Game Changer: The Scathing Pen of Illustrator Arthur Szyk

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One afternoon while strolling e reprough the New York Historical Society, I happened upon the articulate work of Arthur Szyk (pronounced “shik”). To view his oeuvre is to descend deep into a time capsule set during World War II, the Holocaust and America of the Jim Crowe era.  His illustrations, suffused with a blend of chiaroscuro, historical reference and narrative awoke in me a nostalgia for all things World War II.  Upon further inspection, however, I found an individual whose voice conveyed a depth of humanity. This factor alone, crossed all generational divide and gave an element of surprise.

Szyk was a Polish Jew who lived through World War II and emigrated to America after witnessing large scale murder, racism, mass immigration, and marginalization. Disquieted by the passivity of government officials and a culture of silence, he christened himself “soldier of art”. Szyk mobilized efforts alongside his comrades. And what were his weapons of choice? Pen, gouache, watercolor and scripture.

Above: “Ink and Blood” (self-portrait). New York, 1944 Watercolor and gouache. 11 x 8 in. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection.

Near the end of the war, Szyk pictures himself producing Axis caricatures that come to life. A nearly finished Hitler impotently shakes his fist at the artist; Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, sadly makes a report for German radio (DNB); the leaders of Italy and Vichy France are trapped in the wastebasket while other Axis scoundrels lie discarded onto the floor. The title
“Ink and Blood” is a play on the German militarist motto “Blood and Iron” declaring that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.  
(“Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art” p. 146).

“An artist, and especially a Jewish artist, cannot be neutral in these times…Our life is involved in a terrible tragedy and I am resolved to serve my people with all my art, with all my talent, with all my knowledge.” – Arthur Szyk

Syzk Calls Out an End to Endemic Discrimination

“Tadeusz Kościuszko from The Glorious Days of the Polish-American Fraternity”. Watercolor and gouache 10 3/8 x 8 ¼ in. 

No other work exemplifies the full spirit of Szyk than “Tadeusz Kościuszko from The Glorious Days of the Polish-American Fraternity”.

In this depiction of the American Revolutionary war hero Tadeusz Kościuszko we find a feisty call to end enslavement.

Szyk painted Kościuszko in 1938 as part of a series known as the Glorious Days of the Polish-American Fraternity. The series was created to highlight contributions Poles had made to America in the hope of fostering closer relations between the two countries on the eve of World War II. The work was on exhibition at the Polish Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Queens, New York in 1939. The work was on display when Germany invaded Poland.

The purpose of this portrait is manifold: First, Szyk reminds Americans that Poles aided the country in time of need. Trained as a military engineer in Poland, Kościuszko joined the American Revolution in 1776.  Appointed as a colonel of engineers in the Continental Armies, he quickly rose among the ranks and was promoted to brigadier general. Highly skilled, he had designed and oversaw key construction of battle fortifications such as those at West Point, New York.

Szyk reminds Poles of their contributions to the war effort by discreetly weaving in the American Stars and Stripes and the White Eagle, Poland’s oldest national symbol within the border of the work. Secondly and more importantly, Szyk chose to emphasize a key element of this soldier’s legacy. Although Kościuszko’s prowess reflects in his military garb, the main feature, central to the painting is a document – a scroll – unfurled in his hands. What is this document?  Kościuszko holds his last will and testament before returning to Europe for a final time in 1798. In it, he bequeaths his pay $15,000 – for his years of military service – to his good friend Thomas Jefferson so that he might use it to purchase the freedom of his slaves. The will states: “I hereby authorize my friend Thomas Jefferson to employ the whole thereof in purchasing negros from among his own or any other and giving them liberty in my name.” Szyk, knowing and understanding Kosciuszko’s story, uses this historical detail to deliver a 140-year old message to the peoples of Europe and American in 1938 regarding the enslavement of minorities in their own time. (“Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art: Behind the Great Art and the Great Messages Stands Arthur Szyk, The Great Man by Irwin Undar” p. 42)

The Use of Scripture to Reinforce Social Justice 

“Do NOT forgive them Lord, for they DO know what they do.” Sunday Compass (New York) June 12, 1949.

Szyk’s pen did not only speak solely for justice for Jewish immigrants but for others experiencing marginalization.  In “Do NOT forgive them Lord, for they DO know what they do.” Szyk paints a negation of scripture.

Enacted after the Reconstruction period, the Jim Crowe laws in America continued in force until 1965. They mandated de jure racial segregation in all public facilities in states of the former Confederate States of America, with a “separate but equal” status for African Americans.

Several years prior, Szyk had illustrated the Four Freedoms as outlined by FDR: “Freedom of Speech”, “Freedom of Religion”, “Freedom from Want” and “Freedom from Fear”.  He believed that the Four Freedoms applied to all Americans.

