‘A Jewish Artist Cannot Be Neutral in These Times’: Lessons From Arthur Szyk, Whose Brush Was a Sword
Irvin Ungar, a former pulpit rabbi and antiquarian bookseller who has devoted 25 years to scholarship on the Jewish artist Arthur Szyk, joined Algemeiner members on Tuesday for a revealing discussion on the illustrator’s life, artwork, and legacy.
Ungar — author of “Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art” and the creator and publisher of the luxury limited edition of “The Szyk Haggadah” — described Szyk as a champion of both Jewish and universal causes during some of the darkest times in human history, brandishing his artworks against antisemitism and other scourges.
“Szyk took up his pen as a sword, and his brush as its ally in its fight against Nazism,” Ungar said. “He used his art to wage war against injustice bigotry, racism, intolerance and hatred, wherever it was.”
While widely known at his peak, Szyk was virtually forgotten after his death in 1951 — not only by the art world, said Ungar, but “by the Jewish people at large.”
The rabbi-turned-art scholar said he has made it his mission to restore the awareness of Szyk to a level that allows both his art and message to speak to us in our own day.
Born in 1894 Lodz, in what is now Poland, Szyk grew up in an upper-middle class Jewish family of textile manufacturers, thought to be descended from a great Talmudic scholar. As a young boy, Szyk witnessed an uprising by Polish peasants — after which his father, blinded by acid thrown in his face at a factory skirmish, would never be able to see his son’s colorful artworks.
Hailing from a diverse city that was one-third Jewish, Szyk was raised with both a universalist sense of common humanity and a particularist devotion to the Jewish community. In 1940, he immigrated to America, where he went on to become the leading anti-Nazi artist of the day, ultimately casting himself as a “spokesperson for the Jewish people,” according to Ungar.
Thanks to works for the likes of Collier’s magazine — with one cover presenting well-armed, thick-muscled patriots standing against a Nazi serpent strangling the “pillars of democracy” — Americans audiences saw more of Szyk’s work than they did of Norman Rockwell or nearly any other artist during the war.
So great was his popularity that newspaper articles of the day ran claims that Hitler himself had put out a personal price tag on Szyk’s head. Even if the Nazi bounty is apocryphal, Ungar said, the story testifies to the power and breadth of his wartime work.
Szyk was even friendly with Eleanor Roosevelt, who compared the artist to those fighting on the war’s front lines. In one portrait of President Franklin Roosevelt, dedicated to the First Lady, he signed his name, “Arthur Szyk, soldier in art.”
Another Szyk target was the horrors of racism against African Americans. One work featured a Black American soldier returned from war, wearing a cross around his neck and a Purple Heart medal. A hero — and yet one whose hands were bound with rope, as armed Klansmen stood menacingly behind him. Szyk’s piercing caption, inverting the Biblical adage: “Oh Lord, do not forgive them, for they know what they do.”
Each lynching, Ungar said, was for Szyk a “national disaster, a stab in the back of our government in its desperate struggle for democracy.”
Ungar was also asked about the contemporary challenge of antisemitism. What message might Szyk have for those today seeking ways to defeat hatred of Jews, even from outside the political sphere?
“Szyk himself had two wars to fight,” Ungar explained: one against Hitler and the Axis powers, on behalf of the free world, and another on behalf of the Jews of Europe. “Similarly, in our own day, democracy and the free world is under attack. And so too are the Jewish people, and some often use antisemitism as a means to assault democracy. In a place where hatred flourishes, democracy will ultimately fail.”
Ungar said Szyk’s message to Jews today was best captured in the artist’s own words, delivered in an interview during a visit to the US in 1934, as the plight of European Jewry was worsening.
“An artist, and especially a Jewish artist, cannot be neutral in these times,” Szyk said. “He cannot escape to still lifes, abstractions and experiments. Art that is purely cerebral is dead. Our life is involved in a terrible tragedy and I am resolved to serve my people with all my art, with all my talent, with all my knowledge.”