ARTHUR SZYK: Miniature Paintings and Modern Illuminations

Now at the Legion of Honor through March 27, 2011

Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

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 , now at the Legion of Honor through March 27, 2011, explores Szyk’s artistry over a productive career. It returns the artist to the museum 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 Scribe, 1927
Transparent and opaque watercolor

Arthur Szyk.1930s. Paris.
Study for Esther, 1923. Transparent and opaque watercolor

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.

Girl on a Reindeer, 1945. The Knight (Variant), 1945.
Transparent and opaque watercolor drawings

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.

Kazimierz Pulaski. From the Polish American Fraternity series, 1938
Transparent and opaque watercolor

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.

The King and Queen of Roses, 1948
The Tale of Ali Khwajah and the Merchant of Baghdad, 1948.
Transparent and opaque watercolors

Free Programs with museum admission:

“Arthur Szyk: Miniature Paintings and Modern Illuminations”
A lecture by Irvin Ungar
January 9, 2011
10:30 am – In the Florence Gould Theater
Lecture by Irvin Ungar, curator of the Arthur Szyk Society, with an introduction by Karin Breuer, Curator in Charge, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts.  
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. 
Free after museum admission with no reservations.

Covenant of the League of Nations, 1931
Transparent and opaque watercolor, pen and ink, and gold illumination

Symposium: “Social Justice in the Work of Arthur Szyk”
January 30, 2011
2:00 pm – In the Florence Gould Theater

“Social Justice in the Work of Arthur Szyk” is a symposium chaired by Lee Bycel, executive director of the Redford Center.
This symposium is devoted to the prolific works of Arthur Szyk, particularly the influential religious and political works produced between 1934 and 1945, and 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. Panelists examine how Szyk’s powerful imagery drove change in his own era and discuss the role of the arts in advancing social justice today. 
Free after museum admission with no reservations.

Joan of Arc, 1942. Peter the Great, 1943
Transparent and opaque watercolors

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at:


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