Monuments, Medals, and Metropolis, part III: The Machine Age

by Peter van Alfen; photography by Alan Roche

This is the third and final installment of a series of articles exploring the relationship between numismatics, especially medallic art, and public sculpture and architecture in Manhattan. The first two installments focused on the Beaux-Arts period (roughly 1880-1920) in the City; this installment considers the 1920s and 1930s.

Atlas by Lee Lawrie (with René Chambellan assisting).

In the early 1920s, as Europe and the United States began to recover from the devastation and horrors of the First World War, many pre-war inventions, like the automobile, airplane, telephone, and electric light rapidly became more pervasive and common. The Machine Age was coming to life. Every year, if not every month, new inventions and devices caught the public’s attention: the first radio station in the US, KDKA of Pittsburgh, went on the air in 1920; five years later there were 517 stations across the country fueling a new form of mass communication and entertainment. The motion picture industry jolted to life and expanded just as quickly, as did countless other industries producing and using machines of all shapes and sizes. “Industry” and “progress” were the axioms of the day, made manifest in the push to create a clearly defined border between the days of old, and the mechanized modern age.

Elements of the art world at this time too were struggling to free themselves from lingering Victorian trends and styles. Before the War, European modernist artists and sculptors, particularly the cubists, constructivists, and futurists, had broken with nineteenth-century romanticism and naturalism, embracing abstraction and the use of angular, faceted planes in their work; Cézanne had already formulated the credo of modern art, that all form could be reduced to the cone, the cylinder, and the cube. After the War, these vanguard artists, many of whom were based in Paris, further refined these themes and continued to redefine “modern” art as well as its techniques, media, and theoretical purposes. Indeed, through the 1920s, Paris retained its pre-war role as the leader of fine arts attracting and training artists from all over Europe and the US. Paris also claimed leadership in the applied arts as well: in 1925, the City of Lights hosted the famed Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs Industriels et Modernes, which showcased a style of (mostly) applied art that later came to be known as “Art Deco,” a sumptuous style that made great use of simplified, geometric design, and exotic materials. But by the early 1930s, Paris was beginning to lose its spot at the forefront of art and design. The deteriorating political and economic situation in Europe drove many talented artists to the US; many of whom stayed in New York City, the port of entry for most European immigrants. The waves of new artistic talent, as well as the industrial and cultural might of the US insured an inevitable, if not curious, collision between the worlds of art and the machine, with New York City at the center of it all.

Art, Architecture and the Machine

The end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s saw a rush of new building activity in the City and a wide-open competition between architects and their sponsors to build the tallest buildings with the most lavish decoration. These new skyscrapers, which to this day define the essence of Manhattan, were symbols of the age, presented as pared-down architectural machines. The Machine Age was now fully engaged: only a few years after the completion of the Chrysler Building (1930) and Empire State Building (1931), the Museum of Modern Art took a brave step forward presenting in the spring of 1934 its “Machine Art” exhibit, featuring the art of machine parts like ball bearings, propellers, and springs. It was at this time too that the concept of the industrial designer was born, with its newly christened stars Raymond Loewy and Norman Bel Geddes insisting that all things needed to be redesigned; Sheldon and Martha Cheney reiterated this streamlining dictum in their book, Art and the Machine (1936), a seminal panegyric on industrial design and its practitioners.

General Motors 25th Anniversary Medal designed by Norman Bel Geddes and sculpted by René Chambellan (ANS 0000.999.45727), 77mm.

Like other art forms, medallic art was also undergoing a transformation during the interwar period. In France and Belgium especially, medallic artists like Pierre Turin, Jean Vernon, and Henry Dropsy were adopting the themes and “Deco”-type stylization found in the other arts. US-based artists did not lag far behind, especially since the creation of the Society of Medallists (SOM) in 1930 provided them an outlet for greater artistic experimentation; sponsored by the New York City-based Medallic Art Company (MACO), the SOM commissioned up to two medals per year from US-based sculptors that were then sold to subscribers. One cannot say for certain if the medallic art of these European and US artists was known to the architects and artists creating New York City’s new skyline, but there are nevertheless lines that can be traced between some of the decoration on the new buildings and numismatic art, including contemporary medals.

