Exhibition Preview: The Art of the Haggadah and Arthur Szyk

Arthur Szyk, The Four Questions, 1936. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 7 1/2 x 5 1/2 in.
Courtesy the Robbins Family Collection, Palo Alto, CA. Copyright © The Arthur Szyk Society.

The haggadah—the text used during the ritual Passover meal, the seder—is the most published and read Jewish book in the history of printing; over 5,000 versions of the haggadah have been printed since the invention of the printing press at the end of the fifteenth century. Each version offers a unique presentation and interpretation of the Passover story that often reflects the time and community for which it was published.

The word Passover has many different translations and interpretations. The English word is a translation of the Hebrew pesach, a term for a festival that references both the biblical moment that God “passed over” the homes of the Israelites, sparing their first-born sons, at the time of the tenth plague in Egypt; and the paschal (spring) lamb that was sacrificed and whose blood was smeared on the doorposts of the Israelites homes, in exchange for the lives of the young male children. Pesach has also been translated to mean “fluent speech,” or peh sach in Hebrew. Haggadah is a Hebrew word for “telling.” The telling of the Passover story and the Israelites' exodus from Egypt is one of the most celebrated traditions and holidays for Jews the world over.

In the 1930s, artist and political cartoonist Arthur Szyk (1894-1951, pronounced “Shick”) began work on his illustrated haggadah. Equally engaged with art and history, Szyk’s haggadah draws striking parallels between the ancient Passover narrative and the contemporary developments in Nazi Germany. Szyk was born and raised in Łódź, Poland to an upper class family, allowing him to pursue his artistic interest and talent by studying in Paris and then Kraków in the 1910s. From the beginning of his career, Szyk produced work deeply engaged in the shifting politics at home and across Europe as anti-Semitism and Adolf Hitler’s power continued to catch hold. Attracted to the art of Medieval illuminated manuscripts and the powerful ability to disseminate knowledge through printed materials, Szyk worked primarily as a political cartoonist and book illustrator, illuminating such stories as the Book of Esther (Le livre d’Esther, 1925) and a collection of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen (Andersen’s Fairy Tales, 1945), in addition to the Haggadah (1940).

Arthur Szyk, God's Promise, 1936. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 6 5/8 x 5 5/8 in.
Copyright © The Arthur Szyk Society.

Szyk’s most well known works are the political cartoons that he published throughout the years of the Second World War in such popular periodicals as Time, Collier’s, The New York Times, and Chicago Sun. A tireless crusader against the growing Axis nations of Germany, Italy, and Japan, Szyk created a number of propagandist cartoons depicting Axis leaders as grotesque caricatures of greed and filth. One such cartoon shows American workers in the war effort preparing for battle as a snake adorned with swastikas wraps itself around the pillars of freedom. This same criticality made its way into the illustrations produced to tell the story of Passover in Szyk's illuminated Haggadah.

The Szyk Haggadah is remarkable for the seamlessness in which the artist correlates the threats of a rising Nazi power with the Jews’ plight in Egypt. Recognizing the story as one of both religious and social significance, Szyk used this opportunity to warn his audience of the dangers of inactivity and apathy in the current moment of tyranny. The characters that perform the Jewish rituals in Szyk’s book are represented as contemporary Eastern European Jews as a device to engage his audience through recognition. Though the overall style of the book mimics traditional medieval illuminated manuscripts, Szyk made overt reference to later Renaissance and Baroque artworks as well. In one such illustration of the Rabbis at B’nai B’rak—a scene in which the scholars discuss the exodus from Egypt throughout the course of an entire night—Szyk’s composition of the seated men is reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous fresco of The Last Supper, a representation of a seder itself.

During Szyk's lifetime, the Queen of England, the White House, and numerous private homes received and praised his work as exceptional. His Haggadah was always his passion allowing him to express his views as a Polish Jew and activist in a single comprehensive declaration.

With all the intricate complexities and masterful illustrations, this is the first presentation of all forty-eight original paintings for the Haggadah to be shown in over sixty years.

Lily Siegel is Associate Curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum.


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