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Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland

Strobridge Lithographing Company. The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth /The Great Coney Island Water Carnival /Remarkable Head-Foremost Dives from Enormous Heights into Shallow Depths of Water, 1898. Color lithograph poster, 30 1/6 x 38 3/4 in. (76.6 x 98.4 cm). Cincinnati Art Museum; Gift of the Strobridge Lithographing Company, 1965.829
Strobridge Lithographing Company. The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth /The Great Coney Island Water Carnival /Remarkable Head-Foremost Dives from Enormous Heights into Shallow Depths of Water, 1898. Color lithograph poster, 30 1/6 x 38 3/4 in. (76.6 x 98.4 cm). Cincinnati Art Museum; Gift of the Strobridge Lithographing Company, 1965.829

By Bobbie Leigh

Coney Island, the people’s playground at the southern tip of Brooklyn, is an American icon –like Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and Niagara Falls.   The exhibition “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland 1861-2008,” at the Brooklyn Museum  covers almost 150 years of the historic playground. It closes March 13.

Milton Avery (American, 1885–1965). The Steeplechase, Coney Island, 1929. Oil on canvas, 32 x 40 in. (81.3 x 101.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Gift of Sally M. Avery, 1984 (1984.527). Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, courtesy of Art Resource, New York; © 2013 Milton Avery Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Milton Avery (American, 1885–1965). The Steeplechase, Coney Island, 1929. Oil on canvas, 32 x 40 in. (81.3 x 101.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Gift of Sally M. Avery, 1984 (1984.527). Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, courtesy of Art Resource, New York; © 2013 Milton Avery Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Using works of art from such luminaries as Diane Arbus, Reginald Marsh,  Milton Avery, Red Grooms and Frank Stella among many others, the exhibition tells a fascinating back story of  artists, photographers,  and filmmakers all of whom were inspired by  Coney Island.  Together with the  art works, the curators weave together banners, posters, film clips, vintage photos and other ephemera to  document Coney Island’s  evolution  from resort to ruin to recovery.

You can  view  Visions through a sociological lens  reflecting  on what began as a watering hole for the wealthy  and  evolved into an entertainment mecca for the masses.   But don’t be misled.  This is an exhibition for kids, adults, nostalgia buffs  and  anyone who loves old movies.

Coney Island  began as an elite seaside resort  as early as  1829.  By 1894, it  began to attract a much more diverse population. New steamboats, ferries, and horse trams made it easier to reach the  beach.  By the  early twentieth century,   amusement parks —Steeplechase, Luna, and Dreamland —transformed Coney Island into a “ working people’s  paradise,” especially for the crowds who lived in insufferably hot and rundown tenements.

Red Grooms (American, born 1937). Weegee 1940, 1998–99. Acrylic on paper, 56 1/8 x 62 in. (142.6 x 157.5 cm). Private Collection. Photo: Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; © 2013 Red Grooms/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Red Grooms (American, born 1937). Weegee 1940, 1998–99. Acrylic on paper, 56 1/8 x 62 in. (142.6 x 157.5 cm). Private Collection. Photo: Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; © 2013 Red Grooms/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

At the same time, Coney Island became a magnet for artists, photographers, songwriters, and filmmakers.  A George Bellows  1908 painting “Beach at Coney Island”  conveys what the  lavishly illustrated catalog refers to as a “loosening of moral strictures on public behavior.”  Bellows captures the moment when a man leaning on his  elbow  bends down to embrace a reclining woman with  bright  red lips and hair  to match. Flirtatious behavior, otherwise frowned on  at that time  became safe in the at the public beach at Coney Island.

After the stock market crash in 1929,  Coney Island became known as the “Poor Man’s Riviera.”  If you had a nickel, you could take the subway to the beach, watch sideshows,  stroll along the longest boardwalk in the world,  win a prize,  eat cotton candy and  a Nathan’s Famous hot dog for five cents.  A new feature was a “bally,” a sample performance of a show, staged  on a platform,  manned by barkers with megaphones urging the crowds to step up  and see their  exotica -often with clowns,  so-called  “freaks,”  skinny girls in skinnier clothes. Some of the exhibition’s terrific  banners  from  the sideshows feature “Shackles the Great,” “Quito, the Human Octopus,” and “Jeannie, Living Half Girl.”

Harvey Stein (American, born 1941). The Hug: Closed Eyes and Smile, 1982. Digital, inkjet archival print, 13 x 19 in. (33 x 48.3 cm). Collection of the artist. © Harvey Stein, 2011
Harvey Stein (American, born 1941). The Hug: Closed Eyes and Smile, 1982. Digital, inkjet archival print, 13 x 19 in. (33 x 48.3 cm). Collection of the artist. © Harvey Stein, 2011

In the 1940s New York’s nickel empire retained some of  its old carnival spirit but war spread a somber note.  “Coney Island’s shooting galleries and Parachute Jump appealed to soldiers who either anticipated vanquishing the enemy or had already experienced combat firsthand,” according to the catalog.

Frederick Brosen (American, born 1954). Fortune Teller, Jones Walk, Coney Island, 2008. Watercolor over graphite on paper, 17 7/8 x 11 ¼ in. (45.4 x 28.6 cm). Courtesy of Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York. Photo: Joshua Nefsky, courtesy of Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York; © 2013 Frederick Brosen/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Frederick Brosen (American, born 1954). Fortune Teller, Jones Walk, Coney Island, 2008. Watercolor over graphite on paper, 17 7/8 x 11 ¼ in. (45.4 x 28.6 cm). Courtesy of Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York. Photo: Joshua Nefsky, courtesy of Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York; © 2013 Frederick Brosen/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The era of 1940-1961 is what the curators have dubbed “A Coney Island of the Mind.” Coney Island slowly lost its allure.   The major attractions closed down: Luna  Park in 1946  and  Steeplechase Park, the last remaining theme park,  in 1964.   (Fred Trump waged a legal battle to get control of the property but eventually gave up after ten years.)  By the 1980s, Coney Island was  seedy, derelict and mostly empty except for  seagulls  and strollers along the boardwalk.

The catalog  describes a rebirth after Hurricane Sandy that is anti-Disney (unlike 42nd Street)  and not tarted up so its roots are unrecognizable.  Whatever the future, Coney Island’s past is comprehensively documented in this riveting exhibition.

Details: Brooklyn Museum

 

Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.

 

 

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