Oliver Shell, Associate Curator of European Painting & Sculpture
I have never been to Coney Island but I have an image of the place based on Reginald Marsh pictures from the 1930s. Forever populated by buxom women and muscle-bound youths frolicking aggressively, it is a place where Nathan’s Hotdogs (founded there) held annual eating contests, and people visited amusement parks and freak shows. Until I came upon Andreas Feininger’s 1949 photograph, Sunday at Coney Island Beach, New York, I had no sense of how crowded the place might be. The image fascinates me; all those ant-like New Yorkers thronging to the very edge of the continent, launching themselves into the Atlantic Ocean, which many of their parents and grandparents had crossed only a few years earlier. Feininger, himself a refugee fleeing Nazi Germany, had only arrived a decade before. As a skilled photographer he quickly found a job working for Life magazine.
Comparing Feininger’s photograph to a 19th century painting by Alexandre Thiollet (also in the BMA collection, below), a scene depicting a French crowd on a beach, you get a sense of the vast transformation that has occurred in human life: the shift from an agrarian to a mass society. They are worlds apart, Thiollet’s villagers buying fish at low tide, and Feininger’s sweltering multitudes driven from the city by summer heat, entertained, fed and advertised to on an unimaginable scale.
The sense of enormity achieved in this photograph results in part from the use of some modernist strategies. Viewing the masses from an unusually high perspective and cropping the scene below the horizon line causes the individuals near the upper edge of the image to dissolve into a granular haze enhancing a sense of infinite recession. It can also be seen as an attempt to impose an abstract pattern onto his human subjects. Andreas is keenly aware of the large structures of his composition, the repeating horizontal jetties and barriers that push against the shifting diagonals of the boardwalk. Masses photographed from above had already been explored by Italian Rationalist photographers in the 1930s and by the Hungarian photographer László Moholy-Nagy,who in the twenties and thirties taught at the German Bauhaus art school together with Andreas’ father the painter Lyonel Feininger. Moholy-Nagy became the Feininger’s next-door neighbor when the Bauhaus moved to Dessau.
What most draws my attention to this image is the God-like perspective that lets you explore the many mysteries of what we are looking at. In the foreground we can pick out individuals. The boardwalk is astonishingly formal; men wear long pants and women wear dresses well below the knee. The people on the beach are separated and corralled into different enclosures. What are these? The nearest is far emptier than the second which appears madly overcrowded. The near one has almost no sun umbrellas whereas the second one is full of them. Are these different beach clubs, perhaps distinguished economically, or is the beach racially segregated? There seems to be a tension between the conformity of the individuals and the potential frenzy of the clustering mob, an inebriation reinforced by the prominent billboard advertising Seagram’s Seven Crown whiskey. Andreas Feininger’s Coney Island freezes an instant in history that preceded my birth but bears all the veracity of a memory. One is left to wonder how such a spectacular and massive phenomenon, the unique product of a teeming east coast industrial immigrant city, can have vanished.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.