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Had Gadya (One Little Goat)

El Lissitzky (Lazar Eliezer Lissitzky, known as ; Potchinok, Smolensk Oblast, 1890 – Moscou, 1941)

Kiev, Kooperativer farlag Kultur-Lige, 1919

Eleven etchings on zinc on paper, 26.5 x 24 cm each

Acquired with the aid of the Fonds régional d’acquisition des musées d’Île-de-France and Claire Maratier.

El Lissitzky, Had Gadia

El Lissitzky (Lazar Eliezer Lissitzky, dit ; Potchinok, 1890 – Moscou, 1941), Had Gadya, Kiev, 1919

El Lissitzky was born in Vitebsk in 1890, studied in Germany at the Darmstadt Technische Hochschule then returned to Russia in 1914. With other artists interested in traditional Jewish culture such as Issashar Ber Ryback (1897-1935), he went on expeditions led by the writer S. Ansky (Shloyme Zanvl Rapoport, 1863-1920) for the Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society of Saint Petersburg. These expeditions to the “Pale of Settlement”, where most of the Jews in the Russian Empire were forced to reside, inspired him and revitalised his formal vocabulary.

Had Gadya (“little goat” or “kid” in Yiddish) is the traditional song in Aramean of the Haggadah (the account of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt). It is sung at the end of the Passover Seder, the ritual family meal marking the beginning of Passover. It seems to have appeared in ritual in the 13th or 14th century in France – its most ancient trace being a Provençal manuscript in the National Library of Israel – before spreading to all Ashkenazi and then Sephardic communities. The kid, eaten by a cat, which is then devoured by a dog and so on, symbolises the oppressed Jewish people, and the song’s ten verses recount a sequence of calamities which only divine intervention can reverse. That Lissitzky chose to illustrate this song, which ultimately poses the existence of a supreme justice – independently of the rest of the Haggadah – suggests that Had Gadya can be interpreted as a parable of the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution, which freed Jews from the oppression of which they had been eternally victim.

Had Gadya’s repetitive form, typical of children’s songs, confirms the educational purpose of the seder for the youngest children, who have to stay awake throughout the evening. And to be understood even by infants, it has often been translated: there are versions in Yiddish (Had Gadyo) and in Judeo-Spanish (El cavritico).

El Lissitzky’s etchings illustrate the balance he sought to achieve between popular tradition and modernism. Stylistically, his angular graphics and areas of flat colour show the influence of Cubism, while his discovery of the formal potential of Hebrew script highlight his path towards Constructivism and herald the revolutionary typographer he would become.

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