While a trend among many 20th century artists was to create art for the sake of itself — believing that aesthetic quality trumped moral and political relevance — others looked at their charge very differently.
“Art is not my aim, but my means,” illuminator and cartoon satirist Arthur Szyk is often quoted as saying. His aim – exposing injustice, and chronicling historical struggles and triumphs-is strikingly rendered in a traveling exhibit entitled “Justice Illuminated: The Art of Arthur Szyk,” and can be viewed at Carnegie Mellon’s Posner Center now through March 28.
Polish-born Szyk, who immigrated to the United States in 1940, is widely considered to be the greatest 20th century artist working in the style of the 16th century miniaturist painters. His illuminated manuscripts and political caricatures appeared on the covers of, and inside, popular magazines such as Time, Esquire and Collier’s. He also published books featuring his political cartoons, including “Ink and Blood,” which is still popular today.
“The first thing you notice in Szyk’s pictures is that, my goodness, they’re crowded,” said Mary Kay Johnsen, Special Collections Librarian, Carnegie Mellon University. “That’s how they looked in the Middle Ages … you just covered every single inch. He uses this as an organizational technique in displaying all of his information.”
The closer one looks at a Szyk piece, said Johnsen, the more details, patterns and symbolism one notices.
“You start noticing how every little piece has something to say that relates to the story,” said Johnsen. “It is the job of the viewer to figure out how the details tell the story.”
Szyk used the medium of gouache, said Johnsen, an opaque paint with more pigment and less water than traditional watercolor. Using gouache in his illumination technique, Szyk’s colors are bright, and his details are intricate.
The traveling exhibit features Szyk’s work on three subjects: World War II, The Jewish Response and The Meaning of America.
Szyk’s World War II pieces were designed to make a political statement, and to influence public opinion as he mocked the Axis leaders, and portrayed sympathetic victims. In one striking piece, The Parade of Evil, Szyk has cartoon Axis leaders following a stylized, horrifying devil.
The Jewish Response portion of the show displays works highlighting the historical experiences of the Jewish people, portraying them as frequently persecuted, yet heroic. One particularly clever and symbolic piece depicts the artist himself, holding a hamantaschen while witnessing the hanging of Haman, who is cloaked in swastikas.
Also noteworthy is Szyk’s detailed, illuminated rendering of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. The colorful Hebrew calligraphy is bordered by vibrant miniature scenes of Jewish history. The scenes range from Moses and Aaron, to skulls and bones, symbolizing the Holocaust.
The Meaning of America portion of the show features several detailed, colorful illuminations depicting American history, ideology and experiences, including a salient dramatization of Thomas Jefferson’s oath to oppose all forms of tyranny.
In addition to the traveling collection, CMU is displaying four books illustrated by Szyk and collected by Henry Posner, Sr.: The Book of Ruth, the Book of Job, the Ten Commandments and a Hagada printed on vellum.
CMU is also featuring a display about the techniques of medieval illumination.
Szyk spoke several languages, and drew upon his extensive knowledge of art and history to create his works.
“He had such a deep knowledge of what he was illuminating,” said Allison Chang, Arthur Szyk Society Coordinator. “His work is the perfect storm of language, art and history.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)