Sunday, March 06, 2011


This lovely, delicate drawing was the best way that Arthur Szyk (1894-1951) knew to kill his enemies.

After the Nazis invaded his native Poland in 1939, Szyk took refuge in the United States.  There he learned that the Nazis had killed his brother, then turned their loving attention to his mother:
[M]y beloved seventy-year-old mother, Eugenia Szyk, was taken from the ghetto of Lodz to the Nazi furnaces of Maidanek. With her, voluntarily went her faithful servant the good Christian, Josefa, a Polish peasant. Together, hand in hand, they were burned alive.
In anguish, Szyk followed the evidence smuggled out of Europe that the Nazis were methodically slaughtering helpless civilian populations:

A small, balding, bookish man with weak eyes, Szyk was not much of a threat to the Nazis as a soldier. His strongest weapon was his art, and it became his purpose in life to rouse the slumbering west to the genocide taking place in Europe. He worked obsessively, attacking the Nazis with hundreds of miniature drawings.

Those drawings soon gained the attention of the public. His work appeared on the cover of Time, Colliers and other popular magazines. It became an effective tool for fundraising for war bonds, training soldiers and rousing corporate awareness for the war effort. He even gained the attention of Hitler, who  put a price on Szyk's head. Eleanor Roosevelt described him as a "one man army."

(There is an old Latin maxim: "The flea, too, has wrath.")

Szyk's drawings were small (this original is approximately 5" x 6") and combined subtle gradations in tone with delicate, lacy lines. His designs were consistently beautiful:

Many artists would have reacted to Szyk's experience with a howl of pain. They might thrash around with wild, emotional brush strokes; they might make dark, bitter paintings of corpses spattered with blood. But uncontrolled rage would not have been as effective for Szyk's purposes as this lovely, painstaking drawing.

Szyk used the ornate, beautiful techniques of illuminated manuscripts, a style which projected an aura of  calm civilization.  This approach gave Szyk instant credibility over his barbaric foes.  The careful beauty of his work lured viewers who might normally disbelieve or avert their eyes from angry propaganda.  It persuaded them to linger, and to believe.

Szyk's great artistic strength was his ability to harness his powers, channeling unbearable agony and despair into millions of precise, miniature lines.



great post.

peacay said...

I'm not overly enthusiastic about juxtaposing the photos with the illustrations. I'm not objecting exactly, but I wonder if each doesn't diminish the message in the other.

OK. I wrote that before reading your text. I will notionally withdraw any meek point of order. Please don't misunderstand: I was taken aback by the visual contrast. Some of us better process significant material in isolated contemplation.

Szyk is unquestionably brilliant. Thanks David, as always.

chris bennett said...

In a sort of contrast to peacay's response I found the combination of all three elements together put something forward that none of the them could do by themselves, devastating as the photographs are to look at, unsettling as the drawings feel and heartfelt as David's wonderful writing is.

The resultant effect of all three is a sort of 'distancing' that rather than shielding one from the feelings aroused, places them where they can settle and penetrate deeper.

David Apatoff said...

Peacay, I understand exactly what you mean. Under normal circumstances, "One Lovely Drawing" should stand by itself, and I would find the use of such photos jarring, even objectionable. But unfortunately we live in an era when a famous fashion designer brags about how much he loves Hitler, a Wall Street billionaire compares the loss of his tax break to Hitler's invasion of Poland, and demonstrators alternately accuse Obama and Bush of being Hitler. Morons have desensitized our vocabulary. So to speak meaningfully about the contrast between the brutality of the Nazis and Szyk's response, I felt I had to recalibrate what the brutality of the Nazis meant.

Unknown said...

this is a great post...thank you

David Apatoff said...

Tropical Toxic-- thanks for visiting, I'm a big admirer of your work.

hiccup06-- many thanks!

chris bennett-- I appreciate your reaction to the balance of these elements. The reality of these photos is so overwhelming that they outweigh everything that has ever been on this blog. On the other hand, if we cease to see these photos because they are too painful to contemplate and our eyes glaze over at the stereotype, then they don't even carry the weight necessary for this limited post. So as you suggest, some combination of distance and penetration is necessary if a human is to digest such monstrosities in non-lethal doses.

