Artist vs. tyranny

Artist vs. tyranny

Agudath Israel hosts program on Arthur Szyk, “advocate for humanity”

Irvin Ungar
Irvin Ungar

Irvin Ungar gives a compelling reason to attend his scholar-in-residence weekend in Caldwell: Anyone who seeks to better understand the Jews’ relationship in the world, he says, “will benefit from learning about and experiencing the works of Arthur Szyk.” 

At Congregation Agudath Israel March 13-15, through lectures, discussions, and exhibits, Ungar will provide an in-depth introduction to the art and world of Szyk, a Polish Jew renowned for his work as a graphic artist, book illustrator, and caricaturist in the 1930s-40s. 

Ungar, a former pulpit rabbi and now an art dealer and antiquarian bookseller, entered the world of historic Judaica by founding the firm Historicana, where he has served as CEO since 1987.

He first specialized in Szyk’s illustrated books and later expanded his purview to include original artwork and fine prints. Ungar has curated and consulted for Szyk exhibitions at major institutions worldwide, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Library of Congress in Washington, the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, and the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago.

Curator of the Arthur Szyk Society, Ungar is the author of Justice Illuminated: The Art of Arthur Szyk, coproducer of the documentary Soldier in Art: Arthur Szyk, and the publisher of the luxury limited edition of The Szyk Haggadah (2008) and Heroes of Ancient Israel: The Playing Card Art of Arthur (2011). 

Ungar discussed with NJJN Szyk’s life and the significance of his work. 

NJJN: Tell us about Arthur Szyk’s personal and professional life.

Ungar: Szyk (pronounced “Shick”) was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1894 and moved to London with his wife and daughter in 1937 to supervise the printing of the Haggada, one of the works for which he’s most well-known. He came to the U.S. in 1940, settling first in New York City and then in New Canaan, Conn. In addition to becoming the leading anti-Nazi artist in America during World War II and advocating for Jewish rescue during the Holocaust, no artist produced more artwork than Szyk to help bring about the creation of the State of Israel. Both his mother and brother were taken from the Lodz ghetto during the war and murdered at Chelmno; Arthur himself died of a heart attack in 1951 at the age of 57. 

NJJN: What were some of Szyk’s most quintessential works?

Ungar: In the area of Judaica, Szyk was most famous for his illustrated Passover Haggada — which so many people are familiar with but didn’t know was his work — as well as the illumination of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. In the secular world, he illustrated such classics as Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales and The Canterbury Tales, and for book collectors, he illustrated the Books of Job, Ruth, and Esther. Szyk was a miniaturist who worked in watercolor, gouache, pen, and ink on page-size paper and is known for his exceptionally detailed, intricate, and colorful work.

NJJN: What makes Szyk and his work so significant?

Ungar: There’s no Jewish artist anywhere who was more motivated by the values of social justice and standing up against oppression and tyranny than Arthur Szyk. He used his value system as a Jew to be an advocate for humanity at large, and his work represented a visual commentary on Jewish survival and freedom. A hater of hate, he was a gentle, funny, and outgoing man, but he was on a mission. He often said that “art is not my aim; it is my means,” and through his substance and themes, he produced art of the highest order while at the same time using his art to deliver great and resounding messages. I think his art has resonated so strongly with me and others because it visually articulates what we feel, builds bridges between people, nations, and cultures, and contributes to the betterment of the world.

NJJN: How was Szyk’s work received in both Europe and America?

Ungar: In 1919-20, Szyk was the director of art propaganda for Poland in its war with the Soviet Union following World War I, but in Germany, Hitler put a price tag on Szyk’s head because of his opposition to the Nazis in his art. In America, Szyk was a celebrated artist, illustrating the covers of Collier’s Magazine throughout the 1940s (much as his contemporary Norman Rockwell did at the Saturday Evening Post). Thirty-eight of Szyk’s paintings of freedom hung in FDR’s White House, and his works were installed in over 500 USO bases for soldiers who were going overseas to see for inspiration. It’s said that Szyk’s art was more popular among the GIs of World War II than pinups.

NJJN: How did you get involved with this scholar-in-residence program at Agudath Israel?

Ungar: Though I’ve lived in California for many years, I grew up in Trenton and still have family in New Jersey. Two summers ago, while visiting my Aunt Rosie on Long Beach Island, I volunteered to give a brief talk about Arthur Szyk at the JCC of LBI. The rabbi there [Michael Jay] is a member of Agudath Israel, and he thought that this program would be great for that congregation.

NJJN: What messages do you hope people will take away about Arthur Szyk and his work after attending the weekend’s events?

Ungar: Anyone who cares about being a Jew and seeks to better understand our relationship in the world will benefit from learning about and experiencing the works of Arthur Szyk. People will be exposed to a whole new world of art and visual commentary by a man who was a great lover of the Jewish people. It’s a weekend that will open so many doors and be truly uplifting for people on so many levels.

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