MOCRA’s showing of Archie Granot’s Papercut Haggadah in Spring 2012 proved to be a highly popular exhibition, one that elicited deep appreciation for Granot’s technical virtuosity and sense of design, as well as his skillful manner of reinterpreting a classic religious text for a contemporary audience. One of our disappointments was that we could not arrange to bring Archie to MOCRA during the run of the exhibition.
Fortunately, in early May MOCRA Director Terrence Dempsey, SJ, and I had the opportunity to sit down with collector Max Thurm (who with his wife Sandra commissioned The Papercut Haggadah) in the studios of WFUV (90.7 FM) at Fordham University in the Bronx, NY. Archie joined us on the phone from his home in Jerusalem. For the next hour or so we enjoyed a wide ranging conversation covering topics such as how Archie was drawn to the art of papercutting, how the commission came about, the special considerations engaged in creating an artwork based on a sacred text, and continuity and innovation in the Jewish tradition. The rapport between Archie and Max was evident from the get-go, and their exchanges open a window on the fascinating process of collaboration between artist and patron.
I came into preparations for The Papercut Haggadah with a passing familiarity with Passover and the elements of the Seder, but no idea of the richness of the tradition of the Haggadah or its development both as a body of texts and rituals, and as a written or printed artifact.
One of the benefits of being a university museum is having access to varied and valuable resources on campus. Here at Saint Louis University, one of our great treasures is the SLU Libraries Department of Special Collections, and in particular the Vatican Film Library, a research collection for the study of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and the texts they contain. It is formed around a core collection of more than 37,000 microfilmed manuscripts from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, ranging in date from the fourth century AD through the seventeenth century and covering a broad spectrum of subjects. In addition to the microfilm, the collection includes many actual manuscripts as well as reproductions and reference materials.
We turned to the friendly and helpful staff of the Special Collections division to see if they had any historical examples of Haggadot that we could look at for reference. The response was exceptional. Not only were we able to see samples of pages from illuminated and printed Haggadot, we were able to make arrangements to borrow a number of volumes to include in the exhibition, so that all of our visitors could see these historical antecedents as well. We selected items that relate to aspects of Archie Granot’s project, such as the textual passages illuminated, or similar design elements.
For instance, we had noticed in Granot’s papercuts that certain Hebrew letters were frequently elongated or otherwise distorted. It soon became evident that this was not an arbitrary artistic choice, but a practice rooted in centuries of handwritten Torah scrolls, allowing scribes to create perfectly justified columns of text.
The most notable object we have on loan is a magnificent facsimile of a 15th-century illuminated manuscript called the Rothschild Miscellany.
The original volume was commissioned by Moses ben Yekuthiel Hakohen during a period when Italian Jews experienced exceptional scholarly and artistic activity as well as social mobility. The most elegantly and lavishly executed Hebrew manuscript of that era, it is comprised of more than 37 religious and secular works. Among the religious books are Psalms, Proverbs, and Job, and a yearly prayer book including the Passover Haggadah, while the secular books include philosophical, moralistic, and scientific treatises. The text throughout the manuscript is accompanied by marginal notes and commentaries. Of 948 pages, 816 are decorated in vibrant colors, gold and silver.
This painstakingly produced facsimile is open to the beginning section of the Haggadah. It is common in historical Haggadot to find depictions of the actions or rituals prescribed in the text. The illustrations on the righthand page depict preparations preceding Passover, including brushing up crumbs of leaven with a feather, burning the leftover leaven, and baking matzah. Granot references this practice in one of the pages of The Papercut Haggadah.
We are grateful to the staff of Saint Louis University Libraries Special Collections for their kind assistance and enriching the experience of our visitors.
I was asked recently why MOCRA is showing Archie Granot’s Papercut Haggadah for our next exhibition. That’s not an uncommon question for us to field, and it can sometimes be tricky identifying just what constitutes art that engages the religious and spiritual dimensions. However, that’s not the case this time around.
The Papercut Haggadah is a fine example of work by a contemporary visual artist who is in dialogue with the great faith traditions but who also brings contemporary concerns and modes of expression to bear on those traditions. In this case, Granot is exploring the sacred text and ritual of the Haggadah through a traditional medium often associated with folk art — papercutting. But he expands the conventional book format of the Haggadah into individual pages highlighting particular passages from the text, and in contrast to the illustrational art often found in Haggadot, he employs his own vocabulary of geometric forms and subtle references to Israel and Judaica. In so doing, he shows the vitality both of the Jewish tradition and of contemporary artistic expressions of faith.
This exhibition also helps further our aim of being a center for interfaith understanding and dialogue. The Jewish community plays an important role in the social fabric of St. Louis, and we hope that The Papercut Haggadah will provide an opportunity for members of the local Jewish community to explore their own tradition, and at the same time open a window into the celebration of Passover for people of other faith traditions.
MOCRA’s next exhibition is titled Archie Granot: The Papercut Haggadah. Israeli artist Archie Granot was commissioned to present the story and rituals of the Passover Seder in the traditional medium of papercutting. The resulting 55 pages employ intricate geometric and abstract shapes and calligraphic text to create an exquisite, unique version of the Haggadah.
A free public opening reception will be held on Sunday, February 26, 2012, from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. Collectors Sandra and Max Thurm, who commissioned the work, will be in attendance. The exhibition will be on display at MOCRA through May 20, 2012.
Click here to visit the exhibition page on MOCRA’s website, or continue reading to learn more about the show.
About the exhibition
Haggadah (הַגָּדָה) is Hebrew for “telling,” namely, the telling of the Exodus story at the Seder service during the Jewish festival of Pesach, or Passover. The term also signifies a book that contains the ritual guide to the Seder, along with scripture passages, commentary, prayers, and songs. For centuries the Haggadah has been one of the most celebrated items of Jewish literature and art, and there are many examples of both handwritten and printed Haggadot with intricate illustrations. In each generation artists continue the tradition of reinterpreting the Haggadah for contemporary believers.
Commissioned by Sandra and Max Thurm, Archie Granot’s Papercut Haggadah was handcrafted using the Jewish folk art tradition of papercutting. The result is a series of 55 pages that employ intricate geometric and abstract shapes and calligraphic text to create an exquisite version of the Haggadah.
Granot evokes the intense emotions attached with the Passover Seder by utilizing geometric and abstract shapes instead of the usual symbols. Every word of Hebrew text in his Haggadah is handcut, with each page standing as both an independent work of art and a single piece of a beautiful, thematically unified whole. Each page of his multi-layered paper pieces (some nearly an inch thick) tackles a certain aspect or song associated with the Seder, such as “Ma Nishtanah” (מה נשתנה, The Four Questions), or “Pesach, Matzah, Maror” (פֶּסַח, The Passover Offering; מַצָּה, the Unleavened Bread; and מָרוֹר, the Bitter Herb), which incorporates shapes that evoke the traditional matzah.
About the artist
Archie Granot was born in London in 1946 and moved to Israel in 1967. Prior to settling in Jerusalem in 1978, he was a member of an agricultural community where he milked cows and grew melons. He earned a M.Phil. in Russian Studies from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, and a B.A. in Political Science and Russian Studies from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Granot started papercutting in 1979, and maintains a studio and gallery in Jerusalem. Many of his papercuts carry a reminder of the Holy City, a source of his inspiration, and he often employs texts that relate to Israel, Judaism, and Judaica. Granot has had solo exhibitions in the United States, Israel, and Germany, and has participated in group exhibitions in France and Japan. His works are found in public collections in Israel, Germany, England, and the United States, as well as numerous private collections.