Samuel S. Carr’s beach scene celebrates the rise of commercial entertainment at Coney Island. In the center, a family poses for a tintype photographer, which a contemporary guide book urged its readers to do “for the fun of the thing.” At left, an elegant African American couple is both part of and distanced from the group of spectators gathered before the puppet show, suggesting both the crowd’s diversity and its divisions.
The distinctive silhouette of a colossal elephant on the horizon identifies this beach setting as Coney Island. The 122-foot-high Elephant Hotel, which opened in August 1884, heralded the fantastic architecture of the soon-to-be-built amusement parks. Both a popular family tourist destination and a house of prostitution, it contributed to Coney Island’s reputation as an illicit “Sodom by the Sea.”
Scientific American magazine celebrated the structure as a feat of engineering. Constructed of wood covered in sheet tin, the hotel went up in flames in 1896, but left an indelible mark on the American imagination.
An Italian immigrant, Joseph Stella viewed Luna Park’s alluring 250,000 lights as a symbol of America’s vibrant modernity. Here he took as his subject Luna’s Mardi Gras, an annual carnival that in 1913, according to the press, attracted the “largest” and “most demonstrative” crowd ever to attend. By abstracting this American spectacle, Stella visualized the park’s nickname as the Electric Eden.
The Steeplechase Funny Face welcomed visitors to Steeplechase Park, the longest-running amusement park in Coney Island’s history. The grinning red mouth echoes the exaggerated smiles of barkers shouting out attractions to passersby. In some depictions of the Funny Face, such as the one here, the combed hair, parted in the middle, rises to two points suggesting horns, implying that “Steeplechase, the Funny Place” is presided over by a mischievous devil intent on subverting rules of proper conduct.
Charles Carmel’s lifelike horse, adorned with sculpted cowboy-and-Indian trappings — a pistol attached to the saddle and a bridle of colored feathers — speaks to American character types and conflicts. Coney Island’s commercialization of the country’s frontier past helped to sustain national myths and to Americanize a largely immigrant audience.
In Pip and Flip, immense banners promote various sideshow acts, with one at left advertising the scantily clad “Pip & Flip Twins from Peru.” Called “pinheads” in the sideshow parlance of the day, Jenny Lee and Elvira Snow were sisters who suffered from microcephaly, characterized by abnormally small heads.
The Snow sisters were born in Georgia, but media hype claimed that they came from Peru or the Yucatán, making them seem exotic by associating their medical condition with a foreign culture. At center, Reginald Marsh depicts Elvira Snow framed by two dancers, underscoring the discrepancy between the glamorous publicity of the banners and the vulnerable performer.
Here, the distorting mirrors that clad the barker’s booth turn “normal” spectators into “freaks,” commenting on notions of perception and difference. By placing the viewer before these mirrors, Henry Koerner suggests our likenesses and identities are subject to distortion, as in Nazi Germany and McCarthy-era America, where yesterday’s citizens could be declared today’s pariahs.
A third-generation Coney Islander, Marie Roberts paints banners for the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, a revival of the traditional ten-acts-for-one-price performance. The banner’s title, A Congress of Curious Peoples, was taken from one of the shows for the Dreamland Circus Sideshow, where her uncle worked in the 1920s.
On the left, Roberts pays homage to the past. Her uncle, Lester Roberts, raises his arm toward the cast, which includes Lionel the Lion-Faced Man (Stephan Bibrowski), Baron Paucci (Peppino Magro), and Violetta (Aloisia Wagner). On the right, the artist celebrates the present. Dick Zigun, the unofficial mayor of Coney Island and impresario of the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, gestures toward today’s performers, including a sword-swallower (Heather Holliday) and the tattoo-covered Eak the Geek (Eduardo Arrocha).
Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008
November 20, 2015–March 13, 2016
For 150 years, Coney Island has lured artists as a microcosm and icon of American culture. Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008 is the first major exhibition to explore the kaleidoscopic visual record they created, documenting the historic destination’s beginnings as a watering hole for the wealthy, its transformation into a popular beach resort and amusement mecca, its decades of urban decline culminating in the closing of Astroland, and its recent revival as a vibrant and growing community.
This exhibition charts shifts in artistic styles and national moods through approximately 140 objects. Included are paintings of the Coney Island shore in the 1870s by William Merritt Chase and John Henry Twachtman; modernist depictions of the amusement park by Joseph Stella and Milton Avery; Depression-era scenes by Reginald Marsh; photographs by Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, Weegee, and Bruce Davidson; Coney Island carousel animals and sideshow ephemera; and contemporary works by Daze and Swoon.
Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008 is organized by Robin Jaffee Frank, Chief Curator, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut. The Brooklyn presentation is organized by Connie H. Choi, Assistant Curator of American Art, Brooklyn Museum.
Generous support for this exhibition is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Celebrating 50 Years of Excellence, the Henry Luce Foundation, and The Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, Inc.
The Brooklyn Museum presentation is sponsored by Oscar Insurance Corporation.
Additional support for the Brooklyn Museum presentation is provided by Clark R. Green, Constance and Henry Christensen III, Ron and Barbara Cordover, Lizanne Fontaine and Bob Buckholz, the Norman and Arline Feinberg Exhibition Fund, the Martha A. and Robert S. Rubin Exhibition Fund, and Friends of the Boardwalk.