Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel
American Folk Art Museum
45 West 53rd Street
New York, N.Y. 10019
Tuesday – Sunday: 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Closed Monday
Admission $9; Students and Seniors, $7; Children under 12, Free
Exhibit Runs Until March 23, 2008
Much like the Jewish people themselves, the legacy of Jewish Art has miraculously survived seemingly endless assaults over the past two centuries. In Eastern Europe, the forces of assimilation, cultural denial, and the Holocaust have worked to destroy a vast portion of our cultural birthright. Countless synagogues, along with their prized carved arks, decorated walls, illuminated manuscripts, books, Judaica, and folk art creations have been abandoned and left to decay as traditional communities have withered and died. Those who hate us have purposefully destroyed other synagogues outright.
Nonetheless, a remnant of this precious legacy has endured, and one of the best examples of its glory is currently on view at the American Folk Art Museum. Both the exhibit, “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel,” and the brilliant catalogue are musts for all who cherish our cultural heritage.
Aside from pure artistic pride, we discover another historical gem in this exhibition: the echoes of fantastic 17th century Baroque art as filtered through a Jewish consciousness embedded in woodcarving, stone-cutting, and papercuts. The exhibition charts the art of Jewish craftsmen as they worked in stone, paper, and wood from their origins in Eastern Europe to their subsequent work in American synagogues and the surprising role they played in the burgeoning carousel industry in the early 20th century.
“Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses” is divided into five chronological sections, starting with photographs and exacting models of Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian wooden synagogues. This introduction sets a tone of architectural and visual opulence more common to 17th and 18th century Baroque Italian churches than our subdued and austere concept of synagogue architecture and interiors. What we forget (and these photographs confirm) is that the excitement and passion of the Baroque-emblematic of the Counter Reformation assault against the Protestant heresy-became a universal visual language for all of Europe, including the Jews, in the early years of the 17th century. While the Renaissance stressed balance and harmony, the Baroque style was exuberant, dramatic, and emotional, reveling in fantastic animals and symbols that expressed a fervent religious experience.
Ark of the Synagogue in Olkienniki, Lithuania (18th century);
Photo courtesy Polska Akademia Nauk, Instytut Sztuki, Warsaw
The salient features of these synagogues were the lavishly painted and decorated interiors and the elaborately carved wooden arks. From these surviving photographs we can make out but a few examples of a flourishing art form: ornately detailed floral designs interspersed with zodiac signs and panels of textural quotes (Chodorow, Ukraine) and a wonderful painted menagerie of winged lions, eagles, and fantastic beasts (Grojec, Poland) that adorn the sacred interiors.
The 18th century Torah ark seen from Olkienniki, Lithuania is a masterpiece of iconography, intricately carved and crowned with a double-headed eagle (representing temporal and celestial power) grasping a shofar and lulav bundle. Below is the ubiquitous blessing of priestly hands that hover over a crowned set of Tablets of the Law flanked by carved griffins, unicorns, and other mythical animals.
Even closer to the viewer is a depiction of the Ouroburos, a serpent swallowing its own tail which represents the Leviathan, emblematic of renewal, eternity, redemption and the source of nourishment in the messianic world to come. Arks like these were often over 30 feet tall and were Baroque masterpieces of wood carving that substituted squirming beasts and vine-like flowers for the flying angels so common in many churches. Of the hundreds of similar wooden synagogues, almost all were destroyed in the Holocaust. All that is left are a dozen or so photographs, many of which can be seen here.
The next section of photographs is of carved gravestones from Eastern Europe, continuing the rich iconography in a decidedly more primitive form. The four animals from Pirke Avot 5:23, “be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in heaven,” are still in evidence, as are the messianic imagery of the Ouroburos and the ever present lions that guard the precious Torah.
The difference is that almost all the renderings in stone are considerably more iconic than the pliable wooden arks. These rich and inventive stone-carved images are trapped in an unforgiving medium. Only the inherent durability of stone and pure chance has allowed many of these tombstones to survive the ravages of time and war.
Papercuts are ultimately the most surprising aspect of this exhibition, which presents 32 brilliant masterpieces in a tour de force of folk art skill. Their creativity and diversity are breathtaking, and the impressive showing amounts to a world-class introduction to this uniquely Jewish art form. Starting in the 19th century, when paper became relatively inexpensive, this delicate and demanding art was practiced primarily by young boys and men. The paper was folded, cut according to an exacting design, and then laid on solid colored background to enhance the image. Some, if not all, of the paper was ornamented with ink and watercolor to create a rich, delicate, and multilayered symmetrical image. Almost half of the papercuts shown here are American, the rest from Eastern Europe. The subjects range from omer calendar, zodiac, sukkah decoration, mizrach (the majority of examples containing the phrase mi tzad ruach chayim, “from [the East] comes the breath of life”), amulets, shiviti, yarhzeit, family memorials and an eruv tavshilin. The richness and complexity of the imagery is breathtaking, one example more stunning than the next. The very nature of the detailed and painstaking medium becomes the message of an intense visual universe brimming with symbols and shared meaning.
