Judith gets the spoils

20 Feb

I thought it was the Kardasians.

Arthur Szyk, “Judith Holding the Head of Holofernes,” 1921, watercolor, ink and gouache on paper. 13 x 10 cm, auctioned by Gene Shapiro Auctions 10/20/2007 (Lot 239)

Actually, this artwork is unworthy of that comment.  It is far better than the 50-minutes of fame grabbed by the Kardashians.

This is the work of Arthur Szyk: graphic artist, book illustrator, stage designer and caricaturist.  His initial notoriety was based on caricatures of Axis figures during World War II.   However, this piece pre-dates the politically-oriented caricatures and, instead, represents his rejection of Modern art.    In revolt against the revolt against conservative values, Szyk’s Judith reflects Medieval and Renaissance style, especially illuminated manuscripts.   Without knowing exact source, it was obviously produced during his flight to Paris where he illustrated numerous books with rich colors and detailed execution including:  the Le livre d’Esther (1925), followed by Gustave Flaubert’s dialogue La tentation de Saint Antoine, (1926), Pierre Benoît’s novel Le puits e Jacob (1927).

Perhaps most timely, Szyk also illustrated the anti-Nazi book “The New Order” (1941, J.P. Putnam’s Sons), filled with plausibly monstrous caricatures of Axis leaders – Hilter, Mussolini, Hirohito, et al.

In truth, I did originally think this was a contemporary work of art — and dismissed it unfairly as “hippie doodle.”  I’m not even sure what I mean by “hippie doodle”, except I perceived a cannabis-induced riff on Indian bedspreads.  My bad for inserting my own Pier-One-inspired analysis and subsequent dismissal of a work that — for it’s time — is quite remarkable.


Upon my second look at this work, I found an informative profile of Szyk in PRINT:

A victim of anti-Semitism in his native country, forced to move to Paris, England, and later the U.S., he still fervently fought for a free Polish state as both soldier and artist, and later devoted his energies to freeing Palestine from British rule and building a Jewish state. Indeed almost all his art, even the numerous books of fairy tales and fables he illustrated, were somehow imbued with appeals for universal social justice. “To call Szyk a ‘cartoonist’ is tantamount to calling Rembrandt a dauber or Chippendale a carpenter,” declared an editorial in a 1942 Esquire, one of the many accolades he received during his lifetime.(1)

As Heller notes (and I surmised), by the 70s and 80s Szyk’s style was unfashionable by the standards of “neo-expressionistic raw-edged mannerisms” in illustration. But through a fluck, rabbi and rare book bookseller Irvin Ungar made it his mission to revive interest in Szyk’s work and took major responsibility for the non-profit Arthur Szyk Society, which enables him to curate international museum exhibitions of Szyk’s art.  His interest lies in the spiritual richness and innate humanity of the work depicting historic Judaica.

So much of his art has a message: fighting against oppression, tyranny, and for freedom and justice. In essence, he translated his Jewish values into democratic ideals, being an advocate for mankind at large. [And] what Szyk says to me is this: care about your own people and use the best of that value system to contribute and make the world a better place for all people.

Although Heller considers Szyk’s interpretation of the Haggadah to be his greatest legacy, my interest is directed to his Heroes of Ancient Israel: The Playing Cards of Arthur originally done in the 1930s.  “Painted in his highest style in watercolor and gouache on paper, the twelve cards – four Kings, four Queens, and four Jacks – each feature a different Jewish hero from the Bible or ancient history”  — because OF COURSE, the Queen of Hearts is .. Ruth?

Oh dear.  There seems to be a mass of internet confusion about which queen is which.  Although attributed to Judith on various sites –

  • Ruth the Moabitess is the Queen of Hearts holding sprig of wheat
  • Deborah the Judge is Queen of Diamonds holding the scales of justice
  • Queen Esther is Queen of Spades holding a sceptre
  • Judith is Queen of Clubs holding a Big Ass Sword

Yes, Judith on the cover illustration of the card deck — because that’s how fierce she is.


(1)  Steven Heller, Arthur Szyk, PRINT, February 10, 2012

See also:

The Arthur Szyk Society

Joesph P. Ansell, Arthur Szyk: Artist, Jew, Pole (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004)


Book of Judith, Chapter 15

8 Then Joacim the high priest, and the ancients of the children of Israel that dwelt in Jerusalem, came to behold the good things that God had shewed to Israel, and to see Judith, and to salute her.
9 And when they came unto her, they blessed her with one accord, and said unto her, Thou art the exaltation of Jerusalem, thou art the great glory of Israel, thou art the great rejoicing of our nation:
10 Thou hast done all these things by thine hand: thou hast done much good to Israel, and God is pleased therewith: blessed be thou of the Almighty Lord for evermore. And all the people said, So be it.
11 And the people spoiled the camp the space of thirty days: and they gave unto Judith Holofernes his tent, and all his plate, and beds, and vessels, and all his stuff: and she took it and laid it on her mule; and made ready her carts, and laid them thereon.
12 Then all the women of Israel ran together to see her, and blessed her, and made a dance among them for her: and she took branches in her hand, and gave also to the women that were with her.
13 And they put a garland of olive upon her and her maid that was with her, and she went before all the people in the dance, leading all the women: and all the men of Israel followed in their armour with garlands, and with songs in their mouths.

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Posted by on February 20, 2012 in Glory


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