A black man on his knees is about to be lynched by the Klu Klux Klan. Below lie the words “A negro lynching is a national disaster is a stab in the back…our government in its desperate struggle for democracy…”  Referencing Luke 23:24, the artist calls attention to the flawed concept of America as a “Christian” nation and its unequal treatment of races in post-war America. The country, suffering a memory loss, had forgotten the service given by its black militia only years prior and those of the Civil War from a century before.

The Modern Hamlet”, New York, 1941. Pen and ink, and Pencil. 5 7/6 x 4 in. 

Mimicking the famous scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Goebbels examines a human skill questioning whether it looks Jewish or not in the phrase: “Aryan or Non-Aryan – that is the question!”

“De Profundis: Cain, where is Abel Thy Brother?” Pen, ink and pencil. 15 x 20 in. 

“De Profundis: Cain, where is Abel Thy Brother?”, a reference to Genesis 4: 6, depicts a pile of lifeless and dying Jewry laden with sorrow. The work illustrates a consequence of the Third Reich’s Final Solution to decimate all Jewry. By decorating the “C” of Cain with a swastika, and the “A” of Abel with a Star of David, Szyk makes it clear whom he believes is responsible for these crimes against humanity. In Genesis, Cain, in a fit of jealous rage, kills Abel his brother – “Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” in which Cain feigns, “I don’t know…Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9).

Located to the extreme left of the illustration, Jesus, sporting a crown of thorns, suffers alongside the sick and dying. Szyk reminds the viewer, that Christ, himself, was a Jew and the act of killing the Jewish nation, meant to crucify Christ afresh. He castigates the hypocrisy and silence of Christian nations, who, knowing full well the extent of the extermination, refuse to act.

Hell hath no fury like an illustrator’s pen

“The Repulsed Attack (from “The Songs of the Ghetto”). New York, 1943 Pen and ink, and pencil. 10 x 5 ¾ in.

Szyk portrayed the Jewish people as heroes and the Nazis as villains. Created the same year as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, “The Repulsed Attack (from “The Songs of the Ghetto”) was published numerous times in magazines and journals during the war. “The Repulsed Attack” reflects the artist’s ideals in action: the Jewish people fighting heroically for their lives and their dignity.

“The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the 1943 act of Jewish resistance that arose within the Warsaw Ghetto in German-occupied Poland during World War II, and which opposed Nazi Germany‘s final effort to transport the remaining Ghetto population to Treblinka. The uprising started on April 19th when the Ghetto refused to surrender to the police commander SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop, who then ordered the burning of the Ghetto, block by block, ending on May 16th. A total of 13,000 Jews died, about half of them burnt alive or suffocated. German casualties are not known but were not more than 300. It was the largest single revolt by Jews during World War II.” (

Szyk gives life to the desperate and hopeless struggle by imbuing the piece with humanity. Various Jewry, identified by differing garb, fight side by side. Resistance leaders Mordecai Anielewicz and Marek Edelman, the instigating commanders, stand above the fray. “The Repulsed Attack” is do or die. Young and old and men and women mobilize.  The fighters, who had built fortified bunkers, hold nothing back. They supply their own blitzkrieg with a scarce supply of guns, handmade grenades and Molotov cocktails. Szyk, illustrates the sewer system, a key element that served as an underground passageway. “The Repulsed Attack” captures a spirit of defiant determination.

“Valhalla from The Nibelungen Series” New York, 1942. Pen and ink, and pencil 10 ½ x 14 in.

In stark contrast, “Valhalla from the Nibelungen Series” poses members of the Third Reich in a facetious and grotesque light.  Szyk, caricatures Wotan’s palace, Valhalla, as a German beer hall with acerbic wit. The one-eyed divinity drinks with the gargantuan and corpulent “heroes” of Germany’s imperial past.  “Nazi heaven is a rowdy German Bierstube with Axis leaders serving as waiters in ill-fitting uniforms. Hitler carries beer, Mussolini hoists a pig head on a platter, Hermann Göring fetches a napkin and Goebbels serves sausages, all while Vichy General Philippe Pétain cooks in the kitchen. (“Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art” P. 139).  In the foreground, a figure, resembling a bear rug, lies spread-eagle while skulls litter the floor.  On the wall is a quote often cited by Szyk and attributed to Hitler: “Conscience is a Jewish invention”. To emphasize the anti-Semitic tradition in German history, the god Wotan sits with one foot on the body of a Jew and the other on a volume of poetry by nineteenth-century German Jewish author Heinrich Heine. Each of the “heroes” wears a swastika to suggest a continuity of German anti-Semitism throughout the ages.

George Grosz Eclipse of the Sun, 1926 Oil on Oil on canvas, 81-5/8 x 71-7/8 in. The Heckscher Museum of Art

Syzk championed immigration and freedom from subjugation

 “Libertad: Liberating the Oppressed or Oppressing the Liberated?” (1944) Pen, ink and pencil on paper 13 ½ x 10 3//4 in. 

