Nothing seems more American than a carousel animal, especially at a place like Coney Island in its heyday. Horses galloping with flowing manes and flared nostrils, exotic animals like lions (the example above, by Marcus Charles Illions, is in the collection of the American Folk Art Museum in New York) and tigers snarling and roaring to the delight of youngsters and adults. It has long been recognized that the Coney Island style of carousel carving was more flamboyant than that seen in other centers of this kind of sculpture. What hasn’t been understood until recently is why. And the answer lies in a carving tradition quite distant from America geographically and culturally.
You see, the reason these figures look the way they do is that the carvers were Jewish. Really. This was a complete revelation to me when I first saw the exhibition Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel, which opened at the American Folk Art Museum in 2007 and came to the Fenimore Art Museum in 2008. The exhibition curator Murray Zimiles made a compelling case for the reevaluation of a quintessentially American art form, tying it convincingly to the Jewish aesthetic traditions of Eastern and Central Europe.
Photographs of huge Jewish synagogues (none of which have survived owing to anti-Semitic destruction leading up to and during World War II) show massive wooden structures that featured ornate interior decoration. The primary focus of the interior was the Torah Ark, a large (sometime more than thirty feet tall! See the example from a synagogue in Lithuania at right) cabinet that held the Torah scrolls (the first five books of the Bible). These arks often had elaborate carving, which included eagles and lions. The lions are often seen flanking and holding the Tablets of the Law, or Decalogue (an American example of this form, also by Illions, can be seen below).
It’s not just the presence of the carving that matters, but also the manner or style. The animals in these synagogues were meant to get the attention of the congregation. They exude physical power in their ferocity and sense of movement. Just like the carousel animals of Coney Island.
Marcus Charles Illions was one of the key figures in this trans-Atlantic artistic crossing. His Brooklyn shop can be seen in the photo below. Illions was born in Lithuania (then part of Russia) in the 1860s or 70s, was conscripted into the Russian army and fled his homeland for England, where he perfected his carving skills, and immigrated to the U.S. in the 1880s to eventually start his own shop.
Take a good look at the picture. On the wall is a large drawing of a carousel lion; the very one that was included in the exhibition and is pictured at the top of this post. To the right of the drawing, above a doorway, is a Decalogue probably carved for a New York City synagogue, similar to t he one pictured above. Holding the Tablets are a pair of lions with flowing manes and ferocious expressions just like their carousel counterpart. Two traditions, thousands of miles apart, side by side in a New York City carving shop.
Author’s note: Our own Empire State Carousel at The Farmers’ Museum is the product of a Jewish carver, Gerry Holzman, who says he was inspired by the Coney Island style when he envisioned and created our carousel.