‘Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art’

Irvin Ungar, historian and initiator of the “Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art” exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, and Debra Schmidt Bach, the curator of the exhibition. (Photo by Wojtek Maslanka via Nowy Dziennik)

“I am a Jew and Poland is my homeland,” Arthur Szyk used to say. Sixty-six years after Szyk’s death his works can be viewed at an exhibition entitled “Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art,” organized by the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library.

The exhibition, which is on view until Jan. 21, 2018, presents more than 40 various works of art, mostly from the 1930s and 1940s. Among the exhibited works are original drawings and illustrations, even stamps designed by Szyk, as well as pencils and nibs the artist used for drawing, and a New York phone book from 1945 with Szyk’s “Arsenal of Democracy” on its cover.

The presented works have a political and social consciousness. They are dominated by caricatures of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and the Japanese emperor Hirohito. Almost all refer to the period of World War II and underscore Szyk’s role as an artist fighting against Nazi and fascist policies, and advocating civil and human rights. Because of that Eleanor Roosevelt called Szyk a “one-man army,” and the artist called himself a “soldier in art.”

The exhibition is organized into five themes: the soldier in art, the war against Nazism, fascism and militarism, anti-Semitism and the European Jews, the fight for the Jewish state and public advocacy for the United States.

“Arthur Szyk was a great Polish, Jewish and – despite the fact that he was an immigrant – American patriot. In 1942 he promoted rights for African Americans, because he was an ardent advocate of human rights,” said Irvin Ungar, a historian specializing in Szyk’s work and a great fan of his art.

“Szyk was a renowned artist in Poland, France, England, the United States and Canada,” said Ungar while presenting the details of Szyk’s work and life at the press viewing in September. “In 1934, the U.S. Library of Congress exhibited his works focusing on American independence. Later he was decorated with the George Washington Bicentennial Medal,” said Ungar, who is also the author of the album “Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art.”

The original Statute of Kalisz can be viewed at the exhibition at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library (Photo by Wojtek Maslanka via Nowy Dziennik)

There are a few Polish accents at Szyk’s exhibition at the New-York Historical Society. Among them is the original drawing from the Statute of Kalisz – a collection of privileges granted to the Polish Jews in 1264 by Kalisz prince Bolesław Pobozny (Bolesław the Pious). Szyk spent three years illustrating the 45-page book, which was printed in 1927. The illustrations in the Statute of Kalisz show the history of Polish Jews through the beginning of the 20th century and are regarded as one of the most important works in Szyk’s artistic career.

In connection with the exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, Greenpoint’s Pilsudski Institute, in cooperation with Krystyna Piorkowska, prepared an illustrated brochure about Szyk and the exhibition. The brochure, published in Polish and English and financed by Domek Associates Inc., is available at the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland, Polish Culture Institute, Kosciuszko Foundation, St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Church in the East Village and the Pilsudski Institute. The latter is also organizing a meeting with Irvin Ungar. On Oct. 28 the historian will take a group of art lovers and fans of the artist on a tour through the exhibition and will talk about Szyk’s art.

About the artist

Arthur Szyk was born on June 16, 1894 in a Jewish middle-class family. He was born in Lodz, a town in central Poland, which was at that time under Russian rule. Despite the fact that he lived in many countries, the artist always regarded himself as a Jew and a Pole. Since 1921 he lived and created art, for the most part in France. Later, from 1937, he lived in Great Britain. In 1940 he immigrated to the United States, lived a couple blocks away from the New-York Historical Society, and eight years later received U.S. citizenship.

Although stylistically the works of Szyk resemble the trends and traditions of the Medieval Period and Renaissance, many of them refer to the political and social situation in Europe and the world during his lifetime. A couple of major events impacted Szyk’s views and artistic work, including two world wars, the emergence of totalitarianism in Europe, and the birth of the state of Israel. In his work Szyk often provided an artistic commentary on the Holocaust, Judaism, life in Poland or the American war for independence.

The works of Szyk were presented at the 1939 New York’s World Fair. For this event Szyk prepared 20 drawings presenting the contributions of Polish immigrants in the United States, as well as relations between Poland and the U.S.

Szyk died of a heart attack on Sept. 13, 1951 in New Canaan, Connecticut. He is buried in a family grave in New Montefiore Cemetery in Suffolk County.

After his death Szyk’s artistic output slowly became forgotten. However in the 1990s with the discovery of unknown works, Szyk’s art again became the focus of interest. Now his art is well-known among historians and experts, although still fairly foreign to the general public.

However, the “Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art” exhibition at the New York-Historical Society on the Upper West Side (170 Central Park West at 77th Street) may change that.

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