A Frank Lloyd Wright–Designed Synagogue Celebrates 60 Years With a Major Art Commission
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A Frank Lloyd Wright–Designed Synagogue Celebrates 60 Years With a Major Art Commission

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By Duncan Nielsen
Artist David Hartt’s new work transforms the Beth Sholom Synagogue with tropical sights and sounds that reflect on the Jewish and Black diasporas in America.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, is celebrating 60 years of service with a major exhibition by artist David Hartt. The synagogue’s interior is adorned with lush planters, projected images of Haitian vegetation, woven tapestries depicting landscapes, and a soundtrack by 19th-century Jewish-Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

Gottschalk’s music underscores footage that Hartt collected in Haiti and New Orleans. The composer’s American and Afro-Caribbean style predates ragtime and jazz by more than 50 years, and it perfectly complements the exhibition’s focus on cultural transformation.

Frank Lloyd Wright's signature style shines through in Beth Sholom's main sanctuary. 

The synagogue's hallways are filled with prints of digital images by artist and University of Philadelphia Assistant Professor David Hartt. Hartt called upon upon a number of talented musicians to perform alongside the visual elements.

Hartt’s outpouring, in a nutshell, is an unpacking of cultural, social, and economic complexities. He’s an award-winning artists who’s received both the Pew Fellowship and the Graham Foundation Fellowship, and his work has been displayed in museums around the world.

The Histories: Le Mancenillier—the exhibition’s title, borrowed from a Gottschalk composition—shares the name of a poisonous tree whose acrid fruit is known to cause blindness. It’s a metaphor for the bitter and obscuring challenges of diaspora. As visitors wander the synagogue’s halls, they’ll hear recorded interpretations of Gottschalk’s music, including "Le Mancenillier," by Ethiopian pianist Girma Yifrashewa.

A projection of an image taken in Haiti sits next to a painting of an orchid. Hartt was influenced by 19th-century landscape painter Martin Johnson Heade, who is known for his lush depictions of the natural world.

A custom planter filled with an abundance of tropical plants ties the exhibit into the space, and adds ambiance to the historic building.

The exhibition runs until early December, and the program features conversations with Hartt, several musical performances, and a screening of Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale—a series of vignettes of uninhabited mountainous landscapes. Together, the person-less visual elements of the film and Hartt’s work negate the idea of ownership of natural spaces—they belong to none, and should be available to all.

Moving forward, the Beth Sholom Preservation Foundation plans for the synagogue to be a hub for new and important cultural exhibitions like this one. And, like Hartt's exhibit, all will be invited to attend.

The exterior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Beth Sholom Synagogue

That desire echoes Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen’s view of the Beth Sholom more than 60 years ago, when he asked Frank Lloyd Wright to design the synagogue: "There is a dream and hope in my heart…of erecting a synagogue that will be an inspiration for generations to come, so that people will come from all over the country to see it and find here a ‘new thing’—the American spirit wedded to the ancient spirit of Israel."

The Histories: Le Mancenillier will be open until December 19th.

Lead photo by Peetlesnumber1

Related Reading:

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Celebrated Robie House Reopens to the Public

Before & After: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rarely Seen Fredrick House Is Deftly Restored

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