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Museum Show Revolves Around Carousels and Carved Art

September 27, 2007
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Lions on loan from the National Museum of American Jewish History
If all the world's a circle, include Philadelphia as a pit stop on the way to "Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel," a new exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in New York.

The display conveys the story of a little-known aspect of American carousel history and its connection to Jewish visual culture, including the role Philadelphia played.

What goes around comes around? Only from its opening on Oct. 2 to March 23.

Some 100 artworks are on loan from public and private collections from the United States and Israel, offering a major study of Jewish contributions 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 Torah arks and gravestones, they translated these motifs into an American idiom, elevating carousel art into a powerful sculptural expression of 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.

This 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.

The exhibit follows the legacy of these motifs as they come to America, where they were recreated by immigrants in such vital Jewish centers as Philadelphia, New York and Boston, as well as newly established communities in the Midwest.

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, as well as on a number of carousel horses. Historical photographs of Illions' shop portray synagogue carvings side by side with a number of carousel animals.

The carousel figures created not only by Illions, but by Solomon Stein, Harry Goldstein and Charles Carmel, show ferocious red mouths agape like those of the rampant lions who guard the Tablets of the Law atop Torahs.

Among the items shown: lions' 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 Center in Cincinnati.

So who were these Jewish carousel artists? Carmel, born in Russia more than 140 years ago, was trained there as a woodcarver before he arrived in America in 1883. He initially worked alongside Illions at a shop in Coney Island. Later, the two worked together, along with Stein and Goldstein.

Carmel sold his work to such manufacturers as the Philadelphia Toboggan Company.

A number of education programs have been arranged in conjunction with the exhibition. A collaborative field trip with the Eldridge Street Project is scheduled for Oct. 10, while "Perspectives on Jewish Woodcarving" will be the focus of a panel discussion on Oct. 24.

Also set is a curator's talk on Nov. 13 and a film screening about Coney Island on Nov. 14. Gallery tours led by the curators are planned for Nov. 6 and Dec. 4.

A 192-page color book about the exhibition is also available.

Among those providing support for the exhibition and the book is the Philip and Muriel Berman Foundation of Allentown.

For information, call the museum at 212-265-1040.

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