Not many cartoonists are described as "heroic," but Arthur Szyk has an unusual biography. Szyk was born in Poland, in 1894, and raised Jewish. He joined the Russian army against the Germans, then the Polish army against the Russians. He moved to Paris in 1919 and showed his paintings in museums. After the 1930s brought Fascism to a boil, Szyk moved to the U.S. and lobbied against isolationism. As a diehard Zionist, Szyk got his wish: to see the founding of Israel.
The traveling Szyk exhibit, called Justice Illuminated, presented by the Arthur Szyk Society and hosted here by the Posner Center, a library on the Carnegie Mellon University campus. The exhibit is small but literally illuminating: Reproductions of Szyk's posters, books and magazine illustrations hang next to explanatory plaques.
We discover that the Polish artist opposed the Nazis his entire adult life and considered America "home." We see that Szyk boasted an unusual style in his paintings, using the flattened perspective, vibrant colors and painstaking detail of medieval manuscripts. The artist's masterpiece is his Passover Haggadah, an illustrated book-length retelling of Exodus.
Szyk's work was often macabre, even surreal, featuring pasty Hitlers marching beside monstrous S.S. soldiers, piles of grimacing corpses and winged Axis dictators buzzing through the air. Szyk found Americans inspiring -- especially the legends of George Washington and Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech -- but his memories of Fascist Europe clearly haunted him: His greasy, blobby faces might have floated out of a Hieronymous Bosch nightmare.
Even Szyk's historical portrait of a gray-bearded Rabbi Hillel, who's shown squatting over the Torah in a green garden, depicts a sour centurion and nervous Arabs cowering in the background. Eeriest of all, Szyk painted his worst fear come true: the Statue of Liberty tainted by a small square mustache.
The show's only flaw is that Szyk himself is portrayed without flaws. To modern eyes, Szyk's work may be a little unsettling: His obsession with Nazi iconography borders on fetishist, just as his political paintings verge on propaganda. Surely the Haggadah is a labor of great piety and a singular work of art -- it was once described by The New York Times as "the most beautiful of books that the hand of man has ever produced" -- but Szyk's brand of Zionism has itself often been implicated in injustice.
As a political artist of the 1940s, using his pigments to mock the Final Solution, was Szyk any more profound than Dr. Seuss? Why the epic title, Justice Illuminated, when the man never set foot in Nuremberg and spent the war years in Connecticut?
It's inspiring to know that some artists dared to oppose Fascism from its earliest days, and that their opposition was a dangerous task. But let's not confuse the knight with the man who painted his shield.
Justice Illuminated continues through March 28. Posner Center, Carnegie Mellon campus, Oakland. 412-268-7680 or www.szyk.org