William Drenttel | Essays

El Lissitzky for Pesach

We all have images in our mind of the work of the Russian artist El Lissitzky: formal modernism, geometric constructions, typographic abstractions. This image was enlarged when I encountered the wonderful illustrations from an early book of his at Nextbook.org. As Sara Ivry notes in her commentary,"The late Tsarist and early Revolutionary years were marked by pogroms that destroyed Jewish communities throughout Russia and Ukraine. Lissitzky, then in Kiev, used a Yiddish translation of the original Aramaic verses to turn folkoric concatenation into political allegory."

It seems that Lissitzky, before he became a avant-garde Constructivist under the influence of Kazimir Malevich, was focused on graphically illustrating works of Jewish heritage, including this medieval Passover song. The story, for me personally, gets even richer -- suggesting a correction to the folklore around the bestselling American children's book by Simms Taback, There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly.

The untold story is that Lissitzky was deeply involved in a Jewish cultural renaissance in Russia in the 1912-1919 period, obsessed with folk culture, and the design and illustration of books in Yiddish. In 1916, he participated in a tour and documentation of wooden synagogues in the Ukraine. I assume some scholars have written about this phase in Lissitzky's career, but two significant monographs in my library (The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915-1932 and Margarita Tupitsyn's El Lissitzky: Beyond the Abstract Cabinet) show nothing of the period before he moved to the Popular Art Institute in Vitebsk to work with Malevich. As a graphic designer, this early Jewish work by Lissitzky is new to me.

In 1919, in the midst of the Russian civil war, Lissitzky used the Haggadah's final song, in Hebrew, as the basis for a series of lithographs for an edition of 75 books. He signed it with his Hebrew given name, Eliezer. A new facsimile edition reunites his rendition of this text: Had Gadya / The Only Kid: A Facsimile of El Lissitzky's Edition of 1919; it is edited by Arnold Band and published by the Getty Research Institute. The original book foreshadows his experimentation with language, typography and architectural forms: Nancy Perloff, in her excellent introduction, refers to it as "Cubo-Futurism."

The folk song for this Passover tale, probably derived from a late medieval German source from the 15th century, is translated as follows:

And the holy one came. Blessed be He, and slew the angel of death
That butchered the shohet
That slaughtered the ox
That drank the water
That quenched the fire
That burnt the stick
That beat the dog
That gobbled up the cat
That devoured the kid
That the father bought for two zuzim,
The only kid, the only kid.

This song, read with its natural cadence, is deeply familiar to me. I have two small children, and have often read the book by Simms Taback to them:

There was an old lady who shallowed a cow.
I don't know how she swallowed the cow.
She swallowed the cow to catch the dog.
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat.
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird.
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.
(I'd rather have ham on rye.)
(And she had a frog on the sly.)
(She did it in one try...)
I don't know why she swallowed the fly.
Perhaps she'll die.

According to Taback's book, this American folk poem, first heard in the United States in the 1940's, has roots in different versions from Georgia, Colorado, and Ohio. "It's true author remains unknown."

Like many folk tales that appear across continents and over centuries, I like the idea that a much earlier version of There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly may have inspired Lissitzky in 1919 to begin his graphic odyssey.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, History, Media

Comments [3]

Haggadahs have always been visually stimulating. Some of the most wonderful Hebrew calligraphy can be found in old - and new - Haggadot. The illustrations in some of them can also be outstanding. When I was kid I always wanted the Clay Children Haggadah (sample image) but never got my hands on one.

The Pesach song you mention Bill is amusing. When it is sung, one starts with the first line, then you do the second line followed by repeating the first line, then the third line followed by repeating the second line then followed by repeating the first line and so forth... picking up speed towards the last line is also customary. It's kind of cute, but when you are hungry and have been telling the Pesach tale for over half an hour all you want to do is eat that matzo ball soup waiting in the kitchen.

It's extremely interesting to see El Lissitzky's early semi—Constructivist letterforms. I had no idea of their existence, thanks for the post William! Soon I hope to have a copy of Had Gadya:The Only Kid in my hands.
While in Stockholm recently, Catelijne & I came across a beautiful specimen from the Hebrew Publishing Company in New York. If not closely related to the original post, this book is a mesmerizing piece of graphic design to hold in one's hands.
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

On a related note, there is a great book illustrated by Ben Shahn (published in 1954) called "The Alphabet of Creation." It is based on the mythical work, "The Zohar, The Book of Splendor," by the 13th century Spanish scholar, Moses de Leon. Shahn's illustrations accompany de Leon's magical history of the Hebrew Alphabet. Maybe this book was more ubiquitous in Jewish households during Shahn's heyday, but I had never seen it until a few years ago.
Eric Heiman

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