Berkeley receives local’s prestigious art collection: Political artist’s work acquired through Peninsula residents’ dedication, generosity

Irvin Ungar, of Burlingame, collected 400 completed artworks by Arthur Szyk including ‘Madness' and ‘The Scribe.'

The complete works of a prestigious Jewish artist will be preserved for the public through the dedicated collecting of a Burlingame resident and the generosity of a local philanthropist.

A comprehensive collection of art from Arthur Szyk collected by Irvin Ungar, of Burlingame, was acquired by the University of California at Berkeley through a $10.1 million gift from Tad Taube, founder of Taube Philanthropies and board president emeritus of the Koret Foundation.

Ungar said he is proud the more than 400 completed artworks and countless other pieces of personal memorabilia from the artist recognized for chronicling Jewish perspectives circa World War II will stay forever in the public domain at the school.

“To me he was heroic as an American patriot, a lover of Jewish people and an advocate for humanity at large,” said Ungar. “That is why I have devoted more than two decades to bringing Szyk to the forefront.”

After working as a rabbi at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame nearly 30 years ago, Ungar transitioned to the rare book industry where he discovered his passion for Szyk’s work focusing partially on opposition to the rise of Nazism.

He dedicated the following roughly 20 years to collecting artwork, archives, family documents and anything else available, which ultimately will be passed to the university as part of the purchase.

“I built a repository of his work as a tribute to the artist himself and his legacy,” said Ungar.

Taube, also an admirer of Szyk’s work, expressed an interest in buying the collection and passing it on to the university, where it will be preserved and shown at the school’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art.

“They will use their facilities as one of the greatest and most prestigious public schools in the nation to spread his work globally,” said Ungar.

Taube said he was proud to facilitate a donation amounting to the most significant gift to the field of Jewish studies in the school’s history.

“Arthur Szyk’s unique contributions to contemporary art and political illustration have not yet been recognized to the extent his work deserves,” Taube said in a prepared statement. “With our shared Polish Jewish heritage, and a relationship my parents developed with Szyk upon first arriving in the United States from Poland in the early 1940s, it is significant to me to ensure that Szyk’s remarkable works are available to today’s and future generations.”

Szyk moved from Poland to the United States in the 1940, where he rose to fame for creating works opposing Hitler and advocating for Jewish culture. He died in 1951, and remained in relative obscurity until Ungar’s efforts aided his increased notoriety.

“I decided a few decades ago that this artist, who was once very famous in the world the virtually forgotten, I decided I would make him famous again,” said Ungar.

His extensive efforts in studying and observing Szyk’s work have established Ungar as a foremost expert on the artist, as he has toured the world discussing the collection. Ungar wrote books on and created films on Szyk as well.

As he parts with the collection, Ungar acknowledged there are mixed emotions associated with ending a chapter on the effort to which he has dedicated so many years.

“I have thought about this for more than a decade, and I am prepared for the separation,” he said. “My mission has been to empower other people to make Szyk their own. Now at the university, the idea is that the students, scholars and graduates would have access to this art in the public.”

He admitted though there are personal challenges associated with formally passing along the collection.

“There is a great deal of satisfaction. And that overcomes the ego part of it. But you can’t totally subdue that. That is part of what drives you, and you can’t shut it off. But from a practical point of view, life is very temporary and we are only caretakers of something for so long,” said Ungar.

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