Italian first editions) is Arthur Szyk’s Ink and Blood, a collection of World War II political cartoons by the fabulous miniaturist painter and caricaturist.

It was published by The Heritage Press, New York City, in 1948. My leather-bound, slip-cased copy is one of 1000 dedicated copies; it is inscribed to me and signed by Szyk.

Seven of the 65 illustrations are in color. The rest are printed in dark sepia. I don’t know if this color was meant to be a silent symbol to represent dried blood.

Szyk (1894-1951) worked in Poland, France, and the United Kingdom before emigrating to the United States in 1940. Like my friend Tomas Gleb (1912-1991), whom I wrote about in the tenth of these “Moments in Art”, Szyk was born in the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland. Szyk — pronounced Shick — was 18 years older than the impoverished Gleb and reached a much higher level of international recognition.

In contrast to Gleb, Szyk grew up in a well-to-do family. His father was director of a textile factory; he lost an eye in the 1905 Lodz Insurrection when a worker threw acid into his face. Poland was then under the rule of Czarist Russia.

I became acquainted with Szyk’s art when I acquired copies of The Canterbury Tales, The Book of Ruth, and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam through the Heritage Club. All three books were profusely illustrated in color by Szyk. When the pre-publication offer to acquire Ink and Blood came, I quickly answered, “I want it.”

Frontispiece, Arthur Szyk self-portrait. (All images from Arthur Szyk’s Ink and Blood, © The George Macy Companies, 1948)

Szyk’s career as a political cartoonist is said to have started when he was six and drew illustrations of the Boxer Rebellion in China. His interest turned to illustrating the Bible, even though his father had abandoned Judaism.

Szyk’s father sent him off to Paris to study art at the Julian, at the time probably the most famous art school in the world. By then Paris was full of Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, and all the exciting art hoopla of the early years of the 20th Century.

Young Arthur was not enthralled by any of these new ways of thinking. What he loved were medieval book and manuscript illuminations. He sent home political caricatures that were published in a Lodz satirical magazine.

After four French years, he continued his art training at the Jan Matejko Academy in Krakow, a Polish city but part Austria, one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe. Although he participated actively in the city’s cultural life, he was proud of being Polish and being Jewish, and he was active in combating anti-Semitism with his pen. With other Polish-Jewish writers and artists, he set out to visit Palestine to witness the efforts of Jews who were trying to sink new roots in the Holy Lands.

The outbreak of World War I forced him to abandon Palestine and go home. He was conscripted into the Russian army and fought in the 1914 Battle of Lodz. The next year he escaped from the army and spent the rest of the war at home in Lodz, where he married and had his first child.

When Poland fought for independence from the Russians, 1919-1920, Szyk served as a cavalry officer and as artistic director in the propaganda department of the Polish army in Lodz.

In 1921, Szyk moved his family to Paris, where he created a career as a book illustrator. Three of the first six books were published in Yiddish. Going beyond pen and ink drawings, he did many illustrations in color and developed a style which became uniquely his and would serve him the rest of his life. You never need to look for a signature to identify a Szyk illustration.

He moved about. He spent seven weeks in Morocco, a French protectorate, where he drew a portrait of the pasha of Marrakech, which led the French to cite him as a goodwill ambassador.

He maintained his social and professional connections with Poland.

Szyk had a great love for George Washington and Washington’s two Polish generals, Tadeusz Kosciusko and Casimir Pulaski. In 1930, he began an evocative historical series of 38 watercolors depicting events of the American Revolution, which were exhibited in the Library of Congress. He received the George Washington Bicentennial Medal from the U. S. government.

When Hitler came to power, he quickly became a focus of Szyk’s acid pen. The artist began working on what was his greatest work, 48 drawings illustrating the Haggadah, the story of the escape of the Israelites from Egypt, which is read every year at Passover. The Jews, however, were not destined to escape the Nazi pharaoh.

We’re Running Short of Jews.

Szyk took his wife and children to London while he supervised production of the Haggadah. Within three weeks after the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, all of his immediate family, except those in London, were murdered. Of his wife’s family of nine, only she and a brother who was an officer in the Russian army were left.

Cold Feet.

The next year the Szyks emigrated to America, which he considered the greatest democracy in the world. There his caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito, his lauds of America and Britain and Allied war efforts began appearing in all the popular publications.

The Son of Heaven.

In his long introduction to Ink and Blood, Struthers Burt describes Szyk as a “nice person, a good man, a kindly, gentle, smiling one. Also he is an artist, so that makes him vicarious minded and merciful. He would hurt no one if he could help it.” Burt also explains the title to the book. It is an answer to the favorite German phrase, “blood and iron,” which, he annotates, has been the leading German slogan for more than 100 years.

The War Loan Tide

Burt may also have written the book’s dedication, which says, in part, this book “is dedicated to all men and women, young or old, who in every corner of the world in the last dreadful years fought with arms, with words, with silent fortitude, the Powers and Principalities of evil.”

Many who read this column will be scarcely aware of the trauma all suffered during the WWII years, but there are others of us who are still walking and who feel the resonance of Szyk’s Ink and Blood.

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About Lawrence Jeppson

Lawrence Jeppson is an art consultant, organizer and curator of art exhibitions, writer, editor and publisher, lecturer, art historian, and appraiser. He is America's leading authority on modern, handwoven French tapestries. He is expert on the works of William Henry Clapp, Nat Leeb, Tsing-fang Chen, and several French artists.

He is founding president of the non-profit Mathieu Matégot Foundation for Contemporary Tapestry, whose purview encompasses all 20th-century tapestry, an interest that traces back to 1948. For many years he represented the Association des Peintres-Cartonniers de Tapisserie and Arelis in America.

Through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the American Federation of Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, and his own Art Circuit Services he has been a contributor to or organizer of more than 200 art exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Taiwan. He owns AcroEditions, which publishes and/or distributes multiple-original art. He was co-founder and artistic director of Collectors' Investment Fund.

He is the director of the Spring Arts Foundation; Utah Cultural Arts Foundation, and the Fine Arts Legacy Foundation

Lawrence is an early-in-the-month home teacher, whose beat is by elevator. In addition, he has spent the past six years hosting and promoting reunions of the missionaries who served in the French Mission (France, Belgium, and Switzerland) during the decade after WWII.

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