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Jewish Culture & IdeasJewish History

Arthur Szyk and the Art of the Haggadah

Feb 13, 2014–Jun 29, 2014

The haggadah, the ritual text for the Passover seder, evokes the story of the exodus of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. While myriad haggadot have been created from the tenth century to the present, the exhibition highlights the unique and powerful story of The Szyk Haggadah (1940). Arthur Szyk (1894–1951), a Polish Jew keenly aware of current events, fused his two passions—art and history—into a visual commentary on the dangerous parallel between the Passover narrative and the alarming developments unfolding in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

about the exhibition

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.”  

The exhibition includes all forty-eight original illustrations of Szyk’s masterpiece that has become a mainstay in Jewish homes, on view together for the first time in over sixty years. Historical illuminated haggadot from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as contemporary versions, are also featured. 

image gallery

Arthur Szyk (1894–1951) 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. 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.


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 & Culture. Supporting sponsorship has been provided by The Arthur Szyk Society and BNY Mellon Wealth Management.
The Contemporary Jewish Museum is supported by the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. Major support for The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhibitions and Jewish Peoplehood Programs comes from the Koret Foundation.

Image Credit

Arthur Szyk, The Four Questions (detail), 1935. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 7 ½ x 5 ½ in. Courtesy of The Robbins Family Collection. Copyright © The Arthur Szyk Society, Burlingame, CA.