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Steven Heller | Interviews 02.12.

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Steven

Arthur Szyk Forever


Heller is
the co-
chair

Relevant!
(with Lita
Talarico)
of the
School of Visual Arts MFA
Design / Designer as Author
+ Entrepreneur program and
the SVA Masters Workshop in
Rome. He writes the Visuals
column for the New York
Times Book Review, a weekly
column for The Atlantic online
and The Daily Heller.

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Steven Heller on The New
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Posters of Caution and


Hope From Chernobyl
The Polish émigré, American caricaturist and illustrator, Arthur
An interview with Oleg
Szyk (pronounced schick, like the razor) (1894–1951), began his Veklenko, a Ukrainian graphic
career in 1914; he illustrated over 30 books, created scores of designer conscripted into the
caricatures and portraits as covers for Colliers and Time cleanup and mitigation near
the exploded Chernobyl
magazines, numerous cartoons for PM (the 1940s ad-free nuclear reactor in the first
liberal/left daily), the New York Post, and Esquire, as well as “hottest” two months of
posters, medallions, stained glass, and a large body of work on accident.
Judaic themes. One of the most prolific visual satirists of his day, The Apperception Test
his World War II anti-fascist imagery is comparable to Goya’s That Sealed My Fate
Disasters of War, but his mission went beyond topical satire — art I’ve been influenced by many
images, sounds, and words,
was an engine of spiritual transcendence. A victim of anti-
but unbeknown to me, my
Semitism in his native country, forced to move to Paris, England,
and later the U.S., he fought for a free Polish state as both soldier future once hinged on my
response to one 8-by-10
and artist, and later devoted his energies helping to build a Jewish
illustrated card.
state. Indeed almost all his art, including numerous books of
illustrated fairy tales, were imbued with appeals for social justice. Beauty For Sale
Beauty is a business — a
“To call Szyk a ‘cartoonist’ is tantamount to calling Rembrandt a
design business — that
dauber or Chippendale a carpenter,” declared an editorial in a demands conformity,
1942 Esquire. In fact, with articles about him published in The especially among non-
New Yorker and the New York Herald Tribune, among others, his conformists.
artistic renown was undisputable. Szyk was one of the first public The Printing Cut That Tore
figures to take direct action in bringing attention to the Holocaust The Union Asunder
as it was being perpetrated. The intricate, miniature size of his In almost every American
type foundry specimen
artwork stands in striking juxtaposition to the magnitude of the
catalog published during the
themes it confronted and the human rights violations it exposed. antebellum period, were
Yet time has a way of eroding memory, and Szyk’s art had receded functional little spots or “cuts”
into the past until a major revival was triggered by Irvin Ungar, who that were mostly innocuous
pictures of sundries,
created a foundation in Szyk’s name, organized exhibitions, consumables, professional
published books and preserved work that had scattered signs, and symbols, but one
throughout the world. Two years ago he sold this extensive motif was not at all benign.
collection to the Bay-Area based Taube Philanthropies, which is
committed to making Szyk’s art relevant given that he covered
Jobs | February 18
many of the same issues of human rights facing us today. (The
Taube Family Arthur Szyk Collection is owned by The Magnes.
GMR Marketing
Taube Philanthropies gave the largest monetary gift to acquire art
Milwaukee, WI
in UC Berkeley’s history to The Magnes to support the collection
Freelance 3D Designers Needed
three years ago.) Currently, an exhibition at University of
California, Berkeley is bringing Szyk’s works to contemporary
Laird Superfood
audiences. In Real Times. Arthur Szyk: Art & Human Rights (1926-
Sisters, OR
1951) that opened on January 28 until May 29 and resumes
UX/UI Designer
September 1 to December 18, 2020 is on view at The Magnes
Collection of Jewish Art and Life at UC Berkeley. The new
exhibition from the Taube Family includes more than 50 original Confidential
Pittsburgh, PA
artworks by Szyk and features two interactive workstations
Packaging Designer/Packaging
created by UC Berkeley students and Francesco Spagnolo,
Engineer
Curator of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at UC
Berkeley.
FAM Brands
Los Angeles, CA
Assistant Designer

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As part of the exhibit UC Berkeley students digitized the entire
Taube Family Arthur Szyk Collection of more than 450 pieces for
the workstation titled “The Artist’s Gaze, Through a Digital Lens,”
which presents each image in a high-resolution slideshow. Szyk
addressed a diverse range of subjects including the U.S. War of
Independence, the Holocaust, World War II and the Ku Klux Klan.
Visitors can pause the slideshow and zoom in on any image to
reveal unexpected details and extraordinary craftsmanship. For an
innovative feature of the exhibit, the “Arthur Szyk, Remixed”
workstation, students deconstructed more than fifty of Szyk’s
works allowing visitors to examine the characters and motifs
individually and then recombine them to make their own political
cartoons. New creations can be saved and instantly published
online, giving Szyk’s art an even wider audience. The screens of
both workstation tablets are projected onto the walls of the gallery
for all to see. The works are organized into six sections focused on
various aspects of human rights:

• Human Rights and their Collapse is an introduction to Szyk’s


world with a timeline showing his life in the context of the
progressive failure of European democracies and the human
rights and national rights movements, beginning with the
American Revolution. Syzk’s works begin to show his lifelong
focus on freedom and the dangers of tyranny and totalitarianism.

• The Rights of Global Refugees shows Szyk’s deep concern


for refugees like himself and their lack of the legal protections of
citizenship. This section features depictions of refugees in many
contexts, from cartoons of innocent children declared enemies of
Third Reich to biblical narratives and a self-portrait included in
Szyk’s ode to Canada.

