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.
Great article – fascinating story! Just a note that the murals in the lobby and north corridor are by Sert but the murals in the south corridor (including one that show above – with writing “Man’s Ultimate Destiny”) are by British artist Frank Brangwyn. I don’t like them quite as much as Sert’s murals, although he clearly attempted to match the style (and palette) somewhat.
I visited 30 Rock and was taken by this powerful expression. I had to stop and ask the lobby attendants about the mural. Since my visit I have been aeeki g additional I formation about the artist and circumstances that led to this magnificent and powerfulexpressipn of Americas development. Thank you for your article.
Thanks Clyde! Glad you found it valuable. It was a very cool surprise smack dab in the middle of a building so centred in pop culture (SNL, Jimmy Fallon & Seth Meyers late night talk shows, Dr. Oz, etc.). Yet little to none is talked about regarding this impressive mural during tours.
You mention that Sert’s murals in Vic Cathedral were destroyed in 1936, but not that he repainted them after the civil war and that the replacements are intact.
I wrote, “The Cathedral of Vic in Catalonia along with Sert’s religious murals, of similar fashion of black and gold as 30 Rock lobby, were destroyed in 1936.”
Thank you for bringing this to my attention as my research now shows that the work that was done after the fire/war is more similar to the 30 Rock lobby work than the murals prior to the destruction. The work that was destroyed was more colourful. His work after the fire was done in the black and “gold” style.
For bloggers/websites, comments are much appreciated and help to keep the conversation going and information updated.
Really cool stuff.
Wow, to be frank I have been in 30 Rock but I was rushing so much that I didn’t pay attention. Gonna have a special look in few weeks when I visit NYC again 🙂
Very cool. I was there and had no idea who this mural was by but I enjoyed it nonetheless. So much to look at too, I almost missed my studio tour!
How did you find the studio tour? When I went the SNL stage was covered because they were using it to cover the olympics. It was a bit disappointing but I enjoyed seeing Jimmy Fallon’s stage set and just walking down the halls where SNL keeps their photos of their famous characters.
Love this! I was just reading about art in the building of NYC including the Miro tapestry in the World Trade Center that was lost in September 11 (though only a small loss in relation to the tragic deaths of so many that day). I studied a bit about Sert’s time in Paris and his affiliation with Les Nabis. Great coverage of his Rockefeller murals!
I would like to read the article you’re talking about!
I had never heard of Sert before until I decided to dig into the history of the murals. They were so striking I couldn’t resist.
Thanks for commenting!
The art at Rock Center is fascinating. Some say the statue of Atlas was deliberately placed where it is because it faces the cathedral across the street…
It was a pleasure to visit Rockefeller Center and surprise to find all the art in the area. What I went there for was the SNL studio tour but being a blogger I am finding that the story can be found on the way to the locations/restaurants etc.
Thanks for commenting!