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Arthur Szyk’s Work Swayed World War II Opinion

By: Patti Sherman-Cisler,
Executive Director, Jewish Museum Milwaukee

This editorial appeared in the February 2016 edition of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.

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The Jewish Museum Milwaukee will present the work of mid-20th century artist and activist Arthur Szyk, (pronounced “Shik”), through the originally curated exhibit, Arthur Szyk: The Art of Illumination, which will be on display from February 7 to May 15. Szyk’s work has enjoyed a renaissance and has been displayed at museums throughout the United States and Poland. The exhibit’s four thematic pillars are Art as Propaganda, Democracy/Freedom, Civil Rights, and Zionism/the State of Israel. The diverse accompanying programs will allow the public in-depth opportunities to engage in these timeless and timely ideas.

Szyk, a Polish Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1940, personally experienced the Nazi persecution against the Jewish people. In response to world events, Syzk created meticulous and fiercely morale caricatures of the WWII Axis powers in his political cartoons, depicting them as hate-filled mad men. His graphic images appeared on the covers of the major magazines including Life, Colliers and Time. His work had a common theme according to Irvin Ungar, the foremost scholar and co-curator of the exhibit, “Freedom, not tyranny; justice, not oppression – which, when combined with the uniqueness of his style, is why Szyk became one of the leading political cartoonists of the first half of the 20th century.”

His poignant, profound and often provocative images were instrumental in swaying public opinion toward entering World War II. Indeed Franklin D. Roosevelt dubbed him his “soldier in art”. Eleanor Roosevelt in describing Szyk’s work said “This is a personal war of Szyk against Hitler, and I do not think that Mr. Szyk will lose this war!”

The banner on the front of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee depicts the Collier’s cover from January 1942 with the noted Szyk work Madness. In this anti-Axis drawing, Hitler, Goring, Goebbels and Himmler are shown plotting world domination, while the Minister of Propaganda hands out Nazi flags. The words “Don’t Believe a Word of It” are printed at the bottom and refer to the Nazi propaganda machine, which was bent on convincing Americans that the Nazis were not intent on global domination. Szyk fought this claim through his searing imagery, pushing the American public to think critically.

These messages of understanding the source and being accurately informed resonate today. Current sweeping rhetoric about Muslims, Syrians, and Hispanics are eerily reminiscent of the propaganda against Jews in Szyk’s time. As we ponder the words “never again” Szyk’s work provides a jumping off point for reflecting on important events and for discussing essential topics such as the use of propaganda both historically and today, how images sway people’s ideas, and how art can be used as a vehicle for social justice. JMM will offer in-depth programs to engage these ideas and we hope the community will join us in these discussions.