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Arthur Szyk: Miniature Paintings and Modern Illuminations at the Legion of Honor

Arthur Szyk (American, b. Poland, 1894–1951) is remembered today as an artist and illustrator whose work ranged from illustrations for traditional Jewish and Polish folktales and religious texts to watercolor designs for political cartoons that were regularly featured on the cover of Collier’s magazine throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The exhibition Arthur Szyk: Miniature Paintings and Modern Illuminations, at the Legion of Honor December 4, 2010, to March 27, 2011, explores Szyk’s artistry over a productive career and returns the artist to the Legion of Honor, where a selection of his watercolors was shown seventy years ago, in 1941. This single-gallery presentation of 71 works on paper by Szyk also includes a handful of comparative works by Léon Bakst, Aubrey Beardsley and Albrecht Dürer.

The Exhibition
Szyk used a highly detailed and decorative style of illumination throughout his career, finding it an appropriate means of expression for projects as varied as political caricature and propaganda, designs for honorific medals and badges, and illustrations for book projects ranging from important religious texts to literary classics. The exhibition is organized chronologically, allowing visitors to witness the artist’s continued dedication to this very personal style, from his early works in Paris, and throughout his later career in Lodz, London, Ottawa, New York and New Canaan (Connecticut). Szyk’s renowned Passover Haggadah (1940) is included in a special section of the exhibition devoted to the artist’s book illustration projects; also included are designs for Hans Christian Andersen’s Andersen Fairy Tales (1945) and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1946). Installed at the end of the exhibition are some of the drawings for one of his last projects, a series of stamp album covers, commissioned upon the founding of the United Nations in 1945. In this series, Szyk combined symbols and allusions to personages past and present that referred to the unique histories of the subject countries that were all early UN member states, and countries with which Szyk had a deep personal connection.

The Artist
In all areas of his art, Szyk’s Polish and Jewish heritage remained central, and his attention to detail betrayed considerable historical research into his craft. Like many of his artist peers, Szyk understood that images could be powerful tools, used to incite change within society. However, he broke from contemporary Modernist ideals by avoiding abstraction in favor of figurative work. Szyk preferred to work in elaborate detail, recalling the intricate illumination present in medieval manuscripts, Near-Eastern miniature paintings and traditional Polish folk arts.

All programs are free with museum admission.

December 4, 2010, 10:30 am, Gallery 1 at the Legion of Honor—Opening day exhibition introduction and gallery walkthrough with Irvin Ungar, curator of the Arthur Szyk Society, Burlingame, California. The walkthrough will follow Arthur Szyk’s long career from his student days in Poland and France to the launch of his illustration career in 1920s Paris to the creation of his illuminated Haggadah to his impassioned World War II political art and postwar Americana.
January 9, 2011, 10:30 am, Gould Theater at the Legion of Honor—Lecture by Irvin Ungar, the curator of the Arthur Szyk Society. The lecture “Arthur Szyk: Miniature Paintings and Modern Illuminations” is a biographical overview of the artist’s career, illustrated by numerous works from the exhibition. The presentation will focus on Szyk’s illustrated books and portfolio works, with special attention on his treatment of historical and political themes.
January 30, 2011, 2:00 pm, Gould Theater at the Legion of Honor—A symposium devoted to the prolific works of Arthur Szyk―particularly the influential religious and political works produced between 1934 and 1945―explores the artist’s commitment to the ideals of social justice. Whether combating anti-Semitism and Nazism or advocating for the rescue of European Jewry and civil rights for African Americans, Szyk combined beauty and polemic to spur his audience first to righteous indignation and then to decisive action.

Arthur Szyk: Miniature Paintings and Modern Illuminations is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Lead exhibition support is provided by the Koret Foundation and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund. Additional support for the exhibition is provided by Bernard and Barbro Osher.

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