Arthur Szyk (1894–1951) was a Polish Jew who immigrated to
America in 1940 in the wake of the Holocaust, and went on to become
the leading anti-Nazi artist in the United States during World War
II. Irvin Ungar is a rare book dealer, former rabbi and founder of
The Arthur Szyk Society. Szyk
(pronounced “shick”) painstakingly devoted such incredible energy
to a single illuminated caricature because he wanted his art to
last—and live on, it does, thanks in part to Ungar. “Through his
unique style, which combines use of color with a miniaturist's
attention to detail, Szyk departs from all schools of art and yet
embraces many of them,” Ungar notes. “I would say, then, that
Szyk's prodigious output—illustrated books, and magazine and
newspaper political art, as well as nationalistic portraits and
illuminated religious works—would together qualify him as a school
of art in his own right.” The Szyk Haggadah, his exquisite
Passover prayer book, is still in demand today: Ungar published a
limited edition through his business, Historicana, and Abrams
Books will publish new (and less extravagant)
paperback versions in April 2011. And this December 4,
an exhibition of his work will open at San Francisco's Legion
of Honor museum. Szyk's legacy demonstrates that one need not be
part of any movement, nor spawn any school, to achieve
international recognition and prominence for his messages as well
as his art, in his own time and for all time. I spoke to Ungar
about Szyk's lasting importance as an artist and commentator.
From left: Arthur Szyk working on an illumination of St. George
and the Dragon (New York, 1941); “The Four Questions” from Szyk's
Haggadah (Lodz, 1935). All images courtesy Irvin Ungar.
Heller: How did you become involved with Arthur Szyk and his
Ungar: I first discovered Szyk's art when I was seeking
gifts for people in my wedding party some 35 years ago. I purchased
copies of his blue-velvet-bound illustrated Passover
Haggadah, and that was the beginning. Some 15 years later, I
discovered Szyk Jewish holiday prints in a Pittsburgh antique shop.
I once again fell in love with his colors. Eventually I became
familiar with his popular illustrated Andersen's Fairy
Tales, but it was his anti-Nazi book The New Order that
really caught my attention. The idea that Szyk, who to me at the
time was a religious artist, was actually first and foremost a
political artist, really fascinated me.
As I learned about the artist, I also realized that he was once
famous, both in the United States and abroad—Poland, France,
England, Canada, Israel—but was virtually forgotten after his
death. I often found that books about Jewish artists left out Szyk,
and that books about WW II political art did likewise. It seemed to
me Arthur Szyk was a genius, and he should be reclaimed by the art
world as well as by the peoples he loved—the Jews, Poles,
Americans—and anyone interested in social justice.
If, more than one-half century after his death, I could convince
a museum to show Szyk's work again, then perhaps his prominence
would be on the road to being restored. In 1998–99, it happened: I
curated my first exhibition, “Justice Illuminated: The Art of
Arthur Szyk,” at the Spertus Museum in Chicago. Then followed with
numerous one-man exhibitions, each with different themes and works
of art: “Arthur Szyk: Artist for Freedom” at the Library of
Congress (2000), “The Art & Politics of Arthur Szyk” at the
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (2002), a traveling
exhibition to three cities in Poland (2005), and “Arthur Szyk:
Drawings Against National Socialism and Terror” at the German
Historical Museum, Berlin (2008). This December “Arthur Szyk:
Miniature Paintings and Illuminations” will open at the Legion of
Honor, one of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Over the years I acquired all of the family archives, developed
a personal world-class collection of Szyk's art, wrote and
published books about Szyk, lectured worldwide and on U.S. college
campuses, and made two documentary films. And there is still more
to do…much more.
Irvin Ungar with copies of the premier and deluxe editions of
The Szyk Haggadah (Historicana, 2008).
Heller: You've developed a Szyk society, which has spawned
books and exhibitions. I know you were a rabbi. So is this a kind
of religious mission?
Ungar: It's true, I was a pulpit rabbi for 13 years, and
then entered the business world as an antiquarian bookseller in
1987. My work with Arthur Szyk is not a personal religious mission,
but in a sense, his art does reflect my own value system as a Jew.
