One of the reasons I love to travel is because it provides inspiration and moments of awe like the moment I entered the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Center, GE Building. I wanted to visit this monumental building to pay homage to Saturday Night Live, a source of comedy and writing inspiration since I was 8 years old, it was truly a pilgrimage. However, I was caught off guard by the towering exterior art deco architecture and the interior murals depicting characters of the depression, oppression and struggle aiding each other to a future promising technology, equality and positive growth. Abraham Lincoln, Ghandi and Ralph Emerson are represented helping within the mural that wraps around the square columns of the lobby and ceiling.
I didn’t know until I decided to dig into the history of these murals that both Matisse and Picasso were desired artists for the interior murals but in 1932 Diego Rivera was hired to paint the interior. Rivera’s mural was painted over because he refused to alter the portion of his work that celebrated Lenin. The Rockefellers then decided to commission Spanish Catalan muralist Josep Maria Sert (sometimes referred to as Jose) a friend of Salvador Dali. You can find work by Sert in The League of Nations in Geneva, the Waldorf Astoria New York (depicting a marriage described in Don Quixote) and Hotel de Ville in Paris. The Cathedral of Vic in Catalonia along with Sert’s religious murals, of similar fashion of black and gold as 30 Rock lobby, was destroyed in 1936.
There is relatively little about Sert and why he was chosen to create such a massive and important piece to be showcased within this aggressive project. It is understood, however, that the Rockefeller’s felt that there weren’t any American artists up for the job. I am surprised to learn that Rockefeller Center’s lobby art, being built in the 1930’s, an age of depression and hardship for the American people, was not created by an American. In fact, only one American artist, Leo Friedlander, was used in the decorating of the GE Building. Other artists who were hired to contribute to the building were Lee Lawrie (German-born) and Sir Frank Brangwyn (English) – not including the other buildings belonging to Rockefeller Plaza.
Outsourcing, back then, wasn’t an issue probably because it was understood that American identities were so varied, especially in New York within the various neighbourhoods. Everyone came from somewhere else, but were hopeful regarding where they were then. (In Canada, we have an innate understanding that no one is simply and only Canadian but rather came from another nation somewhere down the line. I identify myself as British, Ukrainian, Swedish and Norwegian for example). The art itself serves as a type of tribute to those who actually built the building and risked their lives to do so, a mix of American-born workers and immigrants happy to have work in the perilous 30’s; the artists’ varied nationalities is a form of homage to the varied cultural backgrounds of those who helped build the skyscraper, New York, as well as the entire nation. (My own theory I must admit).
The history of a single building can overwhelm an interested a passer-by and drive an intrigued blogger mad. But this is what I love about New York and East Coast USA, let alone America as a whole – the amount of history and characters involved is inspiring for any storyteller, photographer or history enthusiast. For a curious soul, traveling is absolutely addictive.
You’ll find Sert’s mural if you purchase a ticket to head to the top of 30 Rockefeller Centre along with a tour of the studios. Here’s a view from the top.