The Had Gadya, a charming ten-verse Aramaic ditty based on a German ballad, is chanted at the conclusion of the Passover seder. This song has been variously interpreted both textually and visually. Its verses describe a young goat, recently purchased by a father (made personal to each individual chanter by the pronoun "my" father). The goat is consumed by a cat, and the song continues to recount a succession of assailants until God destroys the final perpetrator, ending the vicious cycle. Generally considered an allegory for the oppression and persecution of the Jewish people, the various villains have been likened to aggressor nations in Jewish history. Yet God's triumph leaves hope for Jewish survival. The poem has been frequently illustrated as part of the Haggadah-the text for the seder ritual-a work that in itself was an illustrator's favorite because of its narrative simplicity and popular appeal.
El Lissitzky's folio of eleven printed illustrations, based on his 1917 watercolors of the same subject, is unusual for its lack of association with the text of the Haggadah. The Had Gadya derives mainly from the artist's involvement with pictures for Yiddish children's books executed between 1917 and 1919. El Lissitzky uses an architectural framework incorporating imaginatively designed, folk-influenced, modernist Hebrew typography as a border for each narrative sequence. The effect is a step in the development toward his classic, architecturally based abstraction. This culminates in El Lissitzky's remarkable artistic invention, which he referred to by the acronym PROUN (from the Russian words for "project for the affirmation of the new"). These later drawings, paintings, and geometric constructions became totally nonobjective, and soon El Lissitzky relinquished specific Jewish subject matter in a successful merger of art and architecture.
Sources for El Lissitzky's illustrations can be found in Jewish popular prints, Hebrew illuminated manuscripts, and the figurative style of Russia's famous painted wooden synagogues. His art also reflects his fascination with typography, Chagall's romantic Expressionism, and Suprematist avant-garde art. This combination of sources is a logical outgrowth of El Lissitzky's education and his maturing interests during the second decade of the twentieth century.
Denied admission to a Russian art school, El Lissitzky studied architecture in Darmstadt, Germany, where he is known to have become acquainted with that city's great Jewish masterpiece, the fifteenth-century Darmstadt Haggadah. He also made frequent trips to Worms, to study the architecture of its synagogue, then the oldest in Europe. When he returned to Russia in 1914, he soon became involved with the Jewish Ethnographic Society, which financed his expeditions to explore the Jewish art and architecture along the Dnieper River. There he was particularly moved by the fascinating architecture of the wooden synagogues and their imaginative and lushly painted interiors.
Although he exhibited his works in 1916 along with the first Suprematist works of the noted Russian constructivist Malevich, El Lissitzky continued for the next several years to illustrate children's books inspired by the folk motifs he had previously helped gather. In 1919 Chagall, head of the Vitebsk School of Art in Russia, offered him the position of professor of architecture. Chagall's resignation later that year brought El Lissitzky into closer contact with Suprematism through Chagall's successor, Malevich, the movement's originator.
The creation of the Had Gadya illustrations coincides with the year of the Bolshevik victory and prompted the popular notion that El Lissitzky saw the allegorical tale of survival and the triumph of good over evil as an analogue to the success of the Russian Revolution. If intentional, this is testament to Had Gadya's universality-and its limitless potential for interpretation.