Coney Island Comes to the Brooklyn Museum


Here’s irony for ya — the motive force behind Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008, the major exhibition of Coney Island inspired art now ensconced at the Brooklyn Museum through March 13, proves not to be our local museum itself, but the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s been touring for the last several months, and now makes itself available to the tough but secretly sentimental audiences in Coney’s back yard. Tell the Warriors they can put away their brickbats — the new show is well worthy of America’s Playground.

The exhibition is exhaustive and instructively divided into historic periods: Down at Coney Isle: 1865-1894, The World’s Greatest Playground: 1895-1939, A Coney Island of the Mind: 1940-1962 and Requiem for a Dream: 1962-2008. One major positive aspect of the timeline is that it addresses a misconception inadvertently created by Ric Burns in his 1991 documentary film that Coney Island essentially ended (or began to decline) in 1911, the year that Dreamland, one of the three major amusement parks burned down. (I don’t have statistics in front of me, but I’m sure the attendance peak was in the 1940s. I’m sorry, but the attendance figures are the only yardstick that matter. There is no amusement professional who will EVER tell you anything different). On the other hand, to a minor extent it perpetuates the scurrilous canard that the closing of Astroland was the “end” of something. The only thing it was the ending of was Coney Island’s Shithole Period. Since the new version of Luna Park arrived in 2009, the place has been better and more exciting than at any time since I arrived here in 1987, and I go out there every season. But that misconception is so widespread, it’s going to be a job of work opening people’s eyes, and I wouldn’t expect this exhibition to be the platform for that.

At all events, the agenda here is art. Rarely in history has such a small patch of real estate inspired such a colorful and diverse lot of it. (A certain neighborhood in Bethlehem, perhaps?) This exhibition contains a nice cross section of the possibilities, over 140 works including paintings, photographs, quotations of texts by writers, posters, advertising ephemera, clips from motion pictures, and of course sideshow banners.

The exhibition’s first section is a reminder that the area once had a lot going for it as a natural landscape. William Merrit Chase’s 1886 Landscape near Coney Island depicts a bucolic scene with dunes, beach grass and a woman gathering berries — just like a real beach. A couple of genre paintings by Samuel S. Carr show the beach in transition, with just a hint of what is to come. Beach Scene (ca. 1879) captures a number of people on the beach dressed in what WE would consider formal clothes indeed. In the background is a group clustered around a puppet show. This is the era when the neighborhood was known primarily for hotels, but populist entertainment is already beginning to rear its head. Equally true of his Beach Scene with Acrobats, painted around the same time.

The sedate mood of the opening room quickly dissolves as you enter the next gallery. Here is an explosion of, well, everything. I don’t generally like to take snaps in the museum but I couldn’t resist this one…some piece of advertising art with caricatures of Mae West and Jimmy Durante:


Here’s a bunch of swell stuff I saw:

— Movie clips from The Gilded Lady (1935) Harold Lloyd’s Speedy (1928), King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928), Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), The Little Fugitive (1953), Coney Island USA (1951), The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), Weegee’s New York (1948, 1954), Annie Hall (1977), Enemies: A Love Story (1989), and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000)and some footage by Edison and others, including the notorious film of the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant.

— My favorite painting in the whole show, Leo McKay’s Steeplechase Park (1903-1906), a very large, bird’s eye panorama of the legendary amusement park. This alone was the worth the price of admission.

— Inevitably, several Reginald Marsh paintings and drawings. I don’t dig his work, but others do, and there’s no way you couldn’t include him in a show like this. To me, his depictions of humanity look like piles of dead zombies, and his pigments look like garbage water. Still, he was THERE and his paintings take you there, to such sights as the Wonderland Circus Sideshow, the Human Roulette Wheel, the Human Pool Tables, and a sideshow displaying Pip and Flip.

— Tons of great photos, by the likes of Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Edward J. Kelty, Harvey Stein, Bruce Davidson, and the aforementioned WeeGee

— sideshow banners advertising Shackles the Great, Quinto the Human Octopus, and (by our own Marie Roberts) the Congress of Curious People

— circus posters for Barnum and Bailey, and Bostock’s Great Water Arena

— Pieces of the old Spookarama ride

Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo

— Paintings by Milton Avery, Ralph Fasanella, Red Grooms, Daze, and many others, including this one I really loved by Mort Kuntsler, showing another side of Coney Island:


I’m rarely tempted to buy exhibition catalogs, but I’m downright obligated to acquire this one, and I reckon you’ll feel the same.

Nearby this main exhibition, the Brooklyn Museum has installed two related shows of its own: Forever Coney: Photographs from the Brooklyn Museum Collection and Stephen Powers: Coney Island is Still Dreamland (to a Sea Gull).  If you’ve not been to the Brooklyn Museum in a while, now is a good time to go.

One comment

  1. Ah, the memories. One of the best from my 1950s childhood is an outing to Coney Island. I think there was a rudimentary safety bar across your lap on the Parachute Jump, but when you mounted a wooden horse and zoomed around the Steeplechase track, you just had to hang on for dear life! Back then people didn’t win lawsuits over injuries resulting from their own stupidity.


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