By SARA W. DUKE and HOLLY KRUEGER
The artist Arthur Szyk created some of the most memorable anti-Axis propaganda during World War II, as well as finely rendered and patriotic celebrations of the United States, his adopted country.
The Library of Congress celebrates the work of this artist, as well as three important Bicentennial "Gifts to the Nation" on the part of his daughter Alexandra Szyk Bracie and a private collector, with an exhibition in the Swann Gallery of Caricature and Cartoon in the Jefferson Building. Containing 17 representative works from caricatures of Axis leaders to masterpieces of illumination, "Arthur Szyk: Artist for Freedom" represents the breadth of the artist's oeuvre.
(The Bicentennial program "Gifts to the Nation" is an opportunity to support the Library's acquisition of important cultural legacies, as well as the scholars and curators who bring them to life. A story on the program appeared in the December 1999 issue. The Bicentennial of the Library is April 24.)
Born in Lodz, Poland, of Jewish parents, Szyk (1894-1951) showed his artistic ability early. He trained in the Near East, Paris and Krakow, settling in Paris in 1924, where he would reside for a decade. While in Paris he illustrated the work of Flaubert and others in a variety of styles that showed his mastery of both the miniature and caricature. He returned to Lodz in 1934, but traveled around the world, before moving to Great Britain in1939. An increasingly politicized artist in the face of growing anti-Semitism in Europe, Szyk (pronounced "Schick") began to produce allegorical works against tyranny and oppression. For almost a decade he labored to create an elaborately illustrated Haggadah that attacked the Nazis, but he could not find anyone willing to take the risk to publish his version of the Passover story. It was in England that his masterpiece, The Haggadah, was finally published in 1940, stripped of its anti-Nazi iconography.
In 1940 Szyk made his way to New York. His anti-Axis cartoons and caricatures had captivated Europe and North America, and newspaper accounts told of Hitler's having put a price on his head. He wrote of the United States, "At last, I have found the home I have always searched for. Here I can speak of what my soul feels. There is no other place on earth that gives one the freedom, liberty and justice that America does." He embraced the patriotic spirit of his adopted country, evident in his Declaration of Independence (1950), Four Freedoms Prayer (1949), and Bill of Rights (1949).
Arthur Szyk's Working Method
It is easy to see why Arthur Szyk is admired not only for the content of his works, but also for the way he constructed his jewellike creations. While earlier works from the 1930s are looser in style than the pen-and-ink drawings of the 1940s, the latter show the elements of the illuminated manuscript style for which he is known.
"Europe Is Getting Hot! We've Got to Move to the Western Hemisphere" (1944) reveals Szyk's method of applying ink and graphite in succeeding layers to create a carefully modeled but highly individualized caricature, as in the subtle touches of graphite combined with pen strokes in Spanish dictator Francisco Franco's face.
For all of the items on view in this exhibition, Szyk began his composition with a lightly applied but fairly complete "underdrawing" in graphite pencil. Traces of this preliminary drawing can be seen under high magnification along the edges of some of the forms. The design was then built up with successive layers of transparent and opaque watercolors. Many subsequent tiny, precisely placed strokes of color to define the shape of an ear or the features of a face can be discerned. Use of this technique requires a light and supremely confident touch because application of watercolor on top of watercolor can dissolve both strokes into a muddy mess.
Note the fine working of details in the close-up views of the Madonna and child in Four Freedoms Prayer (left). As with illuminated manuscripts, this style of working can have its drawbacks. Sometimes the paint does not adhere well to the layers underneath or the paint buildup can become too brittle to withstand slight flexing of the paper. Flaking paint is a common problem in multilayered works of art, and many of the objects in the exhibition required conservation by the Library before they could be put safely on view. Treatment involved close examination of all areas of the painting under magnification and flowing the appropriate consolidant (adhesive used to adhere the paint back to the paper) into areas of insecurely attached media.
The objects in the exhibition are rightfully defined and thought of as two-dimensional. Magnified examination of the Four Freedoms Prayer, however, reveals subtle use of three-dimensional aspects to enhance the rendering of the objects. For example, the folds in the Virgin Mary's robes were built of successive layering of ultramarine watercolor adding definition through sculptural means rather than modeling with color and hue differences. Another example of delicate, three-dimensional effects can be discerned in the Virgin Mary's face. The ridge of her nose below her eyebrows and the edge of her headpiece are incised lines, which, while reading as darker applications of media, are in reality lines engraved into the paper.
Little evidence of such corrections as roughened paper, smudged colors or gouged support can be found, which suggests that Szyk had his final composition firmly in mind upon completion of the underdrawing. That he made few mistakes in bringing this composition to life is also apparent.
While all of the described techniques are standard methods employed by artists working in watercolor, Szyk used them to great effect to express his vision. His use of these techniques is particularly amazing, given Szyk's poor eyesight. He wore thick, heavy glasses and as a result had to get very close to the paper to see. One humorous anecdote recalls Szyk receiving a reprimand for getting too close to the originals during an exhibition of his work, the admonisher obviously not knowing to whom he was speaking. Szyk graciously befriended him, a young, budding cartoonist, and thus added another admirer to those already in awe of his abilities. His creations are as remarkable today for their technical prowess as they were then.
Ms. Duke is curatorial project assistant for Cartoon and Caricature in the Prints and Photographs Division. Ms. Krueger is senior paper conservator in the Conservation Division.