Murals of New York City

December 18, 2013 at 3:33 pm

It’s art meant for everyone to see — murals painted by some of the world’s most famous artists are all around us in New York City, but you do need to know where to look. Now, 33 of the greatest murals are in one collection— a book of photos and stories called Murals of New York City: The Best of New York’s Public Paintings From Bemelmans to Parrish. You can read an excerpt of the introduction by Graydon Carter below, courtesy of Rizzoli.

In their purest form, murals have the ability to tell stories. And it is in this respect that they keep alive the epic tale of mankind in all its splendor and vanity. In their broadest form, they can be anything from the most primitive scratchings on the walls of caves in Northern Spain to Etruscan temples, Buddhist monasteries, and the palaces at Knossos and Samarra, and all the way up into the pantheon of muraldom inhabited by Giotto’s Arena Chapel, in Padua, and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in Rome. Murals can be platforms for or against, everything from industrial boosterism and nation building to political oppression and war.

The expanse of the canvas must be part of the appeal for their creators inasmuch as some of the finest painters of the past century have turned their hand to the art, including Picasso, Léger, Rivera, Sargent, and even Keith Haring. Picasso’s reaction to the bombing of the Basque city of Guernica made its first appearance as a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exposition.

If there’s a golden age for murals in this country, it would have to be the period between the Wars, when so many of the walls of our civic buildings, libraries, schools, and skyscraper lobbies were transformed into glorious showcases thanks largely to funding from the Federal Arts Program and the Works Progress Administration, two of the work-creating operations of F.D.R.’s New Deal.

That so many of the splendid examples of the muralist’s art are in New York is a blessing to anyone who lives in the city. And in the pages of this splendid book, by Glenn Palmer-Smith and Joshua McHugh, they come alive, beckoning in miniature for the reader to make the journey to the sources. As much as each painting tells a story, there is a story behind each painting.