Art From Books said...

Absolutely amazing post!

chris bennett said...

"His great artistic strength was that he could control his powers, channeling unbearable agony into millions of tiny, careful lines."

In the profoundest sense I think that this is what all art worthy of the name does, not only with feelings of agony, but with all the human emotions, be they anger, jealousy, triumph, romantic love, dispair, epiphany....

If the actor's tears are real you may be disturbed, but you won't believe in their performance anymore. Like the ranting graffiti on lavatory walls to the agit prop of the post modern object they all try to persuade us.
Art will only give, whether you take from it or not. Which is what distinguishes it from propaganda.... and why its touch feels so much like being reminded of something we always knew.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- "I think that this is what all art worthy of the name does."

I agree, although few artists have to control their reactions to the kinds of extreme provocations that Szyk did. It must have been a powerful act of restraint not to throw down his pencil forever and pick up a gun, let alone to wield that pencil in a delicate and sensitive manner.

Also, while I agree that good art requires a layer of control and distance from emotions, it is often enhanced by an element of spontaneity and freedom from controls.

Klaus said...

Without doubt this is a lovely drawing but I don't think these officers quite resemble the kind of Nazi fanatic type that was typical.They look more like WW1 junker officers (Von Stroheim) rather than the severe looking Goebbels, Heydrich types.
And I think that's an important distinction given the personalities involved: junkers; militaristic, aristocratic with some sense of the rules of war.Nazis; barbaric,fanatic and utterly ruthless.My God, what the Nazis did was right off the scale,how could civilized people do the things they did? I'll never understand.I saw Schindlers List several days ago and it's still with me,amazing power.Spieberg's best film I believe.

kev ferrara said...

My Italian Grandfather was endlessly comparing people he didn't like to Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler. Especially if they were trying to tell him to change his sweater with the holes at the elbows. We chalked this up to eccentricity and laughed about it.

When I started hearing Bushitler, I chalked it up to The Times We Live In... isolated, disaffected latchkey kids without fathers spending all their time on the internet ingesting conspiracy and radical politics and playing World of Warcraft and hating anything that smacked of tradition, respect for authority, pride, ambition, business, getting up in the morning, Christianity, patrician attitudes, rich kids who didn't deserve their easy life or high place in the pecking order, etc.

In contrast, my Jewish Grandfather, who grew up in Ostrog Poland, (who had 6 of his brothers and sisters killed in the holocaust, and whose father, my great grandfather, was shot in his bed by stormtroopers) never spoke a single word to me or my brother about the Nazis. Ever.

It puts me in mind of that classic Jewish saying, "After Auschwitz, there is no more poetry!"

Yet here we have Szyk proving that sometimes poetry is needed to prevent Auschwitz. Or at least put a halt to it.

As we are living in a time of rising anti-semitism Szyk's example is starting to resonate a little more strongly for me on a personal level.

chris bennett said...

David Apatoff -- "Also, while I agree that good art requires a layer of control and distance from emotions, it is often enhanced by an element of spontaneity and freedom from controls."

Yes, the good artist will play his cards like a good poker player, since the best gamblers are those who can stay cool whilst risking all their chips.
Which, leading back into topic, is precisely the way a good general stands the best chance of defeating the enemy that has raped his homeland. Szyk was no soldier, but he was a great general in this regard.

Robin Cave said...

A Great post as usual.

On a purely technical point, I was a bit distracted by the mechanical screen on the photos. I assume you scanned them in from books? The large size of the dots abstracted the photos somewhat.

I may be telling you how to suck eggs but I used to deal with this issue a lot when preparing printed images for use on television and in documentaries. It is easily fixed by bringing the photo into photoshop and applying a gaussian blur of say 2.0, then cropping to the very edge of the actual photo and doing an auto-levels. I have just tried this and it makes the image much clearer and stronger. Amazingly all the information is there in the ben day dots. I'm really sorry if you know all this and made them look this way on purpose.

They are horrific images and need to be seen to remind us the terrible things humans can do.

David Apatoff said...

