Wednesday, 9 January 2019

The Art Deco of New York

The Art Deco of New York

Part Five of Kitchen Table Writer's look at Art.




Shortly before I discovered I was going to New York, my son gave me a birthday present, a book called New York Art Deco, by Anthony Robins, with a map of locations and street walks that found the best examples of Art Deco in Manhattan.  ‘How nice,’ I thanked him politely. ‘I didn't know you realised I was interested in New York Art Deco,’ while I couldn't help thinking, yeah, lovely; shame this book will be no actual use as I'll never GO THERE, will I? A few moments later my family was treating me like a TV show guest, raising their Uncle Sam top hats, popping confetti and singing along to Sinatra's New York, New York. Yes, this book was going to be of actual use!

So, with this special book in hand, we traced our way around the Big Apple's glug…its veritable deluge…of Art Deco. To quote from the book…The style is instantly recognisable but hard to pin down. It takes its sources from European flowery and zigzagged crafts and Art Nouveau, with African influences, and has become the collective name for all that is brash, polychromatic, geometric, whizz-bang…with a motto of ‘Beauty with Utility’ it was part of the Roaring Twenties, the Depression Era, the Jazz Age, and prohibition. Its hallmarks could summon up a skimpy dress, a rakish look, and a glass of champagne. These include vertical columns of windows to take the eye up, powerfully-built and scantily-clad figures of both men and women, the iconic sunset patterns, and loads of streamlined curves, speed-lines, chrome and gold leaf. Its chosen colours are red, black, white and gold.

We were fated to always seeing the Empire State Building from various distant views; first as we entered Manhattan in the Limo, later that day from the New York Bateaux. Later we saw it again from the top of the Rockefeller. But today, we walked closer and closer to the Empire State Building until we were so close we could no longer see its grandeur, which explains why it’s better to see it from afar. We also took in the Chrysler Building, which has an amazing rising sun symbol worked into its architecture. My particular exterior is the Brill Building, which we discovered via the book, but on every street corner, down every block, there are examples of the Art Deco style, each demonstrating 
 that iconic NY Art Deco look, the ‘wedding cake’  or ‘stepped’ design. These buildings explode up into the sky, narrowing as they climb. But this wasn't just art or architecture – by 1916 Manhattan streets were dark, narrow corridors between increasing amounts of new build, and a regulation, the  Zoning Resolution, was brought in to force planners to reduce the footprint of a tall building as it rose, depending on the width of the street. The idea worked; light came back into New York and Art Deco was handed its most iconic statement.


Art Deco had really taken off by the time the US was deep in the depression. Not every tycoon had lost their wealth, and they began to compete with each other to offer the jobless and near starving ordinary New Yorkers construction work building taller and taller skyscrapers. Apparently, W H Auden’s reply to the question ‘Why are the public buildings so high ' was... 'because the spirits of the public are so low.’  

Tall buildings symbolize hope, power, achievement. Already the Chrysler and the Empire State stood, taller than tall, and John D Rockefeller, who had made his millions in oil, wanted to beat them all. He built a large complex consisting of 14 original Art Deco buildings covering 20 acres, split by a large sunken square, which becomes a skating rink in winter, and a private street called Rockefeller Plaza. 

Rockerfeller was a Baptist, and was often shocked by the scantily clad maidens clutching half-naked men that were incorporated in the Art Deco designs he was commisioning. When Lawrie Lee created a 45ft bronze statue of Atlas,  he postitioned it right outside St Patrick's Cathedral. The story is told of how the archbishop came out of Sunday Worship one morning to discover the heroic pagan god staring down, holding the world, butt-naked but for a slipping loin cloth.Both Rockerfeller and the bishop was incensed. The artist, mollified the bishop by asking them to walk around and view the statue from the back. There, the symbolism changes dramatically. The Titan looks like a crucified Christ, gazing at his own place of worship. 

Rockerfeller Centre is filled with Art Deco masterpieces, every building's facade a hymn to the art form, including Christies auction house, which, at the time we were in Manhattan, was exhibiting a collection of pieces donated to charity by the Rockefellers. Rather like you and me, when we empty the attic, but while we take everything to the local tip, David and Peggy Rockefeller sent their cast offs to Christies, where they raised eight hundred million dollars for good causes.

The Rockefeller Building has a stunning viewing deck called ‘Top of the Rock’.  Becki had chosen this to be our view of New York; because, ironically, you have the best of the Empire State from there, not to mention Central Park, the Statue of Liberty and in fact, because it was a clear day, all five boroughs of the city. This was the moment Becki’s Selfie Stick came into its own. She’d already taken a lot of stick (pun intended!!) from friends. ‘Selfie Stick?’ came the general cry. ‘That’s so trashy, so stale, so  déclassé, darling!’ And that was just possession of such an item, never mind that Becki’s SS turned out to be the wrong sort for her phone, so she couldn’t plug it in (she used delayed shot instead), and it had already lost a screw so it flopped over at the top. In other words, a trashy, broken bad buy! But by the time we reached the Top of the Rock, she’d found the missing screw (holding it up in triumph in the hotel room) and it had its moment, as we laughed and waved with a backdrop of all Manhattan. 

