A Caricaturist, but No Funny Stuff Here

Written on September 8, 2008 by DeansTalk in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Antichristszyk_2 By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN

BERLIN — It means coming to terms with the past: Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a German mouthful. Every German knows the word. Generations have been raised on it. An Italian woman who used to run multicultural affairs for the city of Rome, a Jew, was complaining over a coffee the other day, apropos of rising anti-immigrant sentiment there, that Italy still sells Mussolini bobble-head dolls and other Fascist knickknacks as souvenirs. Like the French and Poles, she said, Italians have never properly reckoned with their own history.

“Germans, on the other hand,” she added — and at this point she rolled her eyes the way people do when a second helping of meat dumplings is placed before them — “with them, it’s maybe enough already.”

Not that everyone would agree with this view of course. But it is a widely held sentiment across Europe, to the credit of the Germans. As part of this endless endeavor to leave no byway of guilt and self-flagellation unexplored, we now get the exhibition of Arthur Szyk’s work that just opened at the Deutsches Historisches Museum.

Szyk (it’s pronounced shik) was a Jewish caricaturist who spent roughly the last decade of his life in the United States. He’s unknown here, hardly familiar in America. Born in 1894 in what is now Poland, he fought with the Russian Army on the German front in World War I, then moved during the 1920s to Paris, like many young artists. There he studied at the Académie Julian, declining Modernist abstraction for an old masterly, illuminated-manuscript, miniaturist style of eye-straining detail. Perhaps he was influenced, or fortified, by the “return to order,” as neo-Classicism in that era was called.

In any case, from Paris he went to London and onward to New York, having established a reputation with several exhibitions. During the 1940s he became famous as a popular illustrator of books and magazine covers for Time, Collier’s, Esquire and others, and as a political cartoonist for newspapers like The New York Post and PM. Several generations of Americans grew up on his versions of “Mother Goose” and “Andersen’s Fairy Tales.” His life’s work, though, was crusading against the Nazis and, later, for Israel and civil rights.

Notwithstanding his influence on comic artists like Art Spiegelman, and the occasional Szyk show, he has pretty much dropped down the memory hole today. Naturally, the show here, introducing him to a German audience, focuses on his antiwar agitprop. There are works about the Holocaust, about Israel and America. Most of the drawings, reproduced magazine covers and other illustrations mock Hitler and Mussolini.

They turn Goebbels into a skunk, Göring into a fat Cossack, the aged Marshal Pétain into Pierrot, the sad clown, and the Japanese into bats and gorillas. To picture his style, think of Mad magazine in the heyday of Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman but without any sense of humor. Szyk, it seems, had absolutely none.

This inclined him toward cloying kitsch when he extolled Israel, and it produced corn when the subjects were cowboys or George Washington on horseback. Szyk thrived in angry mode, tackling enemies with a sledgehammer, saving subtlety for his penmanship.

In his dexterity he recalls a bygone age of monastic scribes slaving over parchment pages. Illustrations like “Fortress Europe,” “Wagner” and “Ride of the Valkyries” are more intricate than Swiss watch works and sublimely obsessive. Reproductions hardly do the original drawings justice. The wow factor lent weight to his message, never mind if the one actually had nothing to do with the other.

At the same time, however, Szyk exploited the grosser virtues of caricature to knock viewers over the head with his point so that no one could get lost in the exquisite details of a drawing, or rather so that people might lose themselves in the details only after having absorbed the main idea. One of his most potent drawings is “The Babykiller (German Airman),” a straightforward portrait of a skinny, slouching, vacant-eyed Wehrmacht soldier in an oversize uniform, hands demurely guarding his crotch. It’s the banality of evil personified. In such a case Szyk rose to the level of a Daumier or a Rowlandson.

Of course he also drew those gorillas and bats. His loathed Germans never failed to be at least human. In 1941, in a cartoon for The American Mercury, he depicted a trio of half-naked black African tribesmen, toting shields and spears and fleeing a Luftwaffe squadron. The caption said: “Run for your lives! — The savages are coming!” Which is to say that while he was ahead of his day in championing civil rights, he was also a man of his times.

And times change, along with fortunes. Szyk’s did. In 1949 he drew two men watching a third walk away: “He is under investigation,” the caption says. “His blood is red, and his heart is left of the center. … To think of it, we are all in trouble….” Two years later, after the House Un-American Activities Committee began a wrongheaded investigation into his possible Communist ties, he died at 57 — having just produced the most beautifully illuminated version of the Declaration of Independence, a testament to his patriotism.

Condemning Germans to eternal hell (he inscribed one of his illustrations, about the Polish Ghetto uprising, “to the German people, sons of Cain, be ye damned forever and ever”), he now re-emerges in a Berlin museum of German history. There’s an object lesson in this about the vagaries of life and art. On both sides of the Atlantic, in other words, Vergangenheitsbewältigung still has its benefits.

As published in the New York Times


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