Klaus-- I take your point. Szyk drew a range of Nazis, from ape-like storm troopers to ignorant and gullible country bumpkins. His books, "The New Order" and "ink and Blood" are marvelous and worth studying. As for "how could civilized people do the things they did?" that's the question of the 20th century, isn't it? Many of the greatest minds applied themselves to finding some kind of distinguishing gene or historical fact that would let the rest of the world sleep soundly at night, knowing we could never do the same thing. To the best of my knowledge we are still looking.

Kev Ferrara--I agree that Szyk is an inspiring example in an era where selfishness and shallowness often seem to dominate. By the way, your Italian Grandfather sounds like a real character (chalk up one more for heredity).

Robin-- thanks very much for the helpful pointers. I followed your excellent advice and the result is a significant improvement. I keep hoping for time to explore photoshop the way it deserves. In the meantime, I appreciate your rescuing me. These photographs were actually taken by Nazi soldiers and sent home. The photo of the mother clasping her child about to receive a "Genickschussen" (shot to the back of the head) was taken at Ivangorod and mailed home to Poland. The photo of the women who were forced to undress in the cold and walk to a trench where they were shot took place just northeast of Liepaja. There was an astonishing number of these "souvenir" photographs. It makes you wonder why people needed art to motivate them.

Klaus said...

You wish these victims had taken their chances by running in all directions, given the inevitable fate that awaited them.With the weight of numbers what did they have to lose?
I read somewhere that only one trooper ever refused to commit murder and was then reassigned to different duties.Not shot.

kev ferrara said...

Thanks for the dig, David.

I just noticed that there is some similarity between Szyk's style and Drucker's. Do we know if Drucker has mentioned Szyk's work as an influence?

Matthew Harwood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Hitler seemed to put great emphasis on overpopulation in Mein Kampf. While it does not seem to figure heavily in explanations of the Holocaust nowadays, if fear of overpopulation reached the point of mass hysteria then it seems to me it should figure heavily, because it would be a far more compelling catalyst for a maniacal "final solution" than some form of Social Darwinism alone. Fear of imminent ecological disaster...sounds a little too familiar in our own times.

Kylo Chua said...

Szyk's style of drawing is simply skillful to the full extent, though the image of the concentration camp kind of pulled away my admiration for a brief second. Despite this, his artworks display a vibrant amount of lines that blend so well together that they seem to create a very well-knit style of shading.

Joyce said...

Thanks David, I've long been a fan of Szyk's color and line. His images are sumptuous even when pointedly created almost monochromatically as the detail of the illustration you choose clearly shows. I have wondered how such terrific work became obscure but am heartened that you and others are bringing Szyk back into focus.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Do we know if Drucker has mentioned Szyk's work as an influence?"

I have never heard this, although I have heard Drucker express special admiration for Rockwell, Searle and (believe it or not) Fawcett. I am sure that given his age, religion and geographic location, Drucker must have been aware of Szyk's work.

Matthew Harwood-- Thanks for filling in some blanks.

Etc, etc--we can add "overpopulation" to the long list of possible reasons we can go over and over in our heads, yet as you know it still doesn't compute in the most basic, fundamental ways.

Joyce-- Thanks, I agree. There is an Arthur Szyk society that is actively working to restore his name to prominence.

David Apatoff said...

Kylo Chua wrote, "the image of the concentration camp kind of pulled away my admiration for a brief second."

I think that's the right reaction-- this subject will always grotesquely outweigh any other subject you put next to it. It will unbalance any rhyme or couplet, and punch a huge hole in any essay or article. In a way, that's the theme of this post: what kind of a response are Szyk's feeble little drawings, with their spider web lines, to the enormity of what took place in that field? And if Szyk's artistic reaction was inadequate, what reaction would have been more appropriate? These tiny drawings were far more effective in stopping the Nazis than Szyk's physical strength would have been, but not effective enough to enable us to sleep at night.

Picasso, who painted the wall-sized "Guernica" in opposition to the fascists, went to visit Auschwitz with the art critic Pierre Daix after the war ended. Daix wrote, "I still remember Picasso's dark gaze sweeping the scene. His silence was becoming unbearable.... [He} clenched his fists. All of a sudden he took my arm and squeezed it with all his might. 'You were right...we had to come here to understand.' He stayed there for a long time, looking at the low buildings disappearing in the distance. His jaw was clenched the entire trip back. We had encountered the unspeakable....When we left each other that night, Picasso embraced me and said in a low voice, 'To think that painters once thought that they could paint The Massacre of the Innocents.""

katana said...

