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"Leon Karp: The Golden Slippers and the City of Dreams" opened March 30, 2003 at Woodmere Art Museum and continues through June 29, 2003.

This retrospective exhibition honors the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leon Karp (1903-1951), Philadelphia artist, draftsman, and printmaker. With an interest in formal and color relationships that would accentuate his favored subjects of Philadelphia's people and their activities, Karp studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with renowned artists Daniel Garber, Hugh Breckenridge, Henry McCarter, and Arthur B. Carles. Approximately sixty works from private collections and museums including portraits, still lifes, and studies of Mummers are on view.


(left: Leon Karp, Mummers, ink on paper, 26 1/8 x 20 1/8 inches, Karp Family Collection)


Leon Karp: The Golden Slippers and the City of Dreams

by David Karp


The boy stood wide-eyed in the bitter cold New Year's day, watching the spectacle. There were the string bands with their outrageous, flamboyant costumes and the strut, that halting and flowing motion, all to the strain of "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers." And the clowns -- raucous, leering, leaping, often well fortified with spirits for the predictably freezing journey down Broad Street, the longest straight-run street in the world. He had come to see the Mummers' Parade, Philadelphia's "winter Mardi Gras," as they ushered in the new year. He came with his family from Strawberry Mansion, a turn-of-the-century Philadelphia neighborhood that had provided safe haven to much of the city's immigrant population. It was a proud, vigorous community of individuals determined to validate the wrenching upheaval they had chosen for a new beginning in the land of opportunity.

When, as an adult, he would embark on the path of painter, the subject he cherished above all would be the Mummer -- an inexhaustible inspiration for drawings, etchings, and paintings. In the beginning he produced relatively simple images, but as he matured he pushed and probed the mystery and theater, the sheer spectacle of this native icon. He would be the first artist to elevate the Mummer beyond the obvious status of a picturesque institution.

Leon Karp's origins had been predetermined by a movement of Russian Jews in the late nineteenth century. The Am Olam movement was a response to the stereotype of the Jew as an "urban parasite," and its constituents had vowed to prove to the world that they could be hard-working, land-tilling producers. Colonies cropped up all over America and in other parts of the world -- Palestine, Argentina, Canada, and other lands. Leon's grandfather, Morris, had joined a colony in Vineland, New Jersey, establishing a small farm to which in 1892 he summoned his seventeen-year-old son, Max, and the latter's mother and two sisters. But the only affordable land had been sandy soil, which had to be cleared of the natural scrub oak and pine. It was brutal work with modest return, prompting Max to seek other opportunities. He moved first to Brooklyn, where he married Anna, an Austrian immigrant, and started a family. They ultimately settled in Philadelphia in 1910, where Max started an ill-fated business manufacturing uniforms for the Army and Navy. Leon, the second child of Anna and Max, had been born in Brooklyn in 1903.

Philadelphia, "the cradle of liberty," greeted the twentieth century with a vast physical scale, august institutions, and opportunity. There were two rivers, proud neighborhoods, exemplary mansions, and the infinite green of Fairmount Park. The city was in the peak decade of its industrial might.

Leon would have special art classes in grammar school, followed by free art instruction at the Graphic Sketch Club (now the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial). Both he and his friend Louis Kahn, the future architect, were products of Central High School, an institution that matched the academic rigor of a university. He entered the School of Industrial Art but soon transferred to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with a scholarship from the Graphic Sketch Club. He graduated in 1927 with a Cresson Traveling Fellowship that underwrote a sojourn through France, Italy, and Spain.

Both he and Kahn also shared a deep love of their city. They were driven by that compulsive desire of immigrants and their offspring to give back to the society that nurtured them a gift of their endeavor. The years between 1927 and 1951 witnessed pervasive change, first in the Depression of this country and later in the global conflagration of World War II. It was this time frame of twenty-four years that was ordained to Leon Karp as his journey of endeavor.

His was a two-pronged career: he became an art director for the advertising colossus N. W. Ayer, and he painted. The Ayer firm, which dominated advertising for years, gathered a remarkable mix of diverse talents. It was a hard-headed business, to be sure, but Ayer needed and attracted creative people, artists and writers often on the verge of independent careers. Ayer also would become one of only two agencies in the country that would hire minorities, and Karp was the only Jewish employee in the building for his first few years there. At Ayer Karp particularly distinguished himself in the 1940s under department head Charles Coiner. In 1950, as associate art director of his department, second in command, he developed with Coiner the "Great Ideas of Western Man" series for the Container Corporation of America, in a collaboration that included the talented Dutch designer Leo Lionni. The "Great Ideas" series is honored today as one of the finest series ever produced in advertising.

At the same time, Leon Karp the artist worked on weekends and evenings. He produced portraits, nudes, still lifes, and imagery of the cherished Mummer. He had heroes -- mute mentors from history -- but they were not exclusive. Titian, Rembrandt, Chardin, and Cézanne shared wall space in his studio with Goya, Picasso, and the Japanese print. But not unlike his hero, Titian, Karp did not choose in his work to register the turbulence of his time. He focused, rather, on the wonder and nobility of those subjects that were intimate parts of his existence. And he developed his craft.

In 1945 he modified the skylight of his studio and was shocked by the new intensity of light that streamed in. Coincidentally, that same year the war ended, and the country entered a new period of optimism. These two events set the stage for his most productive and indeed his final five years of work. His palette brightened, his observed world broadened. His deceptively unlabored oil portraits of men, women, and children probed the elusive, infinite essence of being. His nudes were cloaked with dignity and nobility as they released the energy of spirit within -- the American nude, for those who question its existence. His Mummers were less of the street and more of invention, floating in space, shrouded in the mystique of apparition.

Leo Lionni, in his autobiography, Between Worlds, referred to a habit he inherited from Leon Karp. Lionni had been hired by Ayer in 1939 as Karp's assistant, and the relationship developed into one of close friendship. Karp's example, he recalled, taught him to compare what he was doing in the present with what he had done before and to recognize the direction in which his work was moving. By the late 1940s, Karp had mastered the presentation of the singular idea or object on canvas -- the portrait, the still life, the Mummer -- and the paint flowed with an ease that belied the depth of his perception.

He began to create images of a narrative form: of Philadelphia, his revered city of dreams; of life observed; of legend; and of treasured readings. He produced a series of vignettes, precious moments frozen in time: a woman pausing in a rose-colored room; Mennonites walking to church; an idyllic croquet game; a student of college age (himself) with his parents on a plateau of Fairmount Park, the city hovering beyond. He painted the biblical Song of Solomon and the mythical Diana and the Hunter. A foreboding sketch for a projected painting showed a grotesque Pontius Pilate in an ominous setting, conversing, gesturing with another. This painting, Pontius Pilate, was never realized. Leon Karp died suddenly and unexpectedly at forty-eight.

At his death, he left a clear indication of where he was moving. His file drawers were filled with drawings of Mummers floating down Broad Street, of bridges spanning the Schuylkill River, of illustrations from readings. The artist from Strawberry Mansion, grandson of the Am Olam immigrant, was inventing a world of personal wonder. It was the world of the imagination, at times painted with the model, at times without. It was the world of Leon Karp.

He was honored by his city in 1952 with a memorial exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, jointly sponsored by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He was honored in the workplace by the printers, typesetters, binders, and others who had worked with him, who volunteered their services for the exhibition catalogue.

About the author

David Karp is the son of Leon Karp.

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