I’d been particularly taken with some Egyptian-influenced frescos on one of the complex’s skyscrapers, and so we had our lunch on the pavement right beside these. Becki, finally had her dream come true; oysters and champers were on the menu! I had Eggs Rockefeller, which was a massive breakfast dish. As it arrived, the people on the table next to us leaned over to ask what I’d ordered. When I told them, they ordered it too. They were not New Yorkers, but from Denver. She was Swedish, but had lived in the US since marrying Tom, who was proudly telling us he was ¼ Welsh and ¼ American Indian. All his working life he’d been in the art world, and now he was writing a book about it. They were in town to bid at the Christie’s auction. ‘Have you seen the Rockefeller exhibition,’ they asked. We shook our heads. Fine chance. ‘Hey, I have two spare tickets. We thought our son would like to come, but he can’t.’ Tom passed us gilt-edged invites. 

We couldn’t believe their kindness, but we’ve been showered with such generosity from the start. Everyone in New York wanted to share a friendly moment with us, like the girl in the Campbell Bar last night, and the young man, as I was coming up some steps, who held the door open for me at the top.I sped up, to get there the quicker, ‘please don’t hurry,’ he called down. ‘I’m fine here. Don’t rush, you may trip and hurt yourself.’ On our first morning, we’d got into the lift at the Mandarin Hotel and struck up a conversation with some business women who were showing an English girl around their workplace. ‘Have a wonderful time here,’ they said. ‘We love our city and I do hope you have the most marvellous stay.’ And the moment, earlier today, as we walked towards St Patrick’s Cathedral, I remarked that they must power-wash it regularly to keep the brickwork so white in the grimy environment, and a city-suited man joined us as we walked to say, yes, he’d been thinking the very same thing at that instant, as if we were old acquaintances that he’d caught up with on his way to the office. 

Radio City is the jewel in the crown of the Rockerfeller Centre. Even the  the outside has amazing artwork, murals depicting the various arts and entertainments. Inside, the sculptures, frescos, furniture, and perhaps especially the gold-leaf wall coverings, were out of this world. We enjoyed our afternoon tour of Radio City for all those things, but thing we both remember most about that tour was our tour guide. I’m afraid his name escapes me now, which is just as well. I fondly remember him as Lanya.

‘Right,’ he began as we clustered together in the foyer. ‘Have you all got your lanyas?’
There was silence.
‘Lanyas, your lanyas,’ he piped at us. ‘Don’t you know what a lanya is?’
Admittedly, around 50% of us were not American, but there were sufficient US citizens, including a lovely gaggle of little girls, to demonstrate that no, no one knew what a lanya was.
‘Your LANYAS’ he screamed, holding up his own lanyard, with his own ID dangling on the end of it.
Oh, right, yes. We all had our lanyas.
We had a fair few guides to take us around New York, but Lanya took the crown. He was without doubt the most irritating of our guides - the most irritating guide ever - and maybe the most irritating person alive today.

Lanya only knew what he was supposed to know, not a fact more, and each over-emphasised factoid was accompanied by the work ‘indeed’. None of his jokes worked. ‘These ceilings need constant attention, almost slave labour. Indeed, I send my own five daughters in to do the regular job,’ he chirped.
No way do you have five daughters, I thought, looking at his skinny frame. But if you did, I bet you’d send them off for slave labour, indeed.
He seemed delighted to be able to tell us that they were preparing the stage for a performance so we wouldn’t be able to go into the auditorium. We started peeking through little portholes that showed us a poor view down to the curtains, but were finally taken to a view platform. ‘Ha-ha,’ gloated Lanya. ‘Now all of you who tried to peer in illegally are sorry, aren’t you?’

‘Are those boxes?’  someone asked him of the side-seats were in the auditorium.
 He threw the question right back in her face. 
‘Are they boxes?’
‘I don’t know, I’m asking. Are those called boxes?’
‘What do you think they are called?’
‘I thought they might be boxes?’
‘So you’re saying they’re boxes?’
‘No…I’m so sorry,’ the woman stuttered.
‘Indeed.’


Even so, he couldn't dim the glory of Radio City, where even the loos are a work of art. The highlight of the tour was getting away from Lanya to talk to a Rockette all kitted up in her fabulous costume and stage make up and able to make the little girls’ dreams come true by having a photograph taken with her. She told us it had been her own little girl dream to become a Rockette and she’d been dancing at Radio City for almost twenty years, even though she didn’t look much over 20 herself.
Although Manhattan is often thought of as the city of modern sky-high buildings, it became clear that not much that was lovely has every been pulled down; 18th Century churches and nineteenth century synagogs rub shoulders with the Beaux Arts library and Central Station. Art Deco scrapers nestle between towering shocks of glass plate and concrete. This is what makes the NY skyline so unique. No two buildings standing together are the same, and in their own way they are all beautiful…and acutely loved by New Yorkers.



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