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The Breadth of History

Arthur Szyk's vast and varied work is displayed at the Platt.


The current exhibition of work by Arthur Szyk at the Platt Gallery may hold the distinction of covering the widest swath in terms of subject matter and history of any show yet in this space. Consider the range of his work, from the historical rear view of his series of miniatures, "Washington and His Times" to the inflections of Manifest Destiny revisionism in "Indian Negotiations Polish American Fraternity" to warm, densely rhythmic scenes of 20th century Jewish life.

This is the first significant show of Szyk's art in Los Angeles in almost a decade and seeing it with eyes informed by the image-seized culture of the past several years lends a refreshed perspective. Born in Lodz, Poland, in 1894, Szyk studied art in Paris and later was attracted to Islamic art, whose influence is seen in his tapestry-like compositional sense.

Szyk, who possessed a strong, natural artistic skill, was an artist out of time. As Modernism reared its head in the early decades of the century and veered away from narrative and figurative, Szyk dug in, inspired by the ornate intricacies of Persian art and especially Medieval manuscript illuminations.

He was an oxymoron, a 20th century illumination artist who masterfully blended image and text in ways that may resonate with the Internet-savvy. His masterful work even found its way onto billboards, as we see in a photograph of a mural in New York City just after World War II. But, like 19th century Daumier, he also funneled his political awareness into biting cartoons, attacking the rise of Nazism, among other concerns. "Hitler Serves up Poland to Stalin," from 1939, conveys a prescient grotesqueness.

His fascination with history and cultures comes through in his "Visual History of Nations," a series of pieces suggesting national coats-of-arms imagery. More meticulous handiwork, driven by a social purpose, can be found in his 1949 "Proclamation of Independence," celebrating the statehood of Israel.

Szyk's art probably looks and feels better now than it did in decades past, when his illustrator's panache and decorative flair may have been dismissed in fine art circles as quaint, self-consciously antiquarian and marginal. We're in a pluralistic era when even Norman Rockwell is being reappraised in the art world, as he should be. Telling stories and carrying the torch for culture and history through art are noble goals, as proved with this show.


Arthur Szyk: Artist for Freedom, through Dec. 3 at the Platt Gallery, University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday. (310) 476-9777, Ext. 203.

Josef Woodard, who writes about art and music, can be reached by e-mail at

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