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Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel
By Stacy Hollander

Stacy Hollander is the Chief Curator, American Folk Art Museum

Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel  is a groundbreaking exhibition that tells the story of a little-known aspect of American carousel history and its connection to Jewish visual culture. On view at the American Folk Art Museum, New York, from October 2, 2007 through March 23, 2008, the exhibition is organized by Murray Zimiles, guest curator, and coordinated by Stacy C. Hollander, the museum’s senior curator and director of exhibitions.

Approximately 100 splendid and rarely exhibited artworks are on loan from public and private collections from the United States and Israel. “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses” will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog co-published by the American Folk Art Museum with Brandeis University Press, an imprint of the University Press of New England.

The exhibition will travel to the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, from May 24 to Sept. 1, 2008.
“Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses” is the first major study of an important aspect of the Jewish contribution to American folk art.

Many of the artisans who arrived in America carved for their local synagogues; some also found work creating horses and other animals for the flourishing carousel industry. Inspired by the memory of symbolic references carved into majestic Torah arks and gravestones and cut into paper, they translated these motifs into an American idiom, elevating carousel art into a powerful sculptural expression of dynamic and animated forms. Although fanciful carousel animals have long been exhibited in museums, the religious carvings have primarily been known and appreciated only within the setting of the synagogue. Until now, the important historical and aesthetic link between the two has never been documented.

From the shtetls (villages) of Eastern Europe to the boisterous shores of New York’s Coney Island, immigrant Jewish artisans brought with them a vital and meaningful artistic tradition that helped bridge the transition from the Old World to the New. “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses” traces their journey from Eastern and Central Europe to America and the unsung role they played in contributing to a distinct Jewish visual culture in communities throughout the U. S.

As Jewish immigrants struggled to balance the continuation of an observant life with the realities of adjusting to a new culture, artisans responded to the vigorous pull of the spiritual and the secular through the perpetuation of familiar forms and the new application of traditional artmaking skills. It was within this powerful dynamic that a surprising link was forged between the synagogue and the carousel.

Exhibition overview
The exhibition begins with an exploration of the imagery that infused three important centers of traditional Jewish life in Eastern and Central Europe—the synagogue, the home, and the cemetery. “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses” follows the legacy of these motifs to America, where they were re-created by immigrants in vital Jewish centers in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, as well as in newly established communities in the Midwest and further reaches of the country.

A major focus is on New York, where a group of talented carvers were among the throngs of Jewish immigrants who arrived between the 1880s and 1920s. They produced ark carvings for the many synagogues that proliferated on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and in Brooklyn. The association between immigrant Jewish woodcarvers and the American carousel industry is embodied in the colorful figure of Marcus Charles Illions, who came from a family of horse dealers in Vilna, Lithuania. His signature appears on carved Torah ark pediments and also on a number of carousel horses. Historical photographs of Illions’s shop show synagogue carvings side-by-side with carousel animals.

Marcus Charles Illions, along with Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein, Charles Carmel, and others, was inspired by his Jewish heritage to create fiery carousel horses and menagerie animals with flame-like manes, flaring nostrils, wild eyes, and elaborate floral and jeweled trappings. Their ferocious red mouths gape like those of the rampant lions who guard the Tablets of the Law atop Torah arks. find out more

The tradition of Jewish woodcarving in Central and Eastern Europe was focused in the synagogue, as illustrated in the exhibition through archival photographs and wooden scale models. Wooden synagogues were distinguished by their enormous wood-shingled multitiered roofs and interiors with highly decorated walls, vaults, ceilings, and domes that housed structures such as fantastic, enormously carved and painted Torah arks, the most important object in the synagogue because it contains the sacred Torah scrolls.

Central and Eastern European arks were usually elaborately carved structures of three or four distinct levels that might have risen to an astonishing height of 30-feet or more. Densely worked with carved elements, including foliage, animals (mythical and real), fruits, and columns, and sometimes brightly painted and gilded, these superstructures also usually incorporated symbolic motifs such as the Tablets of the Law (Decalogue), the hands of the high priests (kohanim) disposed in a gesture of blessing, and animals that hold deeper meanings in Hebrew texts and lore.

