25 February 2008

All the pretty horses - Jewish folk art

Remember the merry-go-rounds (also known as carousels) we rode when we were kids? Whether we were at fun fairs or large amusement parks, we enjoyed seeing the colorfully painted horses.

Did you know that carousel horses were Jewish folk art?

"Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel" is a ground-breaking American Folk Art Museum exhibit revealing a little-known aspect of American carousel history and its Jewish culture connection.

It is the first major study of the Jewish contribution to American folk art.

Founded in 1961, the Museum is devoted to the collection, exhibition, study, and preservation of folk art. The exhibit runs through March 23, and then moves to the Fenimore Art Museum (Cooperstown, New York) through September 1.

On display are some 100 rarely displayed artworks from US and Israeli collections. A companion catalog has been published (Brandeis University Press), available through the museum's gift shop.

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 Eastern European shtetls to the New World's cities, immigrant Jewish artisans, like my great-grandfather and his cousins, brought a tradition:

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.

New York is where many talented carvers arrived (1880s-1920s) and settled, producing detailed carved arks (to hold Torah scrolls) for many Lower East Side and Brooklyn synagogues.

Famous carvers - Marcus Charles Illions, Solomon Stein, Harry Goldstein, Charles Carmel and others - created "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."

Back in the shtetls, this art was focused in the synagogue and the exhibit also offers archival photos and wooden models. Synagogues had decorated walls and major furniture. Some elaborately carved arks were 30 feet high or more. Elements included foliage, animals (mythical and real), fruits and columns and were sometimes brightly painted and gilded.

Symbolic themes were the 10 Commandment tablets, hands of the kohanim (priests) and animals, such as lions, which are ubiquitous in synagogue carvings, and are almost always gilded.

The article mentions wooden filgree work which grew out of the Jewish papercut art, mainly produced by men and boys. Most extant examples are from later 19th century Poland. Some were templates for carving larger pieces.

The carousel industry concentrated in large urban centers (Philadelphia, New York, and Boston). Coney Island (Brooklyn, NY) in particular, attracted many creative artisans. The Jewish heritage of some can be verified through documents or signed carvings.

In Coney Island, Charles I.D. Looff set up a carousel with imaginatively decorated horses, believed to have been introduced by Illions.

Illion's year of birth and city are either Vilna, Lithuania, 1865, or Moscow, 1874, says the article. His father was a horse dealer, and Illions he learned much about the animals from observing them. At 14, he went to England and worked in Frederick Savage's workshop for carousels and circus wagons before traveling to New York in 1888 and working for Looff.

In 1909, he founded M.C. Illions and Sons and created animated animals. He was one of few carvers to sign his name.

Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrants Stein and Goldstein met in 1905 after joining William F. Mangel's carousel factory, later opening their own company, where they produced 17 carousels, owning and operating 11 of them. The Central Park carousel is still in use today. They also made the largest carousels ever made, 60 feet in diameter with six rows of horses, large enough for 100 people.

The pair is credited with carving the largest carousel horses, massive, life-size creatures with aggressive and muscular bodies. In the 1920s, they began to carve small horses as children's barber chairs for a Chicago firm.

Born in Russia in 1865, Charles Carmel trained as a carver before arriving in New York and worked with Illions at Looff's shop and then the two also worked with Stein and Goldstein for Mangels. In 1905, he opened his own shop and sold his work to other major manufacturers. He was one of the most prolific carvers.

Carousel owner-operator M.D. Borelli loved to paint Carmel's animals and embellished them with glass jewels.

For more information on the museum, which is at 45 West 53 St. in New York City, click here. The 192-page exhibit catalog is available through the museum shop. Read the complete article here.

I felt an affinity to this story as my great-grandfather, Aaron Peretz Talalay (Tollin), and many of his cousins were master woodcarvers. Aaron was born in 1875 in Vorotinschtina, an agricultural colony southwest of Mogilev, Belarus which was founded by the Talalay and other families. Older relatives described a colony school where young men learned these skills.

Arriving in the US in the late 1890s-early 1900s, family members went into the furniture business, some became builders, decorators or artists. Others translated their creative skills into making decorative patterns for cast-iron stoves or wooden cabinets for radios.

My mother and older cousins spoke in awe how my great-grandfather - who died prior to my birth - could carve, from a solid block of wood, a toy with turning wheels and other moving parts. He produced elegantly carved doors for built-in furniture in my grandparents' home, clock cases, knife handles and lots of toys.

Even today, if I visit a carpentry shop, that special fragrance tugs at me. I think sawdust is in my blood.

My grandmother, Bertha Tollin Fink, said that her father was "woodcarver to the Tsar," and held a special passport allowing him to travel all over Belarus and Russia to work on restoration projects, while other Jews were restricted from traveling freely.

Especially compelling was the story that he had worked on the wooden door restoration of St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg. An historian cousin whose family still lives there has attempted to find records in the cathedral archives but has not yet been able to confirm the story.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:06 AM

    You have reminded me of my childhood. Those wonderful days. I used to have this rocking horse and I just loved it. Nice blog on Jewish Folk Art.