Friday, July 11, 2008

Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses, The Synagogue to the Carousel: Jewish Carving Traditions at Fenimore Art Museum

Publication & Exhibition: Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses, The Synagogue to the Carousel: Jewish Carving Traditions at Fenimore Art Museum through September 1, 2008.

I recommend the book by Murray Zimiles (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press in association with American Folk art Museum, New York, 2007)
[ISBN: 1-58465-637-9]

By Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) In my work I see a lot of exhibitions about Jewish art and history. Some are good, some bad, and some ugly. Every so often there is a great exhibit, and Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses is such an occasion (I went to see it three times when it was at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City earlier this year). If you have not seen it, there is still a chance this summer at the excellent Fenimore Art Museum in beautiful Cooperstown, in Upstate New York (also home to the Farm Museum and the Baseball Hall of Fame).

Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses is a small exhibit, but meticulous. And every carving and papercut deserves attention. The premise seems slight and even amusing – that Eastern European carvers of Ark ornaments came to Brooklyn and made carousel horses. But this realization sent the curator, artist Murray Zimilas on a decade long search that has brought together evocative, exciting and beautiful Jewish folk art to make his point. Nowhere before has there been assembled such a menagerie of Jewish lions and other animals. These carvings – all of which are vividly painted – breath life into the old images of European and immigrant shuls. These were not somber and dour places in black and white, but could be vibrant and joyous in their architecture and decoration, opening up fantastic worlds of imagination to hungry hearts, souls and minds. Not only did immigrant Jews turn to carousel carving, but they turned to all manner of visual arts when the opportunity arose.

Almost all of the exhibited pieces can be seen in excellent color photographs in the fine accompanying volume published by Brandeis University Press. This book, which has already won awards, should become a standard in any library of Jewish and/or folk art. There is a broad-ranging introductory essay by Vivian Mann that blends scholarship and accessibility and puts the Gilded Lions and their progeny in an art historical context useful to experts and laypeople alike.


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