Burlingame Judaica expert working to make Arthur Szyk famous again

Arthur Szyk, one of the more famous World War II-era political artists, is a virtual unknown today. But a Burlingame rabbi and Judaica dealer is determined to change that.

"I'll tell you something. If people think Chagall was the great Jewish artist, they ain't seen nothing yet. Szyk is going to be the Jewish artist of the millennium. He's going to blow everyone else right off the map," asserts Rabbi Irvin Ungar, who owns a business specializing in rare books, manuscripts and historic Judaica.

Szyk, known for his passionate patriotism and ardent defense of Zionism, was once called "Roosevelt's soldier with a pen" and lauded by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt as a "one-man army against fascism." Hitler allegedly even had a price on his head.

"I've committed my life to making this guy famous again," Ungar said earlier this month. "And as sure as I'm sitting here talking about it, it's gonna happen."

It may be happening already.

A Szyk exhibit, which Ungar helped curate, is currently on display at the Library of Congress. Titled "Justice Illuminated: The Art of Arthur Szyk," the exhibit opened Dec. 9 and runs through May.

Closer to home, the Burlingame Public Library will sponsor a Szyk exhibit beginning Tuesday, Feb. 1. On Thursday evening, Feb. 3 Ungar will present a slide show lecture on the artist in the library.

Retrospectives of the artist's work are also scheduled to open at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

Ungar served on pulpits for 13 years, including from 1980 to 1987 at Peninsula Temple Sholom, a Reform congregation in Burlingame. When he decided to explore other pastures, he cast about for something that stirred his passions.

Around the same time a college buddy was prodding him to get into the rare book business, Ungar saw an old Szyk print buried beneath a stack of manuscripts at an antique store.

"I was immediately attracted by the vibrant colors. They just leapt out at me."

In 1987, Ungar heeded the advice of his friend and started his business, Historicana.

"Historicana really allows me to combine both my passions — history and Judaism," said Ungar, who is 51. "Not to mention Arthur Szyk."

Ungar is even the head of the Arthur Szyk Society, which was founded in 1991 by another Szyk aficionado, George Gooche, to disseminate the artist's work and ideals.

So, who exactly is Ungar's mystery muse?

"Most people really can't place the name Arthur Szyk," Ungar said. "But that's only because they don't have a visual reference of his work. His haggadahs are probably the best known of the past century."

Born to a middle-class Jewish family in Lodz, Poland in 1891, Szyk served in the Russian army during World War I.

After the war's conclusion, Szyk's artistic aptitude led him to Paris, where he honed his skills during the 1920s. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Szyk eschewed modernism and abstraction.

Instead, Szyk explored the style known as illumination, which originated in medieval Europe, and relied heavily on brilliant colors and narrative imagery. The technique served him well and helped establish an iconic style.

Much of his work centers around his love of three countries: Poland, Israel and the United States. Szyk, who came to the United States in 1940, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1948, making his home in New Canaan, Conn. He died in New York in 1951.

Szyk often depicted historical documents in lithographs. However, his political cartoons are perhaps more famous than his lithographs. Many of his World War II-era drawings graced the covers of Time, Esquire and Colliers.

They usually depicted the Nazis as corpulent, dim-witted conquerors, or as slithering snakes. It was his unyielding efforts on behalf of the war effort that endeared him to President Roosevelt and earned Hitler's enmity.

In "Occupied Paris" (1940), the Nazi regime is painted as a bloated pig, snout agape, hungrily eyeing the Eiffel Tower.

In "Self-Portrait" (1944), Szyk draws himself calmly sketching a petulant Hitler, a shrunken Goebbels, and various other Axis leaders, some of whom are missing their undergarments. Many of the Nazis are drawn peeking out of a trashcan, confined to the "ashbin of history."

Szyk, who also used his brush to promote racial equality, drew a white soldier asking a black soldier what he'd do with Hitler. The black soldier responds, "I'd make him a Negro, and drop him off anywhere in America."

His attachment to Israel was strong, as well.

In the "Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel" (1948), tiny Hebrew lettering forms the centerpiece and is bordered by sketches of soldiers and farmers. The top section of the work depicts two snarling lions of Zion and beneath it is a portrait of Moses, Aaron, and the warrior Hur. A grim reminder of the Holocaust, in the form of skulls, is near the bottom of the work.

Ungar, the sergeant of the Szyk revolution, hopes to draw attention not only to Szyk's artistry but to the values they embody.

"His work was infused with a love of social justice, liberty and Judaism."