Arthur Szyk and The Art of the Haggadah

The first showing of all forty-eight original paintings of Szyk’s 1940 masterpiece in over sixty years
February 13–June 29, 2014

(San Francisco, CA, January 2, 2014) “I am resolved to serve my people with all my art, with all my talent, with all my knowledge.” With these words, spoken in 1934 as Hitler was ascending to power, Polish-born Jewish artist and political cartoonist Arthur Szyk (1894–1951) set out to create the most important work of his life, his illustrated Haggadah.

The haggadah (Hebrew for “the telling”) is called the great book of freedom, recounting the story of the exodus of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. This text, used during the ritual Passover meal, the seder, has been illustrated by countless artists since the Middle Ages. Over 5,000 versions have been printed since the invention of the printing press, making it the most published Jewish book in history.

But Szyk’s Haggadah was unique. Keenly aware of current events, Szyk drew striking parallels between the Jews’ plight in Egypt and the threat of a rising Nazi power. Adopting the ancient techniques of Medieval illuminated manuscripts, Szyk created a powerful visual commentary on the politics of his day and gave the world what one early reviewer for The Times of London called “among the most beautiful of books that the hand of man has produced.”  

Now, for the first time in over sixty years, all forty-eight original paintings from Szyk’s masterpiece will be on view together in The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhibition Arthur Szyk and the Art of the Haggadah. On view February 13–June 29, 2014, the exhibition features Szyk’s incredibly rendered miniatures on paper (approx. 5 ½ x 6 ½ inches each) as well as diverse examples of important historical and contemporary haggadot.

The Szyk Haggadah is a powerful and enduring testament to hope and courage,” says Lori Starr, CJM Executive Director. “Reproductions have been a mainstay in Jewish homes since the twentieth century, but they do not compare with the remarkable, original paintings. We are really thrilled to be able to share these with the public for the first time in decades.”

Szyk (pronounced “Shick”) was born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Łódź in 1894, in the part of Poland that was under Russian rule in the nineteenth century. In 1898 at age four, he started drawing portraits of guests in his parents’ home. After studying painting in Paris and visiting Palestine in 1914, he was drafted into the czar’s army in World War I but deserted. Later, he fought against the Soviets under the legendary Polish Marshall Josef Pilsudski.

For most of the 1920s and 30s Szyk lived and worked in France and Poland, moving to the United Kingdom in 1937. In 1940, he settled permanently in the United States, where he was granted American citizenship in 1948.

Szyk became a renowned graphic artist and book illustrator as early as the interwar period—his works were exhibited and published widely. However, he gained greater popularity due to his war caricatures, in which, after the outbreak of World War II, he depicted the leaders of the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) as grotesque caricatures of greed and evil. A self-described “soldier in art,” his ferocious depictions of the Axis leaders soon graced the covers of such popular periodicals as Time, Colliers, The New York Times and Chicago Sun.

This same criticality and activism made its way into the illustrations for his Hagaddah. Szyk began work on the Hagaddah in the 1930s. Recognizing the story as one of both religious and social significance, Szyk used this opportunity to warn of the dangers of inactivity and apathy in the current moment. He portrayed the ancient Hebrews as contemporary Eastern European Jews, a device to engage his audience through recognition, and the Egyptians as modern-day Germans.

Much like illuminated manuscripts of the sixteenth century, Szyk’s work employed intricate borders, calligraphy with decorated initials, and patterns to give each page vibrant life. Szyk created his beautiful paintings with watercolor and gouache, quill pen and ink. Though the overall style of the book takes its inspiration from 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.

Publishers in Poland, however, were reluctant to promote a book that drew a direct parallel between the contemporary policies of Nazi Germany and the genocidal tactics of the pharaoh in the biblical Book of Exodus. So Szyk took his paintings to London in 1937, hoping to find a publisher there. But the anti-fascism in his art unsettled British publishers as well. Influenced by pre-war appeasement efforts, they all turned him down. Szyk reluctantly painted out such overt details as a swastika armband on the Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave. Some details, like a Hitler-esque moustache on the Wicked Son, did remain.

