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Arthur Szyk: an illustrator of moral clarity and an artist for our time

Arthur Szyk. And (what) would you do with Hitler? New York, 1944. Image courtesy of Irvin Ungar / Historicana.

As the United States celebrates Juneteenth, commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, there is no better time to consider the life and work of painter Arthur Szyk (1894 – 1951).

The United States military – from West Point to the Naval Academy, from the Marine Corps to more than 500 United Service Organizations recreation centers across our country – had more respect, admiration and interest in Szyk than any political artist in America. during World War II. In addition to exhibiting his works for both officers and soldiers and women enlisted in military bases and airports, military leaders and soldiers have sought inspiration in him. Perhaps no greater recognition could be paid to Szyk, who considered himself “FDR’s soldier in art”, than when Colonel Edgar E. Glenn proclaimed him “citizen-soldier of the free world”.

How is it then that Szyk had the vision, moral courage and outrage to attack the US military establishment, which in the midst of the fight against Nazi and Japanese racism abroad simultaneously and excellently manifested racial segregation and dehumanization at home? How is it possible that a Polish Jewish immigrant who arrived in America in 1940 and was stranded for only four years on its soil possessed such sensitivity and empathy as a Jew towards black Americans, risking his growing stature and popularity as a leading figure Does it matter in the American war effort?

Nowhere do these two monumental questions come to the fore more than in a provocative drawing by Szyk from 1944. Measuring only 4 x 7 inches, a weapon wielding a white GI walks alongside a similarly armed black GI with guns pointed at. captured German soldiers and asks, “And (what) would you do with Hitler?” The Black GI replies, “I would have made him a nigger and left him somewhere in the United States”

According to Szyk, the racism was so severe in the United States, that the greatest punishment for Hitler would have been to capture him and leave him here in America, where he would endure the torment, degradation and shame inflicted on American citizens who had simply been identified as a cause. the color of their skin.

For Szyk, the segregation of the US military into separate black and white units was on par with the Nazi racist Nuremberg Laws of 1935 against European Jews and the Japanese racially inspired assault on the Chinese people, each reprehensible in its own way.

From his earliest days as the director of art propaganda for Poland in its war with the Soviet Union (1919-1920) after World War I (yes, a Jew as the head of Polish propaganda!), He claimed that “the art is not my purpose, it is my medium. As the leading artist for the rescue of European Jews during the Holocaust, he wielded pen and brush in defense of his people while serving humanity in general. As a European of the east, he defended black Americans as early as the pre-war 1930s, when he painted and depicted a black man, Prince Estabrook, who was wounded while fighting for American freedom during the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

At the bottom of its illuminated Indipendence declaration who now resides at the Library of Congress, Szyk added his dedication: “To my fellow Americans I lovingly dedicate this immortal legacy of our ancestors. May these words live in our hearts forever, because no good man loses his freedom except with life. Arthur Szyk, New Canaan, Connecticut, July 4, 1950.

Szyk believed that only death itself, not humanity, should have the power to take away the right that God has given us to a life of freedom and the pursuit of happiness in a place and time where every man will be in able to “sit under his vine and cool with no one to scare him.” He inspired us not only to seek the good in every human being, but to take an activist stance and speak out to get others to do so too .

At the inauguration ceremony in 1950 of his Declaration on Independence Day at the New Canaan City Hall, the president of the event called Szyk “one of the great free men of the world who has dedicated his life and art to the preservation of freedom”.

Fifty years later, the Library of Congress, in 2000, held an exhibition entitled “Arthur Szyk: Artist for Freedom”. Szyk and his ideals of justice and freedom survive. Our job is to secure them.

Irvin Ungar is a Szyk scholar whose book Arthur Szyk: Soldier in art won the 2017 National Jewish Book Award.

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