Mizrah by Natan Moshe Brilliant, Lithuania 1877;
Ink, paint and collage; The Gross Family Collection, Tel Aviv;
Photo by Vladimir Naikhin, Jerusalem
One especially unusual example of a mizrach is by Natan Moshe Brilliant from Lithuania (1877). It manages to combine not only cut and painted elements but also collages from printed sources, thereby weaving a symbolic and complex narrative. Starting at the bottom, Moshe and Aaron flank a menorah within an evocative architectural space supporting a register of zodiac images that in turn are the foundation for depictions of David playing the harp, Abraham slaughtering the ram, Moses removing his shoes at the Burning Bush and finally, a poetic rendering of Noah and the ark. And this only scratches the surface of the iconographic treasure house that is contained in this large papercut masterpiece.
Just as with the tombstone carvings, the difficulty of the medium itself tends to limit the depth of content available to the craftsman. Complexity made up of stock symbols can only take artistic expression so far. The greater flowering of artistic expression is found in the Torah ark woodcarvings in the next section of the exhibit.
This selection of 32 rampant lions, some with luchos (Decalogue), is the most exciting visual and artistic aspect of “Synagogue to Carousel.” While two actual arks are shown (one from Nova Scotia, Canada and the other from Chelsea, Massachusetts), all the rest of these works are extremely evocative fragments of carved wood arks, the ever-present lions flanking a depiction of the frequently crowned Ten Commandments.
As we see the examples of Torah arks made in America, we recognize that the Baroque elements have been sharply reduced to only a few elements- peripheral ornamentation and the depictions of the rampant lions. From their profiles, the lions look like standardized ferocious beasts. But once they face us a wonderful transformation takes place. The animal face takes on more and more human qualities, rendering the symbolic guardians of the Torah considerably more complex and nuanced. It is here that the artistic genius and genuine passion of these mostly anonymous craftsmen soars.
Three sets of lions on one wall offer instructive distinctions. One, from Newport, Kentucky, presents solemn, Egyptian-style animals; another pair from Kansas City, Missouri, bellows a hysterical unhinged growl with tongues protruding, and finally, a Midwestern pair guards with a set of profiles reminiscent of Chinese images-blood-red eyes, mouth and claws. The diversity of images seems to represent the individuality of both the artist and the congregation in interpreting what guarding the Torah might mean.
Ark Pediment, artist unknown, Lower East Side;
Collection of Rabbi David A. Whiman;
Photo by August Bandal, New York
Three pairs of lions (possibly created by the same artist) and salvaged from New York’s Lower East Side, seem gleeful in their defense of the holy luchos. Another set of rampant lion faces (also from the Lower East Side) remind one of the terribly serious and fearsome elders of those venerable congregations, weathered faces that betray the trials and tribulations these immigrant Jews endured. What comes to mind perusing these sculptures is that each represents a destroyed Torah ark and an abandoned congregation. These are the surviving fragments of the decimation of American Jewish life; their beauty and diversity are the tragic evidence of how much has been lost.
The artisans who labored on the American Torah arks were immigrants from Eastern Europe who had practiced the same skills back in Europe. But once here in America they began to diversify by necessity, many using their skills in furniture, cabinetmaking, woodworking, and carpentry. When they could, they continued in creating Torah arks. One such artisan was the legendary Samuel Katz from the Ukraine. He arrived in America in 1907 and by 1913 had moved to the Boston area. During the 1920’s and 1930’s he carved at least 23 Torah arks, making him the “most prolific identified ark builder in America.” But not all such artisans were as successful.
America at the turn of the 20th century was a land of opportunity, and the combination of an immigrant urban population, mass transit and the greatest amusement park in the United States, Coney Island, opened doors for Jewish craftsmen to work in what was a booming industry: the carving of horses and other animals for carousels and other amusements. As this exhibition shows, four Jewish carvers, Marcus Charles Illions (whom we know did synagogue carving), Charles Carmel, and the team of Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein, brought to perfection what became known as the Coney Island Style of animal carving. It is characterized by its flamboyant and expressive details and poses of the horses. Manes fly in the air, and horses toss their heads, stomp their hoofs and snort in unbridled passion.
Standing Horse with Raised Head by Charles Carmel, Coney Island, c.1910;
The Charlotte Dinger Collection; Photo by August Bandal, New York
From the examples we have here these artists had clearly different styles. Illions’ animals tended to have a fluid Baroque quality, combining a forceful naturalism with drama. In contrast, Stein and Goldstein (they were a partnership) tended toward a more restrained and medieval image. Finally Carmel, while fluent in more than one style as they all were, seemed to favor the brute passion of a barely tamed beast characterized by an open mouth, lolling tongue, and terrified eyes. It is in his works most of all that the Baroque heritage surfaces in its secular manifestation and is most deeply felt.
The history of the American synagogue since mid-century has been tragic, many, many abandoned and destroyed along with the precious art they contained. So too, the great centers of carousel and amusement park carving, abandoned or updated to machine-made imitations. The guest curator of this exhibition, Murray Zimiles, researched and documented this vast project for the last 20 years, tirelessly collecting material and connections from Europe, America, and Israel. Stacy C. Hollander, the American Folk Art Museum senior curator, coordinated with Zimiles and made this exhibition possible. Together they have managed to “return to the Jewish people, and to world culture, an awareness of and appreciation for a visual tradition of great beauty, vitality, symbolic richness, and decorative complexity that flourished over a period of several centuries in Central and Eastern Europe and flourished briefly in the New World where it underwent a remarkable transformation and secularization.”
The remnants we see here are indicative of what we as a people are capable of creating. We only have to believe in our skills and insights as Jewish artists to allow our art to bloom once again. It is this realization that makes “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses” such an inspirational exhibition.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at email@example.com