El Lissitzky, best known as an avant-garde artist, created an enchanting illustrated version of the Jewish Passover song "Had Gadya" early in his career while immersed in the Jewish cultural renaissance that flourished in Russia from roughly 1912 to the early 1920s. The Getty Research Institute has now published a facsimile of this beautiful book.
"Had Gadya," or "The Only Kid," was originally a children's song. In each verse, the song introduces a new character who destroys the character from the previous verse, beginning with the kid—a young goat, in this case, though one is never sure, of course—until, at the end, God slays the Angel of Death to end the cycle of violence. The song was introduced in the Passover festival in the 15th century, probably because the story could easily be read as a parable for the hardships of Jewish folk in their consecutive exiles in Babylon and Egypt.
El Lissitzky, who had been researching Jewish folk art in Belarus and Ukraine, and who took an active interest in the affirmation of a Jewish identity, illustrated the song and had 75 copies printed, three of which are still intact with the original dust wrapper.
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The illustrations clearly show how Lissitzky made the transition from a Chagall-like 2D and very imaginative figurative style to the geometrical abstraction of his later works. There are influences from futurism and Malevitch's suprematism in these colorful and bold lithographs, but the most striking feature is the way Lissitzky uses type—the text is actually in a mixture of Aramaic and Yiddish but written in Hebrew characters—as a constructive and illustrative element.
In the short introduction, Nancy Perloff situates the book in Lissitzky's oeuvre and in the Russian context of the early 20th century and discusses the iconography. For those who want to get the full idea, the music of the song is included as well. [End Page 262]