• The Right to Resist highlights the role of resistance in


preserving human rights with Szyk’s paintings of the Warsaw
Ghetto uprising and his internationally acclaimed illustration of
“The Statute of Kalisz.” The statute, which granted Jews legal
rights and liberties in Poland in medieval times, was displayed in
London in 1933 to denounce antisemitism in Nazi Germany.

• The Rights of Nationhood further explores Szyk’s belief that


human rights are inextricably tied to citizenship, featuring designs
he created for countries and organizations. These detailed
illustrations became letterheads and stamps and often found their
way into his political cartoons.

• The Right to Expose: Executioners at Work displays many


of Szyk’s most powerful pieces, which depicted the crimes of Axis
leaders and Nazis during the Holocaust. This portion of the
exhibition also explores an interesting parallel to Charlie Chaplin’s
characters in his 1940 movie, The Great Dictator.

• The Right to America highlights Szyk’s appreciation of his new


home country and the multi-ethnic fabric of the U.S. Army,
positioning it in direct contrast to Nazi Aryan supremacy. The
work in this section reflects Szyk’s objection to racial
discrimination and the organizations that perpetuate it, such as
the Ku Klux Klan.
Sadly, these themes are still gnawing at the body politic, and what
is more, they are resurging in many parts of the world, including
the United States. So, when I heard about the enterprise, I asked
Dr. Spagnolo to discuss why Szyk’s art continues to spark
emotions and how best this can be harnessed as resistance to
forces that he was resisting decades ago.
Steven Heller: What prompted the Szyk exhibition now? Is it
motivated by the increasing revival of fascism in Europe and
elsewhere?

Dr. Francesco Spagnolo: The exhibition is the result of three


years of work with the Taube Family Arthur Szyk Collection. This
involved a comprehensive cataloging effort (aimed at establishing
historically correct titles, creation dates and places, and exhibition
history dating back to Arthur Szyk’s lifetime), along with the
digitization of close to 450 original artworks.
One of the themes that emerged from this cataloging work is the
artist’s ongoing concern with global human rights. This is a theme
that continues to be current. The fact that most of Szyk’s
production happened during the collapse of European
democracies (ca. 1920-1939), the rise of Fascist regimes, the
Holocaust, and the aftermath of World War II, was a particularly
poignant aspect that inspired the exhibition's narrative.

The exhibition seeks to establish the cultural context of Szyk’s


concerns, drawing direct parallels with contemporary artists and
thinkers such as Charlie Chaplin and Hannah Arendt. It also draws
from recent research on the role of East European Jewish
intellectuals in framing the legislative context of global human
rights after the Holocaust (specifically a recent volume by James
Loeffler, titled “Rooted Cosmopolitans”).

The echo in today’s global crisis of democracy is definitely part of


why we believe this exhibition to be relevant at this time.
SH: The UC Berkeley students have added an interactive
component to the human rights exhibition at The Magnes. How
did this come about and what exactly does this addition entail?

FS: The impetus for the digital component of the exhibition is the
result of my ongoing collaboration with the “Digital Humanities”
community, on the UC Berkeley campus and beyond. The “digital
lens” aims both at reconstructing the artist’s gaze on his own,
often miniature-sized, artwork, and at providing new tools to study
and confront Szyk’s aesthetics (especially its modularity) through
a deep immersion into his techniques and artistic choices.

The results of this work, which is part of my instructional offerings


at UC Berkeley, are hopefully highlighted in the exhibition
installation itself. The installation (along with the user interactions
it elicits) is currently being studied by UC Berkeley students in my
undergraduate research group and Graduate Seminar. In other
words, the exhibition is already providing materials to future
research and teaching projects.
SH:I presume the students were not well aware of Szyk’s work, no
less his place in time. How did they respond to the work in terms
of their current lives?

FS: Concerns for global human rights, the social role of the arts
and humanities, and for the future of memory are widespread
among UC Berkeley’s students. While they were not familiar with
Szyk’s work, the digital investigation led them to become
intimately familiar with it. We also discussed the emotional impact
this work elicits, and how to manage the feelings that proximity
with so many historically and socially charged images and the
glaring violations of human rights they exposed and depicted
causes in young students.

SH: What are they hoping to inspire in the audience for this
exhibition?
FS: They are hoping to inspire a broader understanding of Szyk’s
work, and of its context. The role of the arts in confronting global
political events. The importance of global human rights in our
times, 100 years since the start of WW2 and 75 since its end. The
realization that tyrants never act alone, and that art can stimulate
social response to the violation of human rights.
SH: What has been the response to Szyk’s work and do viewers
understand its relevance today?

FS: The exhibition has been open for less than two weeks.
Between individual visitors and classes, we’ve had approximately
300 visitors during this time. A couple of my students and I have
been in the gallery when it is open to try to assess the initial visitor
response. We have observed that visitors tend to be:

Amazed ("wow factor") by the large digital slideshow


Captivated by the individual artworks on the gallery walls
(they tend to spend sufficient time trying to decipher them—
which is understandable, given their miniature size)
Willing to "play" with the workstation that allows one to
create new art based on digitally cropped elements from
Szyk's original works
A few visitors were taking photos of themselves in front of
the slideshow projection, sort of "immersed" in the
projection itself (this was an unexpected, and welcome,
response).

This current exhibition (and doubtless more to follow), while not


the same, is reminiscent of Pablo Picasso’s wish that his most
famous anti-war painting, Guernica , be returned to Spain after the
death of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco and hung in the annex
of the Prado museum in Madrid so that the Spanish people could
bask in its visual and emotional energy. Szyk, you might say,
produced many small Guernica’s and while none were as
monumental, they have the power to inspire. Until Ungar began
his mission to revive them, time had obscured their collective
impact. This exhibition and the interactive experience it
influences brings the work out from the shadows, re-energized to
help viewers better address the difficult social, political and
environmental battles being waged today.
Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, History

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