Arthur Szyk’s Haggadah at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Dave and I visited the Contemporary Jewish Museum last week, mainly to see the Arthur Szyk exhibit. Dave knew Szyk’s work as a political and satirical artist, but this is something different, an exhibit of the original artwork for Szyk’s illustrated Haggadah, which he drew mostly in the 1930s.

Both Dave and I made the mistake of starting to our left and heading clockwise around the gallery. I was over a third of the way around, and Dave was ahead of me, by the time I realized we were looking at the illustrations in the wrong order. Whoops.

The illustrations are stunning, rich and detailed, with lots of touches of grandeur, pathos, whimsy, and political commentary, sometimes all in the same illustration. You can find many of the illustrations online (for example, at, but the electronic versions don’t come close to capturing the richness of the colors and the fine details in the pen work.

Szyk Haggadah - four sons

Here’s one that made me laugh. It’s an illustration of the four types of sons. Reading right to left (this is in Hebrew, remember), top to bottom, they are the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the son who doesn’t know how to ask. What made me laugh right away is that the wicked son is portrayed as fat and wealthy, a self-satisfied b├╝rger with a mustache somewhat reminiscent of Hitler’s. (Probably intentionally — see the next paragraph.) But on a further look, it’s also pretty funny that the most attractive and interesting of the four isn’t the wise son — who looks a bit of a prig, to me at least — but the son who doesn’t know how to ask. Am I just projecting my own issues onto the painting, or was Szyk most sympathetic to the fourth son?

Dave noticed that there is a thin cut all around the rectangle containing the illustration of the wicked son. It looks as though Szyk changed his mind and decided to replace that illustration after he’d done all four, so he carefully cut out the rectangle, pasted a new piece of paper behind the hole, and drew a new character. Based on the other materials on display, there seems to be a strong possibility that Szyk’s first version of the wicked son was much more suggestive of Hitler.

The exhibit held an added bit of poignance for me, if poignance is the right word, in that I am descended from Jews who, like Szyk, fled Europe to get away from the Nazis. Yet I didn’t learn about this family history till middle age, so it doesn’t really feel like part of my personal heritage, doesn’t have much emotional resonance for me. I feel kind of sad that I don’t feel more of a personal connection, but there you go, that’s who I am, always seeming to have one foot in this realm and the other in that one, never quite belonging to any.

I did tear up, though, when I came to Szyk’s page of dedication to the Jews in Germany. A lot of my ancestors were included in that dedication, and only a handful of that side of the family ever got out. Something that I only learned about fairly late in life, and that still startles me a little to remember.

Dave and I want to refresh our dim memories of the Haggadah and then head back to see the exhibit one more time.

Thought While Reading Some Literary Criticism

Show me an artist who never repeated him- or herself and I’ll show you an artist who died very young. You can’t hang around long enough to complete more than two or three major works without starting to reuse some of your favorite techniques and devices.

The way out isn’t to dismiss artists who have given you great pleasure but whose patterns you’ve started to catch on to, it’s to stop judging your old friends for having allowed you to know them too well.

And How About Ansel Adams and All Those “Trees”, Eh?

From a review in the Washington Post about an exhibit of Allen Ginsberg’s photographs, at the National Gallery (emphasis mine):

The early photographs were obviously part of his [Ginsberg’s] energetic self-mythologizing of the Beats, especially those he took of Jack Kerouac, for whom Ginsberg’s torch always blazed with embarrassing brightness.

I could be wrong about this, but it seems to me that when the artist is male and his model is female, it is the usual thing for a critic to rhapsodize about how the artist’s intense passion for his subject has expressed itself in the use of sensuous lighting that plays erotically over the curved surfaces blah blah blah. In our finest museums hang plenty of paintings and photographs of fully nude women, painted or photographed in all kinds of provocative poses, and no critic would dream of describing them in print as “embarrassing”, for fear of getting laughed out of the Critics’ Club. We critics, you know, we are above all that crass provincialism and puritanism.

Hell, when a photographer or painter gives this kind of treatment to freaking flowers or vegetables, the critics ooh and aah in their reviews and commentaries, reveling in the sensuality and usually including somewhere a gratuitous passing sneer at anyone who might find the works shocking. You’ll never read a critic saying that there is something “embarrassing” about the way the artist’s erotic feelings toward bell peppers blaze forth in his works, or complaining about how she is “mythologizing” orchids.

But a man taking a photograph that expresses his erotic feelings for another man (and a man who was damn handsome to begin with, at that) — now that’s embarrassing.

Miguel Covarrubias

Admiral Richard E. Byrd by Miguel CovarrubiasOn one wall at the de Young is a large mural showing the varied animal life in the Pacific Ocean and surrounding areas. I couldn’t recall ever having heard of the artist before, and I didn’t think the mural was anything all that special, but Dave raved about the artist — Miguel Covarrubias — and said the mural wasn’t typical of his best work.

Today Dave sent me a link to a site that has more information about Covarrubias and pictures of some of his artwork, and my God, Dave was right, the guy was brilliant. This one here is a caricature of Admiral Richard E. Byrd, done for the December 1934 issue of Vanity Fair.