Originally published in a South American newspaper, nineteenth-century leader Simón Bolívar   – known as el Liberador (the Liberator) gazes sternly from the clouds at Hitler, Franco, and Argentinian politicians Ramirez and Perón, who travel a pathway toward slavery. (“Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art” P. 148).  

Bolívar, a national icon in much of South America, and one of the great heroes of the Hispanic independence movements of the early 19th century stands in full regalia.  Hitler and his cronies, resembling midgets, march below as prisoners-of-war. Ominous clouds and vultures circle overhead while craggy mountains signify decay.  The group march as a chain gang on what appears to be a cemetery littered with pythons and skulls. To the far right, a forlorn sign echoes “Back to Slavery”.

“Palestine Restricted” New York, 1944. Pen and ink, and pencil. 14 1/6 x 11 1/6 in. Private collection

A vulture emblazoned with swastikas and skull and crossbones, swoops down with talons outstretched toward a huddle of fearful Jews. A large padlock (labeled “White Paper”) blocks their escape to a refuge in Palestine. A posted broadside near the locked door gives the date – March 31, 1944 – after which the British would only allow immigration to Palestine with consent of the Arab population.

Addressing the Jewish plight to Palestine in “Palestine Restricted”, Szyk again refers to scripture: “You would even cast lots for the fatherless/And barter your friend.” (Job 6:27). The Aliya Bet was the code name given to illegal immigration by Jews. Most were Holocaust survivors and refugees from Nazi Germany to Mandatory Palestine (1934 – 48) in violation of the restrictions laid out in the British White Paper of 1939. More than 70,000 Jews arrived in Palestine on more than 100 ships, yet the British government vehemently opposed the movement and enforced their decrees with armed navy patrols.

In classic Szyk fashion, the artist reveals his ire and champions the plight of the Jew in search of shelter, safety and a homeland. His pen, in soft brown and greys, reveals a huddle of both young and old from the revered rabbi to the mother with young infant. Their facial expressions range from fear and discomfort to outright anger.

Massive immigration, prejudice and subjugation are not social issues exclusive to his time. Given today’s political climate and the worldwide state of mass immigration, there is no doubt that, if Szyk were alive today, his pen would remain active and vitriolic. He fits within a great pantheon of artists that promoted social justice and his aesthetic is timeless and engaging.

I think it appropriate to finish with  a gallery showing examples of present-day artists who have used their medium to bring attention to injustice, prejudice and mass immigration:

Mass Immigration:

 Cover photo: “Stepping Over the Dead on a Migrant Boat”, The New York Times, October 2, 2016

Ai WeiWei “Law of Journey” Bronze sculpture (2017), National Gallery of Prague

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei continues to explore the enormity of the refugee humanitarian crisis. A refugee himself, Ai Weiwei has dedicated the last two years of his career to creating politically charged artwork that speaks to the issue.  . Hosted by the National Gallery of Prague called Law of the Journey, the show features a stylized 70-metre-long inflatable boat carrying 258 oversize refugee figures.

“There’s no refugee crisis, but only human crisis… In dealing with refugees we’ve lost our very basic values,” states the Chinese artist, one of the most powerful figures in contemporary art, his work is a “multi-layered, epic statement on the human condition.” – My Modern Met: Ai Weiwei Draws Attention to the Refugee Crisis with Powerful New Installation” by Jessica Stewart March 17, 2017).

Jacob Lawrence The Migration Series: “From every southern town migrant left by the hundreds to travel north” (1940–41) The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1942

Political cartoon, source unknown       

Ti-Rock Moore, Choke Hold” (2016) Led Light Installation and Noose

Ti-Rock Moore explains that “Political or protest art: both are suitable ways to describe my work. My responsibility as a white ally, artist and activist is not simply to acknowledge racism outright, but to target those namely fellow white Americans who turn a blind eye to systemic oppression.” And perhaps she speaks for most artists when she says, “I have been an activist for decades, but I know that my art speaks much more loudly than I ever could.” (The Washington Post: The Most Powerful Art From the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, Three Years In” July 13, 2016.   by Victoria Fogg

Uncommon Alchemy

SLIDE 1: “momentum’s nursery…” handcut vintage paper collage (2020) 10” X 6 3/4” SLIDE 2: “an eruptive dismay…” handcut vintage paper collage (2020) 5″ x

Justin Barrie Kelly, Gold Medal for Excellence, found object, assemblag, contemporary art, Welsh artist, sculpture, Low relief, Wall hanging, Sculptural relief, Collage

Wickedly Welsh

“Gold Medal for Excellence” . Image courtesy of the artist. Wickedly Welsh In the Studio with Artist Justin Barrie Kelly @justin_barrie_kelly   Fascination for geometry