With the help of Polish funders, Szyk eventually self-published the book. He founded Beaconsfield Press in London in 1937 for that express purpose and supervised every aspect of the book’s production. When it came out in 1940 in an original edition of 250 copies printed on calfskin vellum, it was a resounding success. The Queen of England, the White House, and numerous private homes received and praised his work as exceptional. Szyk dedicated it to King George VI of England, who received one of the first copies.

After the war, Szyk applied his talents to supporting Israel’s struggle for independence. And in the United States, Szyk’s cartoons began to target McCarthyism and racism against blacks. As a result, he ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee in early 1951. Within a few months, he died at the age of 57 of a heart attack.

In the last decade, there has been a considerable amount of renewed interest in Szyk including several documentaries, biographies and exhibitions.

Arthur Szyk and the Art of the Haggadah is organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Patron sponsorship for the exhibition is provided by The Jim Joseph Foundation and Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture. Supporting sponsorship has been provided by an anonymous donor, The Arthur Szyk Society, and BNY Mellon Wealth Management.

Major support for The Contemporary Jewish Museum's exhibitions and Jewish Peoplehood Programs comes from the Koret Foundation.

Related Programming

Irvin Ungar Tours of Arthur Szyk and the Art of the Haggadah
Sundays, Mar 9 & Apr 20 | 1pm
Sundays, Apr 27 & May 11 | 3pm
Free with Museum admission

Szyk expert and curator of The Arthur Szyk Society, Irvin Ungar, will lead special in-depth tours of the exhibition.

Freedom Illuminated: Understanding The Szyk Haggadah
Sunday, Mar 30 | 3–4:30pm
Free with Museum admission

Scholar Irvin Ungar lays the groundwork for appreciating and understanding Szyk’s Haggadah masterwork through evaluating its historical development and its carefully constructed illustrations.

The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book
Thursday, May 22 | 6:30–8pm
$25 general (includes Museum admission)

Experience the incredible story of the Sarajevo Haggadah through a stirring live musical and multimedia performance created by composer and accordionist Merima Ključo, in collaboration with artist Ruah Edelstein. Drawing on the musical traditions of Spain, Italy, Austria, and Bosnia and Herzagovina, Ključo’s composition charts the legendary journey of the illuminated manuscript across time, borders, and cultures: an exodus from medieval Spain during the Inquisition; a WWII rescue by a Muslim curator and imam; survival during the 1992 Bosnian War; and restoration at the National Museum in Sarajevo. 


Presented in partnership with the JCCSF.  The Sarajevo Haggadah performance was commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Culture’s New Jewish Culture Network.



About The Contemporary Jewish Museum

With the opening of its new building on June 8, 2008, The Contemporary Jewish Museum ushered in a new chapter in its twenty-plus year history of engaging audiences and artists in exploring contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas. The facility, designed by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, is a lively center where people of all ages and backgrounds can gather to experience art, share diverse perspectives, and engage in hands-on activities. Inspired by the Hebrew phrase “L’Chaim” (To Life), the building is a physical embodiment of The CJM’s mission to bring together tradition and innovation in an exploration of the Jewish experience in the twenty-first century.

Major support for the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhibitions and Jewish Peoplehood Programs comes from the Koret Foundation. The Museum also thanks the Jim Joseph Foundation for its major support of innovative strategies for educating and engaging audiences in Jewish learning. Additional major support is provided by an Anonymous Donor; Alyse and Nathan Mason Brill; The Covenant Foundation; Suzanne and Elliott Felson; Gaia Fund; Denise Garone and Stuart A. Kogod; The John & Marcia Goldman Foundation;  The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation; Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund; Walter and Elise Haas Fund; Institute of Museum and Library Services; the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties; Maribelle and Stephen Leavitt; Nellie and Max Levchin; the Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund; Osterweis Capital Management; Alison Gelb Pincus and Mark Pincus; The Skirball Foundation; Ruth and Alan Stein; Roselyne Chroman Swig; Target; and Anita and Ronald Wornick.

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