From Berkeley to New Orleans: Student Digitization Project at Magnes Helps to Bring Arthur Szyk’s Work to the National Stage

October 7, 2022

A little more than a month after opening to the public on Jan. 28, 2020, UC Berkeley’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life’s In Real Times. Arthur Szyk: Art & Human Rights, curated by Francesco Spagnolo and Shir Gal Kochavi, was shut down due to the global pandemic created by Covid-19. 

The exhibition features the artwork of Arthur Szyk (Łódź, Poland, 1894 – New Canaan, Connecticut, 1951), a Polish-Jewish miniature artist and political caricaturist. After undergoing a major digitization project at the Magnes largely carried out by students, the exhibition has traveled to the Smithsonian-affiliated National World War II Museum in New Orleans, and opened to the public Sept. 2, 2022.  Bay Area-based Taube Philanthropies is the lead sponsor of the National World War II Museum's showing of the exhibition and funded the Taube Family Arthur Szyk Collection at The Magnes.

Born into a middle-class Polish-Jewish family, Szyk lived a life framed by two world wars, the collapse of European democracies and the rise of totalitarianism. A refugee, he ultimately settled in the United States in 1940. Throughout his work as a miniature artist and political caricaturist, he used motifs drawn from religion, history, politics and culture, pairing extraordinary craftsmanship with searing commentary on a diverse range of subjects including Judaism, the American Revolution, the Second World War, the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel.

Broad concerns for human rights are woven into Szyk’s entire production. In paintings and political cartoons, the artist exposed the Nazi genocide, supported the Polish resistance, exalted the establishment of the United Nations and ridiculed dictators of all stripes. His unwavering denunciation of Fascist crimes in Europe, the suppression of national rights worldwide and the endless violations of civil rights in America, are rooted in the experience of marginalization that characterized Jewish life in Eastern Europe in modern times. In our times, these concerns are still resounding strongly.

The exhibition features 50 original works of art from the Taube Family Arthur Szyk Collection, acquired by the Magnes in 2017, which includes more than 450 artworks, including books, newspapers, magazines and other publications that featured Szyk’s art. It includes two interactive workstations, allowing visitors to explore Szyk’s miniatures in high resolution, reconstructing the artist’s gaze through a “digital magnifying glass.” The configurations made by visitors are then projected on large wall surfaces within the gallery in order to be instantly published online, giving the contemporary exploration and reinterpretation of Szyk’s art a broad audience “in real time.”

In the years leading up to the exhibition and during its premature closure, UC Berkeley students worked alongside Spagnolo and Department of Art Practice professor and faculty advisor Greg Niemeyer to digitize the works and make them available to the public around the globe. 

Spagnolo discussed his idea to digitize Szyk’s artwork to expand its accessibility on a larger, more interactive scale. 

“Digital assets are easily shared publicly. It’s a very successful way to democratize access to art and cultural heritage because digital objects live in many forms and can be accessed in many ways,” Spagnolo said. “Once we have a digital representation of an item, we can connect with fellow travelers, meaning fellow scholars and experts, who are in different parts of the world, but we can all collaborate and learn.”

Once completed, the digitization project consisted of more than 500 pieces of artwork that could be viewed in detail on a screen. For individuals to see Syzk’s miniatures in high-resolution meant the ability to understand the work and its poignant message. 

“The main benefits of the digital tools are to be able to zoom into very detailed artwork without needing to touch the work, and to be able to remix elements of the oeuvre. The remixing may seem a bit irreverent, but it allowed us to unpack how Szyk himself was remixing elements of his work and his world,” Niemeyer said. “It was one of his basic strategies. So you see elements reappearing in different compositions.”

As part of UC Berkeley’s Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP), several students assisted with the project from digitizing to cataloging to processing. Their efforts are ultimately what allowed the exhibition to travel to its current location in New Orleans. 

In a video created by student research apprentice Tamara Berkover (’20) using Adobe software, viewers can see the process and methodologies used by the digitization and curatorial team in revisiting Szyk’s art digitally. This particular video focuses on two artworks. Madness, created in 1941 for the cover of Collier’s magazine, centers on a series of haunting caricatures of Nazi leaders and their collaborators. The illustration of Szyk’s own poem, “Love for Man and Nature has been My Guide” (1940), celebrated Canadian involvement in World War II, including a host of characters representing Canada’s heritage and military might. Among these characters, Szyk added a portrait of himself as a militant artist-worker. 

Visitors to the current exhibition in New Orleans will have the opportunity to explore Szyk’s miniatures in high resolution on a monitor within the exhibit. Also on view are 50 original works from the collection that have been organized into six themes: Human Rights and Their Collapse, The Rights of Global Refugees, The Right to Resist, The Rights of Nationhood, The Right to Expose: Executioners at Work and The Right to America

“Having a museum at UC Berkeley means we have amazing focus groups with students. [Students] see the future much more than we do, so [their] perspectives are key,” Spagnolo said. “It was also somewhat heartwarming to know a project entirely created and conceived at Berkeley can make it on a national stage.”

In Real Times is currently on view at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans through May 7, 2023.