Reflections from the Jaffe Center: Wednesdays with Arthur #8

April 3, 2019

I was just watching a News Hour special on Antarctic penguins in which a guy insisted that counting penguins is the best job in the world.  Today I could give him a run for his money – showing the brilliant David Moss Haggadah to my dear rabbi, and then looking at the Cranach Press Hamlet with her high-school-senior son – mine has to be the best job.

As we are approaching Passover, let’s start with the Haggadah, The Song of David, one of 550 specially printed facsimile copies of the original, which was commissioned by a Floridian.  I like this quotation from the Web: “In October, 1988, the most definitive exhibit on the Hebrew book ever assembled opened at the New York Public Library. Of the thirteen most important and beautiful Haggadah manuscripts shown only one was created after 1717: The original Moss Haggadah.”

The Haggadah, The Song of David, by David Moss

The book is simply breathtakingly beautiful. We all loved the delicate micrography, the astonishing lacy cut-outs, the gang of tiny detailed characters marching out of Egypt, and the rich colors and gilding. Helen’s and my favorite pages are the ones with tiny mirrors in which you can actually participate in the memory of the Jews’ enslavement “As if this happened to you.” There is an accompanying guide in the slipcase that must answer many of the questions we had – I just want a month to read it.

Now here’s the thing about this young man and Hamlet.  Last year he was writing a paper on the play, and his mother sent me the outline; the topic seemed arcane to me (Religion in Hamlet) for a junior in high school.  Today, however, when I was showing him one of the treasures of the Jaffe Collection, the famous and rare Cranach Press Hamlet (1930) he gently corrected my statement that one of the sources of the play was older than the other.  We’re talking medieval manuscripts here.  This kid knows his Hamlet.

Arthur told me very early that this book was his favorite; in doing research to show the book today, I think I figured out why.

 Arthur began this journey as a bibliophile; a lover of beautiful books, and this book is an outstanding example of fine press printing.  Not only does it present in readable and exceptionally handsome format the supremely admired work by the world’s best-known writer, it was produced in the brief window of Weimar Germany, and illustrated with magnificent woodcuts by the set designer for a production by the storied Moscow Art Theatre.  The design of the book is closely tied to the dramatic impact of the play through inventive use of lettering and illustration.

Cranach Press Hamlet (1930)

Everything about it, the rich soft paper, the letterpress printing, the full calf binding, the gold-leaf tooling, is of the highest quality.  There is even a pocket in the back that holds a folio of notes by J. Dover, Wilson, the foremost Shakespearean scholar of his time.  I love this – the rhythm and the beauty of the book are not interrupted by a bunch of dry technicalities.  I think that before the artists book movement took hold, when Arthur was admiring books for their beauty alone, he was thrilled to own this pinnacle of the bookmakers art.

Hamlet 2:2, designed by Arne Wolf

The last time I was at the collection, Eric handed me a book without comment, and I was in too much of a hurry to look closely at it; it just seemed like a bunch of random puzzle pieces.  Today when I asked him to assemble Shakespeare material, there it was again, and this time I could read its title Hamlet 2:2.  Of course it turns out to be a wonder.  I know Helen will put a photograph here so you can see that it consists of a bunch of long strips that when properly turned and read makes up a text from Act 2, scene 2 of the play: “Though this be madness,  [yet] there’s method in it.”  Think about it for a moment; how perfectly the form fits the meaning. I mean.  Amazing. And that guy thinks counting penguins is a great gig.

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