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 szyk.com), but the electronic versions don’t come close to capturing the richness of the colors and the fine details in the pen work.
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 bürger 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.