When such soaring Torah arks were lit from behind, the open areas created a filigree effect with forms that appear to have influenced the art of Jewish papercutting. Made primarily by men and boys, most of the known papercuts are from Poland and date from the second half of the nineteenth century when paper had become relatively inexpensive.

Papercuts are constructed by folding the paper and then cutting out designs with small scissors or a knife. The uncut areas of the paper might have been painted with watercolors to depict animals, plant motifs, and even the human form. The final image was then placed on a solid-colored sheet, which acted as a contrasting background visible through the open areas. Jewish papercuts were mainly placed in the home for prayer and in celebration of holidays or given as gifts to friends.

The tradition of papercutting flourished in the United States from the late nineteenth century through the early decades of the twentieth, wherever Jewish communities were formed. Family tradition states that the papercut by David Elias Krieger, “Amulet Made for Mother and Newborn Child,” was made on the ocean passage from Europe to America. More likely it was started in Galicia and finished in the U.S. The papercut by Abraham Shulkin, who immigrated to Sioux City, IA, seems to have been made as a template for working out the design for the Torah ark that he carved for the Jewish community

In North America, the rich and elaborate symbolic vocabulary of Central and Eastern European carved Torah arks was restrained to a smaller number of key elements: lions, Decalogues, hands of the kohanim, eagles, and crowns. Lions, in particular, are depicted in myriad ways but are, almost without exception, gilded. Many have their mouth open, painted red and revealing sharp teeth. Protruding eyes, sometimes of red glass, or, when carved, often painted blood red, transfix the viewer. Some lions were even embellished with electric light bulbs for eyes, impelling the viewer’s eyes toward the ark and the Tablets of the Law as in the elaborate Decalogue from Scranton, PA.

Manes, often elaborately carved and heavily textured, cascade down and flare out to surround and frame the head in the formal carving on loan from the Hillel Jewish Student Center in Cincinnati. Usually standing as paired sentinels on either side of the Tablets of the Law, the ensemble are, in turn, supported by elaborate floral scrollwork, which adds rhythm, color, and ornament.

Carousels reached a height of artistry in America that was not achieved elsewhere. This was due, in part, to the talents and diverse visual repertoire contributed by a generation of immigrant carvers.
The establishment of fixed-site, as opposed to traveling, carousels enabled the creation of figures that were larger, heavier, and more extravagantly embellished than their knockdown antecedents. As the carvers often moved from shop to shop within a city or locale, they incorporated elements of their colleagues’ work into their own carvings, giving rise to regional styles.

The carousel industry in America flourished in the large urban centers of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. The workshops of Coney Island in particular, attracted many creative artisans, some of whose Jewish heritage can be identified through existing documents or signed carvings.

Charles I.D. Looff, a non-Jewish immigrant, set up a carousel in what was to become the greatest amusement park in America – Coney Island. He populated the carousel with a new realistic style of jumpers that seemed alive with their animated movements and imaginative decoration. It is believed that this new style of carousel horse, which quickly became a signature of the dynamic and flamboyant Coney Island Style, was introduced by Marcus Charles Illions, a young Lithuanian-born Jewish carver who was either working in the Looff shop or supplying horses from his own. Many believe it is the inspiration of Illions that brought to full expression the artistry of other Jewish carvers such as Solomon Stein, Harry Goldstein, and Charles Carmel.
Marcus Charles Illions

There are conflicting accounts about Illions’s place and year of birth – Vilna, Lithuania, 1865, or Moscow, 1874. What is certain is that Illions’s father was a dealer in horses, and this early intimate knowledge encouraged the later realism of his carvings. Around the age of 14 he went to England where he carved in the workshop of Frederick Savage, an inventor and manufacturer of carousels and circus wagons. Illions made the passage to the U.S. in 1888 and found employment in Charles I.D. Looff’s Brooklyn shop.

In 1909, Illions founded M.C. Illions and Sons. He created some of the most animated carousel animals ever made. His horses seem exhausted from their eternal gallop – tongues hanging out, wild eyes protruding, disheveled manes cascading or flying in the air – and one can almost feel the lather on their skin. He took great pride in his achievements and was one of the few carvers to sign his name on his figures.

Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein
Stein and Goldstein were both Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from Russia who met after they had answered advertisements placed by William F. Mangels, owner of a successful carousel factory, and had joined his shop in 1905. After having honed their skills at Mangels’s shop, Stein & Goldstein opened their own enterprise – the Artistic Caroussel Manufacturers. Over time, Stein & Goldstein produced 17 complete carousels, of which they owned and operated eleven. The carousel they carved for installation in New York’s Central Park is still in use today.

Stein & Goldstein produced the largest carousels ever made: 60-feet across, with up to six rows of horses, which were able to accommodate more than a hundred people. They are also credited with having carved the largest carousel horses, massive, life-size creatures with aggressive and muscular bodies. A ferocious Armoured Jumper in the Charlotte Dinger Collection is decked out with fish scales, chain mail and large buckles that became hallmarks of these superb carvers. With the decline of the carousel industry in the 1920s, Stein & Goldstein started to carve small horses for a firm in Chicago, to be used for children’s barber chairs.

Charles Carmel
Carmel, born in Russia in 1865, was trained as a carver in Russia before he arrived in America in 1883. He initially worked alongside Marcus Charles Illions at Charles I.D. Looff’s shop in Coney Island.
Later, the two men worked together again when they, along with Stein and Goldstein, carved for William F. Mangels. Carmel opened his own shop around 1905 on Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway, near the Prospect Park stables. He sold his work to other major carousel manufacturers, including the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, William F. Mangels, Stein and Goldstein, and others.

Carmel’s horses are spirited creatures with realistic expressions, some even with bad teeth. What distinguishes his horses is the exquisite combination of classic proportions, grace, and aggressive stance with a sense of fantasy and sweetness of expression. The heads of Carmel’s horses are usually slightly larger than accurate proportions would demand; this was purposely done to focus on the exaggerated expressions Carmel loved to carve.

One of his greatest patrons was the carousel owner and operator M.D. Borelli, who took great delight in painting Carmel’s horses and embellishing them with glass jewels that literally sparkled and glittered under the carousel lights. The bejeweled Patriotic Horse is draped with a red, white, and blue bunting and an eagle is proudly emblazoned across his chest. The eagle may convey two meanings: it represents the United States and also holds a prominent place in Jewish tradition and lore. Over the years, Carmel became one of the most prolific carvers in the field. In fact, a classic Carmel horse was once used to promote Stein and Goldstein’s Artistic Caroussel Manufacturers.

The exuberant carousel carvings stand as a witness to a history of survival and transformation. They are testaments to an extraordinary relationship as immigrant Jewish artists adapted symbolic visual elements into a popular American expression, from the sacred to the secular, from the synagogue to the carousel.
A number of educational programs have been arranged in conjunction with the exhibit. They include a collaborative field trip with the Eldridge Street Project (Oct. 10), Perspectives on Jewish Woodcarving panel (Oct. 24), a curator’s talk (Nov. 13), a collaboration with the Tenement Museum (Dec. 5), and a collaboration with the Coney Island History Project (Dec. 12). There will also be a film screening about Coney Island (Nov. 14), gallery tours with the curator (Nov. 6 and Dec. 4) and a Papercutting Workshop (Jan. 11, 2008).

To complement the exhibition, a 192-page full-color book, “Gilded Lions And Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel,” by Murray Zimiles, with an essay by Vivian B. Mann and a foreword by Gerard C. Wertkin, has been published in association with the American Folk Art Museum and may be ordered through the museum shop.

The American Folk Art Museum, founded in 1961, is the foremost institution devoted to the collection, exhibition, study, and preservation of folk art. Through the presentation of innovative exhibitions, educational programs, and scholarly publications, the museum explores the nation’s diverse cultural heritage and related global expressions. It is home to one of the world’s preeminent collections of folk art dating from the 18th century to the present, including paintings, sculpture, textiles, ceramics, and furniture, and the work of contemporary self-taught artists from the U.S. and abroad.
American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53 Street, New York 10019. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10:30 am - 5:30 pm; Friday until 7:30 pm; Closed Monday. Admission is $9; students and seniors $7; children 12 and under are free. Free admission on Friday from 5:30 - 7:30 pm.

For further information, visit www.folkartmuseum .org or call (212) 265-1040.


Source: © 2008 Carousel News and Trader Magazine

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