Arthur Szyk: beauty in fairy tale... and Stalin

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"The King and Queen of Roses": a pre-Disney dream
ILLUSTRATION BY ARTHUR SZYK

Nowadays, being up on the news can actually make us stupider (more stupid, damn!), but when cartoonist Arthur Szyk was sketching his dense, fantastically detailed news caricatures, politics were still in need of explication – and all the more better if it was beautiful to boot. How else can one explain why one of the most whimsical artists of the 1930s and '40s became best known for his sketches of Hitler and Stalin playing poker?

Szyk's jewel box of an exhibition is on view through March 2011 at that jewel box of a museum, the Legion of Honor. How lovely is the Legion of Honor? Though its offerings are often obscured by its big box fine art peers like the de Young and the SFMOMA, the Legion itself is a French neo-classic temple compared to the blatant modernism of its more centrally-located brethren. Where else, for pete's sake, can one find a meticulously transposed Louis-whenever parlor room adjacent to a hall full of Rodin sculptures? 

A multi-media art experience, I reflected, passing under a mudejar ceiling from late 15th century Torrijos region of Spain, on my way to the museum's corner hideaway gallery no. 1 that housed Szyk. Who was a firecracker, really. Born to a Jewish Polish family, Szyk was one of the first political caricaturist to sketch out against the Führer. His Haggadah series (1932-1938) correlated Hitler's rise with the traditional story of the Israelites' biblical flight from Egypt. 

Though his original message was somewhat watered down by the drawings' group publication in 1940 (the publishers erased all the swastikas from the drawings – que what?), it was still considered one of the most beautiful works of the time. Szyk was also outspoken about his adopted country's lack of action in the face of evil – the US fell under the wrath of his pencil for its sluggish rise to action during World War II. 

The man's drawings are pure, extravagant beauts. The drowsy, yet watchful eyes of the Legion security guards (legion guards! Drama!) prevented me from nosing in quite as close as I wanted to them – the sentries probably get sick of wiping off the glass – but even so. Even so, there were his illustrations for a deck of playing cards, his whip-smart rendering of a poker game between Hitler and Stalin -- with the Angel of Death looking on intently. His sumptuous creations for the 1955 edition of Arabian Nights Entertainment. His faces are so detailed that they bely the fact that they are portraying fictional characters. His details are so extraordinary its no wonder that a lot of adult children will get a sense of time travel vertigo dipping into his stash of kid's book illustrations. The flowers with faces Szyk brought into being for the 1945 edition of Andersen's Fairy Tales -- well Walt, you have some explaining to do about Alice's rose garden buds.

You should be witness to all this, of course. While you're there, check out the Legion's marquee showing of Japanese and Californian and French-via-Japan prints in the basement (Japanesque, through Jan. 9). And the Legion cafe, of course, which is always crammed full of old people and is an excellent place to enjoy a cup of coffee or esoteric Asian soda pop. 

 

Arthur Szyk: Miniature Paintings and Modern Illuminations

Through March 2011

Legion of Honor

100 34th Ave., SF

(415) 750-3600

www.famsf.org

 

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