Ben (Benjamin) Shahn is best known for his social realist paintings in the 1930′s and 40′s, but he also produced some of the most exciting contemporary Judaica in the United States.
In the 1950′s, he illustrated a book called The Alphabet of Creation, pictured below. (You can still buy a later edition of the book.) His lettering for the cover influenced my classic Hebrew alphabet poster (along with Lawrence Kushner’s Book of Letters); it also became his signature. A stamp of the miniature alphabet appears in the corner of many of his works after 1960. You can see it in red on the lower right corner of this ketubah he designed, which is now in the permanent collection of the New York Jewish Museum:
In the 60′s, he published Love and Joy About Letters, a book which features more of his hand lettering. His training in lithography and graphic design really shines through in his later works.
Interestingly, Shahn made many of the illustrations that would later appear in his Haggadah in the 1930′s. His watercolors were finally published in the 60′s, along with loads of gorgeous hand lettering and 10 drawings for the song Chad Gadya. His Haggadah is a personal volume, evoking his memories of Passover with his father.
Shahn had so much lefty street cred that he was named checked by Woody Allen in Annie Hall (see the :45 mark). But his body of work is multi-dimensional, irreducible. He straddled commercial and fine art, and tackled a broad range of secular and religious subjects. It’s always interesting to see what an artist with such breadth creates as personal work.
A beautiful set of Hebrew alpha-bet cuisenaire rods, one of the earlier examples of the Frank-Rühl letters (published by Rudolph Schick & Co., Belfast, Ireland around 1920).
Designed by Dr. Mojzis Woskin-Nahartabi – a mysterious character and a man of many skills. Woskin-Nahartabi was a Rabbi, a scientist, a Zionist, an orientalist, a theologian and a teacher of languages (he spoke fluent Hebrew, Aramaic, Sumerian and Arabic). During the second world war, he taught children Hebrew in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, until he was sent to Auschwitz – there he was murdered by the Nazis in 1944.
This exceptional “Shiviti” sample, was painted in 1852 by Abraham Ben Zundel, who was an immigrant from the Greek island Corfu arriving to Moravia (a region in today’s Czech Republic).
It is characterized by it’s naïve Sephardi typographic style (unlike the acceptable Ashkenazi-style of that time that was common in that area), decorative additions (flowers, leaves, stars and even fish) and a composition derived from the Kabbalistic visual lexicon.
At the bottom, Ben Zundel encloses an inscription to the local Rabbi (who probably ordered the job), and spares no praise: “In honor of the famous genuine genius and sharp rabbi, teacher of the Torah to Israel, Moharar Avraham Neida… his light will shine as the sun in the east”.
All have been said already about David Tartakover’s new book, “Tartakover”: “The most accurate definition of the phrase “Israeli design”, “Controversial work, at parts outrageous” (It’s not the poster, it’s the reality that is outrageous…); “A punch to the stomach, not a stroke to the eyes”, “Tartakover is who we are”, etc.
It seems as if the controversies conceal two very important aspects of his work, that in my opinion should be taught in the different design schools: his phenomenal ability to combine image and text, and his rear talent in editing.
I don’t know any other Israeli poster designer who managed to create a combination that is not prettified and fake (therefore “creative”), but simple and direct in its honesty – between a ready made image and the right word in a new, surprising context.
The success of this book lies in the precise editing. There are only a few editors who can create a strong narrative through a design book, fewer are those who can edit… themselves. Mere images- from the “sweet” images of “A wonderful country” and “A different country”, through the peace posters, the “Peace now” logo, the occupation posters and the Gilad Shalit poster (“What else will you ask from us, homeland”) – Tartakover creates a precise and tight narrative, as if he was a well experienced director, and he concludes with text, for the Tarta fans.
A rare writing example from east Bohemia, painted by Judah Goldschmied at the end of the 18th century, taken from the collections of the Jewish Museum in Prague.
Olga Sixtová, curator of manuscripts and printing in the museum, adds: “This is a typical notice for that time, announcing the election results for the Jewish community’s Gabbay position. According to this notice, Yoseph Beran was elected for this position for a term of one year. The exact date was torn from the notice over the years, but it is common to relate it to around 1795”.
This example contains both heavy headline letters in an improvised Ashkenazi-style, as well as a curly cursive writing,in which the letters often attach in surprising ligatures, inspired by the Latin cursive writing.
Fonts have rights too: In the article of design reporter Yuval Saar, Ha’aretz newspaper published that the Jerusalem District Court ruled this week that the sole copyrights of “Hadassah” font, belong to Hanna Tal, daughter of the font designer, Henry Friedlander. Tal filed a public compensation suit two years ago under the amount of 4.5 million NIS against font company Masterfont, claiming it traded Hadassah for years without her consent.
The album covers blog “cover, story” chooses its best album covers of the year. You may not agree with all of the picks, but it sure is fun.
A spectacular page dedicated to the Hebrew alphabet (including the numerological value of each letter), from Liber Artificiosus Alphabeti Maioris – The first (and only) edition of the detailed Calligraphy textbook designed by Johann Merken and engraved by the artist Heinrich Coentgen- both non- Jews in Mülheim, Germany. Apart from varied alphabets, the book also includes recipes for making different inks, magnificent ornaments and examples of geometrical shapes, emblems, silhouettes and more.