Visu­al Arts

Free­dom Illu­mi­nat­ed: Under­stand­ing The Szyk Haggadah

Byron L. Sher­win and Irvin Ungar, eds.
  • Review
By – January 9, 2012

I am resolved to serve my peo­ple with all my art, with all my tal­ent, with all my knowl­edge.” These words, spo­ken by Pol­ish-Amer­i­can artist Arthur Szyk in 1934 as Hitler was ris­ing to pow­er, define Szyk’s life work and the most impor­tant work of his life, his illus­trat­ed Hag­gadah

The Hag­gadah, on which Szyk lav­ished years of work, was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in a lim­it­ed col­lec­tors’ edi­tion in Eng­land in 1940 as bombs were rain­ing over the coun­try; pop­u­lar edi­tions were pub­lished in the 1950’s and 1960’s. In 2006, Irvin Ungar, a rare book deal­er who had long admired Szyk’s work, pub­lished a new lim­it­ed col­lec­tors’ edi­tion repro­duced from the 48 orig­i­nal water­col­ors and accom­pa­nied by Free­dom Illu­mi­nat­ed, a com­pan­ion volume. 

With schol­ar­ly essays on Szyk and his art, the sto­ry of Szyk’s Hag­gadah and the tra­di­tion of illus­trat­ed hag­gadot, and the full Szyk Hag­gadah with notes on the art of each page, as well as infor­ma­tion on Szyk’s oth­er work, Free­dom Illu­mi­nat­ed gives a full pic­ture of Szyk and his career as artist/​illustrator. His high­ly indi­vid­ual style, rich with medieval tech­nique and fierce con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal over­tones, cov­ered a wide range: His art cel­e­brat­ed the found­ing of the Jew­ish state and the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence; he illus­trat­ed Andersen’s Fairy Tales and cre­at­ed cov­ers for pop­u­lar magazines. 

Born in Lodz, Poland, in 1894, Szyk died in the Unit­ed States in 1951. Free­dom Illu­mi­nat­ed is an appre­ci­a­tion not only of the Szyk Hag­gadah but also of an artis­tic career ded­i­cat­ed to a pur­pose. Szyk’s work is informed through­out by his ardent Jew­ish nation­al­ism and love for the Jew­ish home­land and above all by his pas­sion­ate advo­ca­cy of human dig­ni­ty and free­dom. Although lit­tle known today, Szyk’s work deserves seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion as an emblem of free­dom dur­ing a time of threat­en­ing pow­er and as a high­ly per­son­al amal­gam of artis­tic tra­di­tions. Lim­it­ed num­bered edi­tion of 400 copies bound in red linen with a match­ing slip­case. Appen­dix­es, chronol­o­gy, con­trib­u­tors’ list, illus­tra­tions, notes.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions