Arthur Szyk created what is arguably the most beautiful book of all time. This Polish-born illustrator also used his art as a weapon against Fascism during World War II to such devastating effect that Eleanor Roosevelt described him as “a one-man army.”
And yet Szyk’s name (pronounced Shick) had been largely forgotten by the end of the 20th century although his stylized artwork was still familiar to some. Several major exhibitions helped spark a revival and today interest in his work is on the rise. His magnum opus is The Szyk Haggadah - completed in the style of an illuminated manuscript where the text is supplemented by decorated initials, borders and illustrations. It was created under the shadow of Adolf Hitler and combines political symbolism with sheer beauty.
The Haggadah (which means ‘the telling’ in Hebrew) is an important element of the Jewish Passover holiday. Reading the book is a Jewish rite in order to learn how the Jews escaped to freedom from slavery in Egypt. Every Jewish household has a copy. Szyk’s edition draws parallels between repressive regimes of Nazi Germany and the ancient Egyptians. In his original artwork for the book, Szyk placed swastikas onto Egyptian figures but he was persuaded to remove them because of concerns that a religious text should not be tainted by racist images. The Haggadah features a story about four sons - one is wise, one is wicked, one is simple, and the last does not know to ask. Szyk’s wicked son is clearly Germanic complete with a little Hitler moustache.
The Szyk Haggadah was published in 1940 by Britain’s Beaconsfield Press. Only 250 copies were printed. Each one cost $500 and it was the most expensive new book in the world at the time. Two of those copies were available on AbeBooks at almost $60,000 each. The books were printed on vellum. They were bound in gold-stamped leather with end pages printed on silk and full color illuminations on double leaf parchment. There is an English translation accompanying the Hebrew text.
The first copy was given to King George VI and is housed in Windsor Castle. The reviewer at The Times of London wrote the edition was “worthy to be placed among the most beautiful books that the hand of man has ever produced.” The plates found their way to Israel and the first reprint on ordinary paper was in 1956. Reprints, in various bindings, followed on a sporadic basis.
A new luxury version, limited to 215 copies of the deluxe edition and 85 copies of the premier edition, of The Szyk Haggadah was published in 2008 by Historicana, who also sell rare books on AbeBooks. Bound in blue three-quarter leather with red Japanese silk-rayon cover boards and a gilt-panel spine, this edition, which includes a custom clam shell box, is a remarkable offering of Szyk’s book. Because of more advanced printing technologies, Historicana’s edition renders Szyk’s colors far better than the original.
Irvin Ungar of Historicana had the deluxe edition on display at the Vancouver Antiquarian Book Fair in 2010 and it is a stunning piece of work. Brilliant colors, particularly the vivid blues and reds, leap off the illuminated pages. Historicana has also published a companion volume to Szyk’s Haggadah called Freedom Illuminated: Understanding the Szyk Haggadah – it contains scholarly essays, illustrations, a history of the book and comes in a slipcase. It also displays how Szyk’s Egyptians would have looked with the swastikas. Abrams has also just released highly affordable versions of Szyk’s Haggadah.
Ungar has been one of the driving forces behind the recent revival in Szyk. “I found some copies of Szyk’s Haggadah in a bookshop in New York and gave them to people in my wedding party some 35 years ago. That was the start of my interest in him.”
But let’s put the Szyk Haggadah to one side for a moment and learn more about the man himself and his development into Roosevelt’s soldier in art. Szyk was born in 1894 to a Jewish family in Lodz in Poland, then ruled by Russia. He studied art in Paris but was won over by the beauty of medieval illuminated manuscripts. He returned to Poland and fought for the Russians in World War I.
In 1921, he moved back to Paris and his career took off. He illustrated a number of books and mixed the traditions of medieval illumination with contemporary elements, and his style was born. One of Szyk’s most famous works of the 1920s was an illustrated version of the Statute of Kalisz - a 700-year-old charter of Jewish liberties. In the early 1930s, he produced Washington and his Times, which included 38 watercolors illustrating key events of the American Revolutionary War.
Szyk’s work became more political as Hitler rose to power. He was drawing caricatures of the Nazi leader as early as 1933. He eventually moved to London to oversee the production of his Haggadah, a three-year process.
In 1940, he moved to the United States and was embraced by the Americans for his cutting caricatures of the Germans and their Axis allies. His popular status grew massively during these years and his work provided valuable propaganda for the Allies. Szyk’s venom was genuine - he had lost his Polish homeland, his mother died in a Nazi death camp in 1943 and his faith was threatened with extinction.
His work was seen in newspapers, magazines and art galleries – he considered himself a “soldier in art.” Apparently, Hitler even put a bounty on Szyk’s head. In 1941, his wartime drawings were published in a book called The New Order. In 1946, another collection of drawings called Ink & Blood was published in a limited edition format. Both books were popular.
Aside from his caricatures, Szyk’s work during and after the war also included illustrating the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the Book of Job, a collection of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen. A year before his death in 1951, he also completed an illuminated text of the United States Declaration of Independence.
The Haggadah illustrated by Arthur Szyk
Justice Illuminated - 1936
The New Order by Arthur Szyk
"Madness"- Axis leaders from Ink & Blood 1941
Andersen's Fairy Tales - 1945
Self portrait - 1946
"Satan Leads the Ball" - 1942
"Andersen's Fairy Tales" - 1944
The Arabian Nights - 1948