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Wadsworth Explores Coney Island, the "Microcosm of the American Experience"

Feb 12, 2015

"For five cents Coney Island will feed you, frighten you, cool you, toast you, flatter you, or destroy your inhibitions."
Fortune magazine

Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum has inaugurated its newly renovated exhibition space with an ambitious project. The exhibit, "Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008," examines why this iconic seaside park has inspired so many artists through the years.

The exhibit is huge -- 140 objects -- including paintings, drawings, photographs, film clips, posters, cartoons, even artifacts from old Coney Island attractions.

The exhibit's curator, as well as the Wadsworth Atheneum's chief curator, Robin Jaffee Frank, grew up going to Coney Island. She believes that for artists in this exhibition, Coney Island was more than just a strip of sand in Brooklyn.

"Rather it's about a singular place in the American imagination," said Jaffee Frank. "What I have found looking at the works we've put together is that many of these artists seem to see in Coney Island-a prism of the American experience."

Samuel S. Carr's "Beach Scene" is an early example of Coney Island frivolity. Victorian families enjoy the sun and sand of New York-albeit primly.
Credit Samuel S. Carr, Beach Scene, c. 1879, oil on canvas, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts, Bequest of Annie Swan Coburn (Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn)

Robin Jaffee Frank took me on a tour of the exhibit, which is divided into five chronological sections. The first piece we encountered was a 1879 painting by landscape artist Samuel S. Carr called "Beach Scene," where people stroll Coney Island beach in their Victorian finery.

"So you have a tintype photographer who's taking a portrait of a group of people, a Victorian family, who pose rather stiffly," said Jaffee Frank. "And you also have a group of spectators standing in front of what is probably a Punch and Judy puppet show. Look closely, and you'll notice that standing as part of the crowd, but slightly separated, is a very elegantly-dressed African-American couple."

This is an indication that even early on, Coney Island was attracting Americans from all walks of life.

Joseph Stella's "Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras" is a dream-like abstraction of the New York playground. Stella's liberal use of color and line guide the viewer through the park's many landmarks, such as the: pinwheels, "loop-the-loop", Ferris Wheel,and helter-skelter slide.
Credit Joseph Stella, "Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras", 1913–14, oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, Gift of Collection Société Anonyme

Next up was Coney Island at the turn of the century, now a world-renowned tourist destination, famous not only for its iconic amusement parks, but for its reputation as a place where people were free to subvert from the constrictive social norms of the day.

A perfect example on display is a 1903 silent film loop of men and women riding the helter-skelter slide at Luna Park.

"As everyone comes sliding down this very long, turning slide, they all pile up into one another, and on top of one another," said Jaffee Frank. "And this is the way inhibitions were broken down. Coney Island during the era of 'The World's Greatest Playground' was a kind of laboratory for social and technological experimentation."

Paul Cadmus's "Coney Island" takes a satirical view of American vacationers. The fleshy members of the human pyramid seem carefree and frivolous in light of the ominous rise to power of the Nazi Party in Germany (Hitler's face can be seen printed on the magazine resting on the sleeping man's chest at the bottom of the painting).
Credit Paul Cadmus, "Coney Island", 1934, Oil on canvas, Gift of Peter A. Paanakker /Mallory Odonoghue
For Robin Jaffee Frank, Coney Island is a place of "dreams and nightmares... paradise and the inferno."

In part of the exhibit called "The Nickel Empire," a quote on the wall from a 1938 Fortune magazine article reads, "For five cents, Coney Island will feed you, frighten you, cool you, toast you, flatter you, or destroy your inhibitions."

It's Coney Island in its heyday, the years of the Great Depression: thrilling, sometimes dangerous rides, shocking sideshow acts, beautiful girls, and lots and lots of people.

Jaffee Frank pointed out two side-by-side paintings from the era in particular: one by Reginald Marsh, the other by Paul Cadmus.

The Marsh painting is lush and dream-like: a scene of beautiful men and women on the beach; the Cadmus painting, also of beach-goers, is satirical, almost grotesque.

For Jaffee Frank, this is a recurring theme throughout the exhibit. "That combination of Coney Island as dreams and nightmares, as paradise and the inferno, exists throughout Coney Island's history," said Jafee Frank. "And I do think it's one of the things that made it so seductively liberating as a subject for artists."

George Tooker's thought-provoking "Coney Island" places traditional beach goers in a Pietà tableau.
Credit George Tooker Coney Island, 1948 Egg tempera on gesso panel, Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis

Towards the end of the exhibit, we encountered "A Coney Island of the Mind," a term taken from a collection of poems by beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. This is a look at post-war Coney Island.

A 1948 painting by George Tooker, a scene under the boardwalk at the Steeplechase pier was one of the most extraordinary pieces. "In this painting, you again see -- as you do in so many other images in this exhibition -- a man and a woman embracing; but in this instance, they are not out in the sunlight, but rather under the boardwalk, and that man and the woman are posed in a way that immediately invokes the Virgin Mary mourning over the lifeless body of Christ," said Jaffee Frank. It's a modern-day Pietà set at Coney Island.

Swoon's "Coney, Early Evening" suspends youthful figures intertwined throughout the iconic tracks of a Coney Island roller coaster.
Credit Swoon "Coney, Early Evening", 2005 Linoleum print on Mylar, Brooklyn Museum. Healy Purchase Fund B, Emily Winthrop Miles Fund, and Designated Purchase Fund

The exhibit also features art from the decades after the war when Coney Island experienced a steady decline. Jaffee Frank noted that the art from this era reflects the neglect and deterioration of a once bustling, robust part of American culture, but also the hope of a brighter future. 

"Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008"  is on exhibit through May 31. For more information, go to thewadsworth.org.

Mallory ODonoghue contributed to this report.