I have always been taught that one should care about one's
religious tradition and determine how the best of that tradition
can advocate for humanity at large. And that is precisely what
Szyk's art does in the area of social justice. He fought
passionately against tyranny and oppression directed toward the
Jews, and for freedom and justice, and translated these values into
democratic ideals for humankind. During WW II Szyk engaged in a
“one-man war” against Hitler's war on the Jews, and also served as
a “one-man army” against the Axis as Roosevelt's “soldier in art.”
He raised money for the Chinese and the Czechs, for the displaced
Poles and the tattered Brits, and the soldiers of the Commonwealth
of Australia and New Zealand. During the war and afterwards, his
art drew attention to the Native Americans and to the racism
directed toward the African Americans, and even defended the
Muslims in Indonesia against the Dutch in 1948.
In Arthur Szyk I have found a model for my own life, and yet his
message is for all of us. On a broader scale, this activist-artist
teaches each of us to care about our own people, our own nation,
our own tradition, and our own religion, and then to use the best
of our heritage to make the world a better place. If social justice
is a religious mission, then yes, Szyk's art and hopefully all of
us are on that mission.
Inside cover illustration of Andersen's Fairy Tales (New York,
1944) by Arthur Szyk.
Heller: What does Szyk's work tell us about yesterday, today
and tomorrow? In other words, why should people be interested in
him aside from your passion?
Ungar: I do think this artist's work is eternal. As I
mentioned earlier, why else would an artist spend so much time on
detail, when pressing social issues demanded an immediate response?
For Szyk, it was because those immediate issues were also timeless
ones. Indeed, the same problems of Szyk's day—injustice and abuse
of individual rights and collective freedoms—are still with us and
still need to be addressed. His art can serve as a mirror for
society today, causing us to reflect upon the past while using its
lessons to enlighten us on paths not yet traveled.
Arthur Szyk, “Satan Leads the Ball” (New York, 1942).
Heller: Szyk's work runs the gamut from polemical attacks on
the Axis to Judaica (he's illustrated an amazing Haggadah)
to fantasy to patriotic. What do all these have in common other
Ungar: While Szyk's style oftentimes is similar from one
subject area to another (compare his political image of Satan
Leads the Ball with his Andersen's Fairy Tales cover
image, or his illuminated Americana image of Washington with his
Soldiers to his religious yet militant “Modern Moses”—one fact
remains clear: in the artist's own words, “Art is not my aim, it is
my means.” And although several of Szyk's illustrated books [for
example, his pre-War fantasy of The Temptation of Saint
Anthony (1926), his post-War The Canterbury Tales (1947),
and The Arabian Nights Entertainments (1954)] carried no
message of social justice, most of his illustrated books, did in
fact attempt to transmit a political or social message.
His Revolution in Germany (1919) was a satire against
Germany and its negative influences on Poland. Le Livre
d'Esther [The Book of Esther] (1925) was his first religious
book to show Jews standing up to threatened annihilation, and
TheHaggadah (1940), wherein he portrayed the Nazis
as the ancient Egyptians of the Exodus narrative, warned a new
generation of centuries-old hatred. Almost without exception,
Szyk's art was never ambiguous or abstract. It almost always had a
common theme: freedom, not tyranny; justice, not oppression—which,
when combined with the uniqueness of his style, is why Szyk became
one of the leading political artists of the first half of the 20th
Arthur Szyk's “Le Scribe” (Paris, 1927) and Pacte de la Societe
des Nations (League of Nations, Paris, 1931), both of which are
part of the Legion of Honor show in San Francisco, December 4,
2010–March 27, 2011.
Heller: I know that Szyk drew covers for Collier's and
other leading American magazines. How was he considered during his
Ungar: While Norman Rockwell was illustrating the covers
for the Saturday Evening Post, Szyk regularly illustrated
covers for Collier's magazine, oftentimes for major holidays
or anniversaries. Two of his 1942 covers serve as examples. His
Labor Day illustration motivated American workers to fight the Nazi
serpent strangling the pillars of democracy, and his December cover
for the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor engendered hatred of the
enemy, represented by an ugly bomb-carrying Japanese bat. There was
nothing subtle about Szyk's art, and it was clear that he was a
hater of hate. For this reason, his contemporaries recognized him
as a “citizen-soldier of the free world” and the American military
showed his art at over 500 USO bases for every GI heading overseas
Let the following two quotes, then, summarize how Szyk was
honored in his own day: “There is no one more certain to be alive
two hundred years from now. Just as we turn back to Hogarth and
Goya for the living images of their age, so our descendants will
turn back to Arthur Szyk for the most graphic history of Hitler and
Hirohito and Mussolini. Here is the damning essence of what has
happened; here is the piercing summary of what men have thought and
felt.” (Carl Van Doren, contemporary art critic, 1946.)
