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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Some Necks: A Caricature of the Allied Leaders

Hello Again, Friends!

In keeping with our theme of Prelude: Meet the Allies, this week’s post by John showcases a unique print of the Allied leaders. Check it out below:
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Delve into the growing collection of artifacts, photos, documents at artwork of the D-Day Memorial, and you don’t have to look very far to find an unexpected treasure. Every piece tells a story, though some stories are easier to reconstruct than others and many are lost in the shadows of history. But every so often you’ll run across one of those pieces that at first glance gets little attention…a second glance makes you think “what is that, anyway?”…and a little digging reveals a fascinating glimpse into our WWII past.


Arthur Szyk photographed in the 1930s
Such was the case with this compelling print by a little known artist named Arthur Szyk. Although not as well-known as other contemporaries like Bill Maldlin or Norman Rockwell, Szyk’s work still evokes powerful responses and stand as plaintive cries against the tyranny of the Axis.

Szyk (pronounced “Shick”) was born in Russian-occupied Poland in 1894 to a well-off Jewish family in Lodz. That cosmopolitan city was an artistic center for Poland; and young Arthur began early to exhibit signs of impressive talents. His training, however, was interrupted by WWI, when he was drafted into the Russian army, and then by service to the newly independent Poland in the short-lived Polish-Soviet border war afterwards.

Between the wars Szyk’s art began to win acclaim and was featured in major exhibitions in Paris and London. When Hitler came to power in Germany, threatening both his native Poland and his fellow European Jews, Szyk was one of the earliest artistic critics of Hitler—perhaps prophetically. For instance, in an illustrated Haggadah (1932-38, arguably his magnum opus), he portrayed blond Egyptians wearing swastikas as they chased the Israelites through the Red Sea. Perhaps he intended a subtle, portentous warning—things didn’t end well for the Egyptians.

In 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and Arthur Szyk intensified his one-man artistic crusade against the Axis. Soon after, the artist moved to New York, perhaps intending to use his talents to convince the isolationist America to enter the war.

"Some Necks"
His works, especially his caricatures, were vivid, meticulously detailed, and anything but subtle. He made no bones about his disdain for the Axis enemy, and the American public came to embrace his work. Whether published in books, on posters, on magazine covers, or shown on exhibition, his art featured unmistakable themes: freedom is better than tyranny; justice is better than oppression; the Allies were the good guys in an epic crusade against the contemptible monsters on the Axis side.


The print in our collection, dated 1942, is an unusual example, in that it portrays the Allied leaders—most of his work featured only lurid caricatures of the Axis dictators. Titled “Some Necks,” it shows the Big Three Allied leaders as intrepid heroes, destined for and deserving of victory. Note that any contradiction between Stalin’s bloodthirsty tyranny and Shyk’s political idealism is a subject studiously avoided.

The title comes from a speech made by Churchill during a visit to Canada in December 1941: “When I warned them that Britain would fight on alone whatever they did, [the defeatist French generals] told their Prime Minister and his divided Cabinet, ‘In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.’ Some chicken! Some neck!”

In "Some Necks," Stalin is portrayed flinging away Hitler.
Szyk portrays Churchill as the stately, dignified British aristocrat; Stalin is a resolute Georgian man of the soil; while Roosevelt confidently assumes the role of the grandfatherly cowboy sheriff. Churchill, with an unmissable V for Victory on his ascot, holds aloft a dwarfish Mussolini clearly labeled “Flop.” Stalin disdainfully prepares to fling away a grotesque, screaming Hitler. Meanwhile an unconcerned FDR, flashing his own V sign with two fingers, holds a sign reading “Wait” against a charging Tojo, while he stares self-assuredly into a better future. Perhaps it was intended as Szyk’s endorsement of Roosevelt’s “Europe First” strategy.

Szyk lived to see the defeat of his dreaded enemy, and continued to work until his death in 1951, always taking the opportunity to speak out for political causes, the Jewish people, and the rights of other ethnic minorities (including African Americans). After his death he largely faded into obscurity, but Szyk has enjoyed a bit of a revival in recent years, with major exhibitions of his work and several publications. Across the decades, Szyk still speaks to us that freedom and justice are superior to tyranny and oppression; that such lofty ideals are still worth defending.

We have a lot of stories to tell through our collection at the NDDMF. We look forward to sharing them all.



-John

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