The Arty Semite

Arthur Szyk: A 'Master Illuminator' Illuminated

By Judah S. Harris

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Courtesy Historicana

I spent a couple of informative hours last Tuesday evening at “Methods of a Master Illuminator,” a new exhibit of Arthur Szyk’s art showing at the Broome Street Gallery through April 25. Irv Ungar, a dealer and foremost expert on Szyk’s work, and co-curator Allison Chang, have assembled an impressive collection of original art, prints, bound books, and some lesser known pencil sketches, that readily satisfy both the already initiated and the not-yet-initiated, who may have heard of, but never explored up-close, the craft of a ‘master illuminator.’

Szyk was a reviver of an art tradition that began in the earliest centuries of the Common Era which provided textual or illustrative decoration for religious texts, and later, in the Middle Ages, for secular ones as well. Szyk’s highly refined skills in illumination and illustration earned him fame on the pages of religious manuscripts, as well as in the major magazines and newspapers of the 1930s and ‘40s, including TIME, Collier’s, Look, Esquire, Saturday Review of Literature, Saturday Evening Post, The New York Post, and the Chicago Sun. All eagerly offered literary canvas during the war years, when Szyk’s artistic activism for democratic ideals and social justice could grab the attention and influence the opinions of populations and politicians in multiple countries.

There was an eager audience for Szyk’s strong political satire and cartooning that aided the fight against Fascism being fought not only by our soldiers overseas, but also in the hearts and minds of Americans and all those who supported the Allied cause. After the war ended, Szyk continued his fight for world Jewry and advocated strongly through his art for a homeland for the Jewish People in Palestine.

Szyk died in New York City in 1951, but his origins were in Poland (he was born in Lodz in 1894) and his schooling in Paris, before he settled in London in 1937. There, he continued work on one of the crown jewels of his career, an illuminated Haggadah that he began planning in the late 1920s, and which was published in 1940 and dedicated to King George VI. The edition of 250 copies (half stayed in England and half went to the United States) featured 48 full-page illuminations printed on vellum and carried a $500 price tag. Today, when copies do become available (about one a year comes up for auction), the selling price is closer to $65,000. At the Broome Street Gallery exhibit you can examine, and even carefully touch, an original edition copy, and a number of magnifying glasses are positioned on display cases to enable a better appreciation of the intricacy of Szyk’s painting, including details so fine that at times brushwork involving only a single hair was employed.

Though the original 1940 edition of the Szyk Haggadah drew on the best printing technology of the era, a new 2008 release published by Historicana (Irv Ungar’s company) with an updated commentary, is also on display and available for sale in limited editions ($8,800 and $18,000). Using the latest ink jet technology and printed on custom handmade paste paper, it offers collectors a more truthful representation the vibrant colors Szyk created in his original illuminations.

The whole process of remaking the Szyk Haggadah, involving experts on multiple continents, can be seen in Jim Ruxin’s short documentary film, “In Every Generation.” The creative process he portrays will especially interest those in the visual arts, including photographers (a 33 megapixel camera was used to photograph the original Haggadah art for reproduction), bookmakers, papermakers, and other artists and artisans who strive for excellence, even knowing that average admirers may not notice the finesse.

“Methods of a Master Illuminator” offers plenty of proof to Szyk’s dexterity, but also his devotion to the three countries that he felt most connected to. He loved Poland, Israel and America, and the exhibit includes samples from The Polish American Fraternity Series (1938 paintings displayed at the Polish Pavilion during the 1939 World’s Fair) and lithographs from a series of watercolor miniatures, begun in 1931, which depict George Washington and the American Revolution. Szyk lived many years later, but no doubt saw the battle for freedom as ongoing.

Watch Jim Ruxin’s documentary about the Szyk Haggadah, ‘In Every Generation’:


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