Following the war, Szyk created several important works of
Americana. Chief among them was his illuminated Declaration of
Independence, which was dedicated in festive ceremony on July 4,
1950 in New Canaan, CT (the year before Szyk died). At that event
the chairman called Arthur Szyk “one of the world's great free men
who has dedicated his life and art to the preservation of
“Ride of the Valkyries” illustration, Niebelungen series (New
York, 1942) and “Modern Moses” (New York, 1944) by Arthur Szyk.
Heller: Szyk engaged in some racial stereotyping of Japanese
war leaders. How do you feel about these images in context and in
light of today?
Ungar: Yes, it is clear that Szyk engaged in racial
stereotyping, particularly with regard to the Japanese. However,
what is also clear is that his art, particularly in this instance,
must be seen within its historic context. One high school student a
few years ago told me, while looking at the Collier's cover
where Hirohito looks like an ape, that one should focus more to
Szyk's point of the monstrous things that the Japanese were, at
that time, doing to humanity. Considering that 10–20 million
Chinese died as a result of Japanese racial hatred in the 1930s and
'40s, anything Szyk could do to dehumanize this enemy, and thereby
motivate Americans to respond to Japanese brutality, would serve
his end. Interestingly enough, three years ago a Japanese historian
published in Tokyo a book about Szyk for the Japanese people,
hoping that Szyk's works would serve as a mirror for them to see
their past, and help them come to terms with their WWII
Heller: What, in your research, has been the biggest
revelation about Szyk?
Cover of The New Order (New York, 1941), the first satirical
anti-Nazi book published in the United States.
Ungar: Let me tell you first what does not surprise me:
the depth of Szyk's passion, his independence of thought and
uncompromising stand against injustice, and his infinite love of
humanity. I am no longer surprised by his vast knowledge of history
and nations, or by how widely conversant he was with current
political events or Arabian tales or Chinese symbolism of dynasties
long ago. And while I am not surprised, I never ever cease to be
amazed. My biggest revelation about Szyk continues to be that his
knowledge—and awareness and response—is without end. Just when I
think I have seen everything in a particular subject area, another
work is rediscovered, and not just any work, but a startlingly
noteworthy piece that sheds new light on Szyk's remarkable vision,
tolerance and sense of justice.
Here's an example. As I was preparing my essay for the Berlin
exhibition catalogue in 2008, and reviewing Szyk's artwork that
defended the declaration of Israeli statehood in 1948 against the
five Arab nations that went to war with the newly born country, I
came across a 1948 artwork that defended the Indonesian Muslims who
were being attacked by the Dutch. How is it that an artist of
Szyk's deep commitment to the people of Israel and who was
perpetually absorbed with their survival would have time to care
about what was happening to the Muslims in Indonesia, let alone
create a work of art defending their rights? Entitled “Dutch
Christmas in Indonesia” his pen and ink drawing was published in
the New York Post on Christmas Eve, 1948. It is inscribed to
the people of Indonesia “in ardent sympathy and love, Arthur Szyk.”
I really have come to see the much of the world through Szyk's
eyes, whether my view is stimulated by the beauty of his art
represented by its luminous colors and its intricacy of detail—or
by his messages and approach to social issues and justice in its
most isolated or broadest sense. His work is never tiring, always
inspiring; demanding, yet always expanding my vision.
Heller: Finally, what do you get out of this advocacy of the
man and the artist?
Ungar: To be honest, I really feel a sense of purpose.
Hardly a day goes by that I don't try to do something to move
Arthur Szyk forward in the world. I really do see Szyk as a heroic
figure, an American icon worthy of recognition among the elite of
the world as well as the common man and woman. Equal to the
pleasure that I get out of seeing, researching or writing about
Szyk's art every day is the pleasure I feel every time I witness
someone discovering Szyk's art for the first time. And what is
more, once one sees his art, I know they will never forget it and
never confuse Arthur Szyk with any other artist. In that sense,
then, I consider Arthur Szyk memorable, his art alive, and myself
privileged to be part of that process.
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