How lovely- to transmogrify an experience so traumatizing into a powerful force. Thank you for pointing out why his work was so powerful- focused, controlled, and direct, rather than thrashing about with the more obvious imagery of corpses. I shall be subscribing!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Klauss that they look more like WW1 officers than Nazi's , however, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the seeds of the Nazi ideology were born in the Prussian military academies even prior to the Great war.

Michael Fraley said...

David, this single post has forced me to rethink my own art, as well as how and why I do what I do. Thank you.

Eric Noble said...

Wonderful post! The artwork is astounding and the photos I think help to capture what Arthur Szyk was fighting against. I tip my hat to you sir.

Anonymous said...

Darn! Kevin beat me to the question about Drucker! It just looked so similar, I figured he had to have known about him.

I had not known about this artist, so yet again, David, you have given me someone new to explore. The size of the original is just crazy!

Ken Meyer Jr.

Alex said...

Thinking the Nazis were a one-off then we find out about these U.S soldiers murdering Afghan villagers and taking photos and body parts as mementos.

kev ferrara said...

Alex, there is a huge difference between a small group of criminally insane soldiers (or a few unsupervised low level creeps running an Iraqi prison on behalf of the U.S. Military) and The Third Reich, which subscribed to an ideology of genocide.

If only the Sy Hersh's of the world had an ounce of perspective, we wouldn't have all this myopia population-wide that confuses fact with truth, and incident with master plan.

Falsus in Uno, Falsus in Omnibus (Latin for Where there's smoke, there's fire) is actually a form of Inductive Fallacy.

Alex said...

Only trouble with that is some of these soldiers were saying they'd been doing it and getting away with it in Iraq.
Anyone remember Abu Graib? Waterboarding? Camp X-Ray?
That's an awful lot of 'isolated' incidents.

kev ferrara said...

Alex, Camp X-Ray was a temporary holding facility for battlefield detainees whose legal status is still being litigated. Less than 20 military personnel were deemed directly involved in Abu Ghraib scandal, 2 of whom have been incarcerated and around a dozen were court-marshalled. The prison only housed 150 or so prisoners, there was 1 homicide there, and by all reports 2 terrorists were waterboarded.

Saddam Hussein killed 1000s routinely at Abu Ghraib. 4000 at once there, back in '84, he had rape rooms, tortured children, his guards did unspeakable things all the time, every day, for years and years and years... Where is Sy Hersh's story on that?

And, oh yeah, the Nazis systematically killed 6,000,000 Jews.

It would be so much better if we just talked about illustration. Something that we can see with our own eyes for what it is. Our personal views about art are among the few opinions we may be sure are our own. So much of everything else is cobwebs from some distant spider.

Unknown said...

Awesome post, great writing, beautiful drawing, heart braking story and necessary (and in my opinion) mandatory pictures.

Never forget, never repeat.

Thank you for the post.

Alex said...

I believe one of the themes here addressed the kind of aberrant human behaviour of individuals -Nazis- serving in the military and expressing shock that a 'civilized' nation could do such a thing.So the parallel is justified and relevant.
Why you feel the need to try to defend and dismiss this brutality amazes me.After all I don't believe British, Australian and European troops have been behaving like this.
Also the amount of casualties caused by U.S itchy trigger finger 'friendly fire' has been concerning over the years.

kev ferrara said...

Alex, it is possible to be outraged at the atrocious actions of a few handfuls of soldiers who act in my name and also to keep such actions in perspective. There are no clean wars. Blood spills endlessly. People go insane. Given these truths, and that the United States has so many more troops engaged in the conflict, it seems most likely that inhumanity will come from our ranks. It is probabilistic, not systemic.

Anonymous said...

Anyone read The Lucifer Effect by Phillip Zimbardo ?

Al McLuckie

kev ferrara said...

Speaking of the insanity of war, is anybody else reminded of Apocalypse Now by this photo?

Anonymous said...

A great post but the photos are terribly disturbing and upsetting. But it happened. It happened, and we should never forget.

-from David (Australia)