The Gold Scab

Dave and I were at the de Young Museum on Sunday afternoon. I haven’t been there more than once or twice in my life, and probably not in well over a decade; Dave, on the other hand, has been there many times throughout his life (he grew up in the Bay Area), and he’s familiar with a lot of the collection.

I could only vaguely remember anything in the museum, and it was a bit of a shock to me to come across an oil painting by Whistler that I didn’t remember ever seeing before and couldn’t remember knowing anything about, The Gold Scab. But when I pointed it out to Dave, it turned out the painting was an old acquaintance for him.

I was surprised at myself for not knowing about this painting. Whistler is one of my favorite painters, and his Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C., is one of my favorite places. Whistler painted the room for his patron Frederick Leyland, but as the work progressed, the two men quarreled increasingly bitterly over it, and over how much Leyland should pay Whistler for it. Even after they’d finally agreed on a fee, Leyland shaved shillings off it as a deliberate insult. They never reconciled after that.

Arrangement in Black: Portrait of F. R. Leyland, by James Whistler The banner at the top of this blog is adapted from the mural Whistler painted on one wall of the room. The peacock on the left represents Whistler himself, and it is fleering at the peacock on the right, who represents Leyland. Leyland’s peacock has silver shillings in among its gold breast feathers, has silver shillings in place of eyes in its tail feathers, and is standing on a pile of gold coins and silver shillings. (The whole wild story is both sad and funny, and the loss of Leyland’s patronage was a self-inflicted blow to Whistler’s finances that he never recovered from.)

As I said, I couldn’t remember having even heard of The Gold Scab before, though I checked my books when I got back home and it’s definitely mentioned; I’d just forgotten it. But I immediately recognized the painting as a cruel caricature of Leyland — the fact that he looks like a man in a peacock suit decorated with gold coins is an obvious giveaway to anyone who knows the story of the Peacock Room, and I remembered what the man looked like from Whistler’s full-length portrait of him. Evidently Whistler wasn’t content with having painted his contempt for Leyland on the man’s own dining room wall, but had to produce an additional three oil paintings mocking him, of which only this one is known to have survived.

Benjamin Britten and Frida Kahlo

Dave and I went to hear Britten’s War Requiem at Davies Hall on Friday night. I had suggested it just because a friend in the chorus had told me about it, but we were delighted to discover on buying the tickets that Marcelle Dronkers would be the soprano soloist. Marcelle is one of my favorite performers, who I’ve enjoyed tremendously in many roles; I think the first time I saw her was with Richard Goodman in Don Pasquale maybe 20 years ago, and it is to this day the only performance of that opera I have ever seen which worked for me, thanks largely to Marcelle and Richard’s lively performances in commedia dell’arte style.

I hadn’t heard the War Requiem before, nor had I read much of the poetry of Wilfred Owen, whose poems Britten used along with the Latin text of the requiem mass. Some of the requiem seemed dry and cerebral to me, as though Britten were keeping the emotions at arms’ length, but other parts were devastating and just about brought me to tears. I’m looking forward to listening to a couple of recordings and getting to know it better.

On Sunday afternoon we went to the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. I’d won a pair of tickets to the exhibit from We showed up around 2:15 pm and received tickets to enter at 4:00, so we looked at the other exhibits till then.

Very interesting to see so many Kahlo paintings at one time. I hadn’t realized before this how much she used symbols in her paintings rather in the manner of Renaissance painters. I also hadn’t realized what an intense and even sometimes frightening a woman she must have been — without knowing anything about her life than what I picked up yesterday afternoon from her paintings and the bits of biography on the walls, I’d make a somewhat wild guess that she may have been prone to histrionic personality disorder. Some aspects of the paintings seem very sophisticated to me — the mixing of styles in the same painting, for example, with elements of cubism and surrealism and Renaissance style all working together to create something that feels simple and whole — but then there’s a lot of what looks to me like childishness in her paintings, too.

I’d seen reproductions of the painting of herself with four parrots, but I had not noticed before that the two parrots on her shoulders are painted to look three-dimensional, while the two in front are painted to look flat, almost as though they were printed on her blouse. On looking closer, it seems to me that the two in front must certainly be the same birds as the two on her shoulders; too many of the markings are the same, and sometimes in subtle ways, for this not to be intentional. Why does each parrot appear twice? Was her intention that each parrot was not only a companion on her shoulder, but a part of her? In any case, it’s a more interesting and more touching painting than I’d realized from just seeing it in small reproductions.

One of the most striking paintings was one that I’d never seen before, about the suicide of someone she’d known who had thrown herself out the window of her tall apartment building. The woman is shown three times: at the start of her fall just outside the window; on the ground, broken and bleeding yet looking beautiful and peaceful; and in the middle of the frame, falling through blue sky and white clouds in a manner that makes her look almost like a graceful bird swooping down, and that suggests to me the sort of visual language that a Renaissance painter would use to show somebody ascending to heaven. Once that thought occurred to me, the whole middle image became ambiguous — is it of the woman falling toward her death, or of her spirit set free and soaring after she has fallen?

I bought the handsome catalog of the exhibit in the gift shop on the way out as a souvenir.