Arthur Szyk (pronounced schick)

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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Heroes of ancient israel

Arthur Szyk (pronounced schick) (1894–1951) is a Polish émigré who lived in New York, and who, given a career that began in 1914, illustrated over 30 books, created scores of caricatures and portraits as covers for Colliers and Time magazines, numerous cartoons for PM (the ad-free liberal/left daily), the New York Post, and Esquire, as well as posters, medallions, stain glass, and a large body of images on various Judaic themes. He was one of the most prolific visual satirists of his day and his World War II anti-fascist imagery was comparable to Goya’s Disasters of War. But his mission went beyond mere topical satire; he employed art as an engine of spiritual transcendence and human liberation. 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.

Yet by the late 1970s even this incredibly impressive body of work (for instance, he was the most illustrious of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam illustrators), which painstakingly wedded the exquisitely crafted detailing of Persian-style miniatures to the symbolic acuity of Renaissance iconic masterpieces, was all but forgotten by contemporary critics, as well as young illustrators and caricaturists who really should have known and admired the work.

So for me, thirty years ago it was a revelation to see Szyk’s art for the first time at the Martin Sumers Gallery, which during the late 70s was the only New York (perhaps American) venue exhibiting his originals. I was totally seduced by Szyk’s searing cartoons, which, as his biographer Joesph P. Ansell has written in Arthur Szyk: Artist, Jew, Pole (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004), were “often ironic, but never comical.” Yet they were so highly charged with conceptual intensity that even his most topical (and ephemeral) themes were made to seem timelessly monumental. Unfortunately, however, Szyk’s impeccable draftsmanship had been made unfashionable during the 70s and 80s by the art brut and neo-expressionistic raw-edged mannerisms were exerting a hold on illustration. Nonetheless, having discovered his legacy, I truly believed the time for a Szyk renaissance was imminent, just waiting for someone with a passion for his work to revive him.

Jack and Queen cards

Enter Irvin Ungar, a practicing “pulpit rabbi,” who in 1975 was innocently enough introduced to Szyk when he was looking for gifts to bestow on members of his own wedding party. He recently recalled walking into the now defunct Bloch’s Book Shop in New York and where he saw a pile of Szyk’s Haggadot on a table. “The colors jumped out at me, the price was right, and I think I must have purchased 10 copies at $18 each!” The craftsmanship also appealed to him, but more important he was enthralled by their spiritual richness and innate humanity of the work. A decade later, after leaving the Rabbinate, he became a rare book bookseller, specializing in historic Judaica, which is where the Szyk renaissance begins to pick up steam.

In the early 1990s Ungar uncovered another dusty cache of prints comprising Szyk’s Jewish holiday series. Once again the signature fluorescent colors jumped out. At the time all Ungar knew was that religion seemed to be the sole theme of Szyk’s work, but as his interest piqued, he launched an investigation that allowed him to find the 1941 anti-Nazi book “The New Order” (J.P. Putnam’s Sons) with an introduction by Roger W. Straus, Jr. (late of Farrar Straus Giroux), filled with blood curdling caricatures of Axis leaders – Hilter, Mussolini, Hirohito, et al – composed with plausibly monstrous features. These were arguably the most caustic propaganda artworks of the entire World War II era. Although this book now surfaces at antiquarian book fairs, then The New Order and the limited edition Ink and Blood (The Heritage Press, 1946) were virtually impossible to obtain, if only because they were not highly valued. Ungar saw their value.

Although he was only three when Szyk died, Ungar made it his personal calling to restore the artist to prominence. He eventually acquired the Szyk Family Archives, became close to his daughter Alexandra Szyk Bracie (now in her 80s), and took over the major responsibility for the non-profit Arthur Szyk Society, which enables him to curate international museum exhibitions of Szyk’s art, including “Justice Illuminated: The Art of Arthur Szyk” at the Spertus Museum in Chicago (1999), and “The Art and Politics of Arthur Szyk” at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. He also edits the Society’s series of Art History Publications; each contains an illustrated essay that further builds a library of scholarly documentation.

Royal family cards

What accounts for Ungar’s devotion to Szyk has a lot to do with how the artist speaks to his value system. Szyk once said, “Art is not my aim, it is my means.” And Ungar notes that “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.” In this spirit Szyk developed exhibitions of his work during the war years that raised funds for the Chinese, Czech, Polish, Greek, and British refugees.

Although Szyk was not alone in this philanthropy, he was unique among most mainstream American illustrators. Harry Katz, a former curator of Prints and Graphics at the Library of Congress in his paper for The Arthur Szyk Society entitled “Democracy’s Weapon, Arthur Szyk in America” draws comparisons with the other American illustrators of his period: Both Norman Rockwell and Szyk illustrated the Four Freedoms (Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear, Freedom of Speech) based on precepts put forth in President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address. Each has a remarkably different interpretation. “While Rockwell’s ‘Pictures for the American People’ during WWII depicted people who were almost exclusively middle class and white, Jews were rarely seen and black virtually non-existent,” writes Katz, “Szyk’s rendering on the other hand includes the Virgin Mary, a black man and a Jew together with Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, as a Renaissance pieta type unified work. “Rockwell and most of his contemporaries in America lagged behind Arthur Szyk in their awareness of and concern for social justice and civil liberties.”

For Ungar there i
s no more lasting a testament to Szyk’s humanist legacy than his interpretation of the Haggadah (the text read during the Passover seder recounting the story of the Exodus). Ungar explains that from Szyk’s earliest years the concept of freedom and how to achieve it were at the forefront of his creativity and commitment, it was only natural “that he would be drawn to the Exodus story and the need to confront adversity, and oppression, and to fight for freedom. The Haggadah which tells that story and how God led the Israelites out of Egypt was not mythology for Szyk — and it was not only a historical event of its time, but an event once again happening in his own day — for this time Hitler was Pharaoh and the Nazis were the ‘new’ Egyptians.” Szyk recognized that in every generation there would be those who would rise up to destroy the Jews, and he felt it was his job to be a spokesman for his people. So the Haggadah was one of Szyk’s most powerfully chosen ways to present to his “People and the People of the world the unfolding saga, drama, and challenges facing Jews in the world in which they live.”

Heroes of ancient israel

In 1940 when the initial vellum edition first appeared, the Times of London reviewer wrote that this book “is worthy of being considered one of the most beautiful of books ever produced by the hand of man.” But to appreciate the Haggadah in its fullness, insists Ungar, one has to see the brilliance of the original art Szyk created in Poland between 1934 and 1936. “No other printing of Szyk’s Haggadah has ever been able to capture the luminosity and detail of Szyk’s originals, that is, until now.”

Ungar’s mission to raise consciousness about Szyk consists of impeccably and flawlessly reproducing an original Haggadah in a exacting edition. And since its publication he has consistently produced ever more rare and remarkable material.

Before you, Heroes of Ancient Israel: The Playing Cards of Arthur Szyk were 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,” explains an introductory card. Ungar’s new edition includes a book, collector’s deck and player’s deck. Find out more here.

Heroes of ancient israel