By: Ellie Gettinger, Education Director
As we near the end of Black History Month, I wanted to take a moment to explore our current exhibit, Arthur Szyk: The Art of Illumination, within the context of civil rights. Szyk was born in Poland in 1894 and he moved to the United States in 1940 to try and get the United States to join the war against the Nazis. He loved the US and in particular felt passionately about American civil liberties, our freedoms of religion and speech were the best possible ways for Jewish people to be treated well. In 1948, he became a citizen, but he never saw his adoration of American values as a rubber stamp for everything going on here. He was especially sensitive to the plight of African Americans in this country and used his art as a way of exploring the black experience. In 1942, when asked what he planned on doing after World War II ended, Szyk responded, “Only time will tell what my new mission will be, it may be complete Negro enfranchisement and social equality. Who knows? That is a subject dear to my heart.”
We highlight several of his cartoons that explore Civil Rights in the 1940’s, including a piece in which a decorated soldier is bound by two Ku Klux Klan members. The heading says, “Oh Lord do not forgive them, for they know what they do” and the piece is captioned by saying that every lynching is a detriment to American democracy. He also embedded African Americans into his American pieces to highlight their centrality in US history.
Szyk died in 1951, before the central battles of the Civil Rights Movement started. I would have loved to see how he took on the forces at play in Montgomery, Little Rock, and Birmingham in the 1950’s. He was ahead of his time and perhaps his status as an outsider made it easier for him to see the racial divide. We feel privileged to celebrate this pioneer and can only hope that one day his vision of African American, White and Jewish is fully realized.