Arthur Szyk Captures New York
Where are the Arthur Szyks of today? They exist. They have to be firing their satiric commentaries and barbs at the evils that lurk. Now’s the time to nurture more soldiers of art. But for those who want to be truly inspired in ways they never thought possible (and they’re in New York), go to the first exhibition of his work in the city since the 1970s at the New York Historical Society. Through Jan. 21, 2018, the society is showing “Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art”—original work by the Polish/Jewish emigre who fought the battle against fascist repression in the United States.
Buy the book for an intensive introduction to the man and his art. See the show for the exquisite beauty of his work. The exhibition is a culmination of decades of work by Irvin Ungar, a rare book dealer and Szyk missionary who has raised the knowledge and understanding of this once virtually forgotten virtuoso. See a video about Szyk here. A few years ago I asked Ungar how he became involved with Szyk:
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. [I’ve subsequently gone on to publish a luxury limited edition of The Szyk Haggadah through my business Historicana.] 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 WWII 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 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 California Palace of 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.”
I wrote in my short preface to the accompanying book Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art:
Arthur Szyk would be John Doe today if not for Irvin Ungar. Although some aficionados were collecting Szyk’s work in the 1970s—and I was one—there was not yet a solid body of knowledge … or more to the point, a caretaker and proselytizer to spread the word. Artifacts were accessible—magazine covers, books and other printed material surfaced on occasion—and original drawings and prints could be purchased if one knew where to look. But Szyk was not as well known as he deserved to be. He was relegated to the netherworld of ephemeral illustration. Nor was his precisionist/miniaturist illustrative style as popular as the neo-expressionist, l’art brut, conceptual satiric art that was trending three and four decades ago. He was what I wrote in Print magazine, a “lost illustrator and forgotten artist.”
See Ungar capture the imaginations and inspirations of high school students with Szyk today.
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