Architectural Medallions

Medallions (or roundels) had been a feature of architectural decoration since at least the Roman period, but these decorations well into the twentieth century were almost invariably made of stone or terracotta. And while too the (mostly) round field of the medallions makes a comparison with numismatic art predictable, rarely before had there been as much correspondence between numismatic art and architectural medallions as there was in the City in the late 1920s and early 1930s. On occasion, of course, enlarged copies of actual coins were cut into stone and placed as decorations on buildings; for example, the old ANS building had a stone copy of the reverse of a late fifth-century B.C. Syracusan tetradrachm above the entrance to the addition (completed 1930). But on two buildings in Lower Manhattan the use of coin design as building decoration was taken to a pleasant extreme. Delano & Aldrich used a repeating series of ancient coins (fifth- and fourth-century B.C. Athenian, Syracusan, and Punic obverses or reverses) to decorate the frieze of 63 Wall Street (completed 1929). Cross & Cross, the architects of 20 Exchange Place (The City Bank Farmers Trust Building; completed 1931) also used ancient coin designs in stone on the exterior, but supplemented these with contemporary (ca. 1930) US and foreign types in an arch around the entrance. Coins as decorations on buildings in the heart of the Financial District (as well as on a numismatic museum) makes certain sense, although the semiotics of the message, particularly in regard to the little known ancient designs, might have been lost on many passers-by. A closer connection between architectural decorations and contemporary medallic art, but one without monetary undertones, can also be found in the work of Oscar Bach.

Sculpted copy of the reverse of a fourth century BC Athenian tetradrachm in the frieze of 63 Wall Street.

Duralumin medallions Heating and Electricity by Oscar Bach in the lobby of the Empire State Building.

Already an accomplished metallurgist and designer, German-​born Bach emigrated to New York in 1913. Over the next forty years of his career, Bach was to design and construct interior and exterior decorations for many famed buildings in the City, including the Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, and the Health Building. For the latter two, Bach created medallions that bear an uncanny resemblance to contemporary medallic art, not only in terms of the design, but also the material: metal, rather than stone. In the lobby of the Empire State Building (350 Fifth Ave; Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, arch., completed 1931) Bach created a series of medallions in duralumin (an aluminum copper manganese alloy), finished in a light bronze color, depicting the mechanical trades and industries of building construction and systems, for example, elevators, electricity, machines, and plumbing. For the Health Building (125 Worth Street; Charles B. Meyers, arch., completed 1935), Bach produced a series of octagonal medallions with health themes, again in duralumin, set into the exterior frieze of the building.

Duralumin medallion by Oscar Bach in the frieze of the Health building, 125 Worth Street.

Rockefeller Center

Although Bach’s talents as a sculptor in metal and his body of work was prodigious, he never turned to medallic art per se, unlike many sculptors based and working in the City in the early part of the twentieth century who tried their hands at a range of sculptural output, from medals to monumental statues in stone or bronze. A large concentration of such artists was organized to decorate a single, massive building project, and one that came to epitomize the Machine Age: Rockefeller Center. A skyscraper city within the City, Rockefeller Center (1932-1940) covers almost a dozen city blocks and is comprised of nearly as many individual buildings, including Radio City, the RCA (now GE) Building, the British Empire Building, La Masion Française, the International Building, and Associated Press Building. As the project began to take shape, Raymond Hood, the primary architect, convinced the Rockefellers to commission the “greatest artists of the world” to decorate the buildings with freestanding and bas-relief sculpture, medallions, and murals. To coordinate the artists, Hood hired University of Southern California philosophy professor Hartley Burr Alexander to suggest a theme for the decorative program and write a corresponding essay. Alexander’s theme, “Homo Faber,” was ultimately rejected; the center’s publicity director, Merle Crowe, decided instead upon, “New Frontiers and the March of Civilization.” Commissions were sought from such luminaries as Picasso and Matisse, who both declined; in the end lesser known, but still highly respected artists like René Chambellan, C. Paul Jennewein, Lee Lawrie, Paul Manship, and Attilio Piccirilli created the Center’s décor.

Companion piece to Prometheus by Paul Manship.

All of these artists were accomplished sculptors, many of whom had developed personal styles within the modernist vein which well suited the conception of Rockefeller Center. Most of these artists too were highly regarded for their work in the smaller medium of medallic art. Chambellan, Jennewein, Lawrie, and Manship, for example, were prolific, award-winning medallists; Chambellan produced the 31st SOM issue in 1945; Jennewein produced the 7th SOM issue in 1933 and won the ANS Saltus award in 1949; Lawrie produced the 5th SOM issue in 1932 and won the Saltus award in 1937; Manship won the Saltus award in 1925 and produced the 2nd SOM issue in 1930. Only Attilio Piccirilli, of the famed Piccirilli family of marble cutters and sculptors, had the least to do with medallic art. In 1917 the ANS commissioned him to produce a single medal commemorating the completion of St. Bartholomew’s Church, his only foray into medallic art.

SOM issue no. 2 in silver, 1930, by Paul Manship (ANS 1988.124.2, gift of Stack’s), 71 mm.

SOM issue no. 7 in silver, 1933, by C. Paul Jennewein (ANS 1988.124.7, gift of Stack’s), 71 mm.

ANS commemoration medal for St. Bartholomew’s Church by Attilio Piccirilli (ANS 0000.999.4412), 38mm.

Despite their collective successes in the realm of medallic art, few of these artists found high praise for their commissions for Rockefeller Center. Although Manship’s monumental, golden Prometheus located in the sunken garden (ice skating rink) is now among the more famous of his works, critics mocked the statue at its unveiling in 1934, nicknaming it “Leaping Looie.” Still more unfavorable reviews were cast against Lawrie’s massive Atlas (1936, with Chambellan assisting). Critics and the public found the statue’s angular style and composition too jarring, too much like the totalitarian art that was then being produced in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy; in fact, the statue was picketed because Atlas reminded viewers of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Lawrie’s group over the entrance to the RCA building, with the awkwardly titled Genius, which interprets to the human race the laws and cycles of the cosmic forces of the universe making cycles of lights and sounds (1933) at the center, was somewhat more successful with the public although John D. Rockefeller found the allusion to William Blake’s famed painting God as an Architect unsettling since he thought critics might interpret the god-figure as Rockefeller himself.

Light, companion piece to Genius, ”by Lee Lawrie.

”SOM issue no. 5 in silver, 1932, by Lee Lawrie (ANS 1988.124.5, gift of Stack’s), 71mm.

Genius, by Lee Lawrie, over the entrance to the RCA (GE) building.

Piccirilli broke personal stylistic and thematic ground for his contribution to Rockefeller Center, a polychromed limestone panel, “Joy of Life” (1937), situated above the entrance at 15 W 48th Street. This panel and Jennewein’s Industries and cartouche adorning the doors to the British Empire Building were more innocuous in their message and style than Manship and Lawrie’s work, although still very striking in their concept and use of color. Least problematic was Chambellan’s six tritons and nereids in the “Channel Gardens” (located between the British Empire Building and La Masion Française), and his heraldic animals engraved in the façade atop the British Empire Building.

Joy of Life by Attilio Piccirilli.

Detail of Industries by C. Paul Jennewein on the doors to the British Empire Building.

Nereid by René Chambellan, Channel Gardens

Part of the problem with the reception of these works no doubt lay in America’s deep-rooted resistance to artistic modernism; all of the décor for Rockefeller Center, like the architecture, was avant-garde. Some of the artists, like Manship and Lawrie, had idiosyncratic, non-traditional personal styles, which while fine in other venues, like medallic art, did not work well in this commercial context. Others, like Chambellan and Piccirilli, were more flexible in the stylistic approach to their work, conforming as necessary to the task at hand. Chambellan especially was a master of numerous styles, as a comparison between his SOM medal and his earlier decorative work on the Chanin Building (1927) shows.

”SOM issue no. 31, 1945, by René Chambellan, silvered AE (ANS 1988.124.29, gift of Stack’s), 71mm.

Detail of lobby décor by René Chambellan, Chanin Building, 122 E 42nd Street.

The Machine Age came to an untimely halt when the first bombs of the Second World War began to fall. After the War newer, less decorative approaches to architecture, e.g., the International Style, meant there would be fewer and fewer collaborations between sculptors and architects in New York City as there had been since long before 1900. The City also cut back on the “statue mania” of the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, erecting fewer and fewer pieces of public sculpture. As a result, the long-standing ties that bound the smaller scale of numismatic art to the monumental scale of public art and architecture in the City quickly began to dissolve.

Further Reading

R.A.M. Stern, et al., 1987, New York 1930: Architecture and Urbanism between the Two World Wars (Rizzoli: New York).

R.G. Wilson, et al., 1986, The Machine Age in America: 1918-1941 (Brooklyn Museum of Art: New York).

A. Duncan, 1988, Art Deco (Thames and Hudson: London).