Last year, just in time for Pesach, the antiquarian bookseller Historicana, founded in 1987 and still run by Irvin Ungar out on the West Coast, published a new, highly detailed and quite exquisite version of The Szyk Haggadah. Illustrated by Polish-born artist Arthur Szyk, this version of the beloved text had been created in Europe as Hitler was coming to power. The new Historicana edition, as its Web site states, was made possible by the generosity of a private collector (who had a full set of the original illustrations) and the artist's daughter, Alexandra Szyk Bracie, and was limited to 300 numbered copies.
This year, Historicana has continued the tradition by publishing — once again, just in time for Passover — a companion volume titled Freedom Illuminated: Understanding the Szyk Haggadah, which is equally stunning in its production values. The work does just what its subtitle proclaims: It puts Szyk and his famous work in context by way of three essays and a sampling of illustrations, with their bold, color-packed style intact.
Szyk (pronounced Shick) was a child prodigy who was born in 1894 and died in 1951. His formal training occurred in Paris and Krakow when he was a teen, and his first exhibitions were in Paris in the 1920s. He was praised as a master of the medieval technique of manuscript illumination but he also made his name during this period as a savagely accurate political caricaturist.
The artist managed to immigrate to the United States in 1940 with the express purpose of getting America involved in the fight against fascism. According to the Web site, from the moment he arrived in the United States, his work appeared everywhere: on magazine covers, posters, in corporate advertising, newspapers and books. He also had one-person shows in some of New York's finest galleries and even had one here at the Art Alliance.
As the Web site puts it: The artist's "life was devoted to creating visual art that often exposed the cruelty of injustice and dramatized the struggle for freedom and human dignity."
There could be no better description of the point behind the Haggadah; it applies as well to Freedom Illuminated. The three essays expound on this theme from various points of view: Tom L. Freudenheim considers the influences on Szyk's illustrations (both low and high art, and even the theatrical designs and costumes he saw in Paris); Shalom Sabar looks at the context in which this special work was created; and Ungar chronicles how it fared in the world from the time of its conception in the 1920s, its execution in the '30s and its publication in 1940.
As Ungar points out in his piece: "It is no wonder that the Passover narrative had heightened attraction for Szyk, embracing all the themes that were ripe for his attention: tyranny, oppression, persecution, resistance, freedom, justice, heroism, and the celebration of being a Jew. Second only to Szyk's passion for art in the service of humankind was his passion for history. It was, therefore, a self-imposed imperative for Szyk to document, from the very beginning of his career as an artist, historical events that focused on tyranny and oppression, which had stripped the Jew of his integrity, and robbed him of his freedom.
"As early as 1923, in Paris, Szyk painted a triptych 'Ad Majorem Dei Glorium' … reflecting Jewish humiliation and suffering: the destruction and sacking of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70, the Spanish Expulsion of 1492, and the Russian pogroms of the early 20th century. For Szyk, the re-creation of these events through the painting of these images must have been personally quite painful, but necessary — necessary to remind the Jew and the world, precisely of what the Jewish persona is not, and should not be — a victim. In Szyk's world, there must be only heroism; the Jew must rise to meet his adversaries head on and fight the eternal Amalek."