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The Art of Science: Inside The Decades-Old Love Affair Between Artists And GE

Liz Wishaw
October 19, 2019
Norman Rockwell painted ad posters for GE, as did Herbert Bayer, the last living member of the Bauhaus movement. Cult science-fiction illustrator Dean Ellis drew the changing face of downtown America for a GE calendar. And the company published comic books illustrated by George “Inky” Roussos, who also worked on Batman.
Who says there’s no beauty in industry? GE has a decades-long tradition of employing talented painters and illustrators — collaborations that served both the company’s bottom line and, ultimately, America’s cultural heritage. These partnerships with now-famous artists demonstrate a powerful symbiosis: Just as the arts can inspire science, so can science inspire the arts.

Join us as we take a look back at GE’s colorful history.

Birth Of A Luminary

 width= Above: Rockwell's 1925 "What a Protection Electric Light Is," courtesy of GE Lighting Institute. Top: Rockwell Kent's mural "The Power of Electricity" was created for the World's Fair. Image credit: Museum of Science and Innovation Schenectady.

GE’s marketing department saw something early on in Rockwell when it hired the artist and illustrator to create a series of paintings and drawings for a 1920s ad campaign promoting the company’s Mazda electric lamps. The painter created “at least 20 advertising illustrations” for GE, depicting ordinary Americans using the electric light in their daily routines. Seven of them — all large oil paintings whose influences range from the impressionists to the old masters — remain on display at Nela Park, GE Lighting’s historic campus in East Cleveland, Ohio.


Oh, The Places He'd Go


Years before he delighted kids with a cat in a hat and Sneetches with stars upon thars as Dr. Seuss, author Theodor Geisel was an adman who created pitches for “G-E.” Among his creations was “The Strange Case of Adlebert Blump” in the G-E Merchandiser, a publication targeting prospective retailers. Though the tale doesn’t rhyme, readers today would instantly recognize Seussian whimsy in its characters — elaborately mustachioed men, startled cats and droopy dogs. Geisel’s work with GE helped fund world travels with his wife — experiences that inspired a number of his beloved children’s books.


He Brought Good Things To Life

 width= Kurt Vonnegut, third from left, takes notes during a VIP tour of GE’s Schenectady plant. The photo was preserved by Mary Robinson. Her father, Ollie M. Lyon Jr., was Vonnegut’s close friend and colleague in the GE PR department. He's the man in the center in the three-piece suit. Image credit: Mary Robinson.

Before Kurt Vonnegut wrote the best-sellers “Slaughterhouse Five” and “Cat’s Cradle,” he honed his storytelling skills as a GE publicist in Schenectady, New York. His job: to “hunt for stories at the Schenectady Works and keep a steady drumbeat of good news issuing from the plant.” According to the scholar Robert K. Musil, that meant visiting with scientists and chatting with them about their work. “Every so often a good story would come out of it,” Vonnegut said. And so it did, inspiring him to write his first novel, “Player Piano,” focusing on a dystopian world run by machines, “as a satire of one of the world’s largest corporations.”


Flight Of Fancy

 width= It's equipped with the world's most powerful jet engine — and made entirely from manila folders. Image credit: Luca Iaconi-Stewart.

Can you make an exquisitely precise replica of an Air India Boeing 777 jet entirely out of paper? Luca Iaconi-Stewart did. Beginning as a high school student in the late 2000s, the young man spent nine years painstakingly reproducing every facet of the plane, right down to functioning thrust reversers, doors and tail fin. The model — all made from stiff manila folders, we’ll remind you — includes details like seatback entertainment systems and the hidden crew “rest module.” “I like the way the planes look and I love the engines,” Iaconi-Stewart told GE Reports. He’d studied components of the engine at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, whose collection includes at least one GE design doubling as fine art: a sinuous composite fan blade for the GE90-115B, the world’s most powerful jet engine.


It’s Not All Just Mummies

 width= Herbert Bayer’s GE vacuum tube poster. Image credit: Museum of Science and Innovation Schenectady.

Speaking of MoMA, the museum also displays the work of Bauhaus-trained designer Bayer, whose creations for GE included a techno-optimistic print of a giant vacuum tube titled “Electronics — A New Science for a New World.” You can find GE technology in a number of other private and public collections across the country, as well. To name just a couple: An image of aviator Amelia Earhart from her visit to GE labs is part of the GE collection at the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady, New York. And a decorative Halloween ad for light bulbs in the 1970s and 1980s is featured in the collection of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.


Collect It While You Can

 width= Known for glowing, light-filled paintings like "Daybreak," Maxfield Parrish got practice early in his career creating illustrations for the popular Edison Mazda Lamp Calendar. Image credit: Museum of Science and Innovation Schenectady.

Art collectors swoon over large, detailed posters from painter Maxfield Parrish, who got a hand from GE early in his career. Originally used as images for the immensely popular Edison Mazda Lamp Calendar from 1918 to 1934, Parrish illustrations like “Dream Light” and “Ecstasy” show the history of light that seems to glow from within the painting. It’s a technique he created using pure layering of color glazes — and it’s what brought collectors to his commercial works after his death in 1966. Looking for one of those calendars? Auctioneers have recently sold those Parrish-themed GE calendars for $500.

Parrish was just one of a dozen painters GE commissioned each year from 1925 to 1960 to create images for those calendars. Another American painter and illustrator, Rockwell Kent — known for his illustrations in “Moby Dick” — also created at least two paintings for the GE calendar series in the late 1940s. It’s Kent’s mural “The Power of Electricity,” though, created for the GE Building at the 1938 World’s Fair, that the art world remembers. Representing electricity’s role in man’s progress from obscurity to enlightenment, the mural was later moved to the now-demolished Albion Hotel in Asbury Park, New Jersey.


Machine Music

 width= Concert pianist Marie-Agathe Charpagne, who also happens to have a degree in materials science, has worked on a steel superalloy used inside the latest jet engines. Image credit: Marie-Agathe Charpagne.

More recently, GE collaborated with DJs and musicians like Reuben Wu of Ladytron and Matthew Dear and asked them to turn the sounds of GE machines and technology into music. For example, GE set Dear up with a library of 1,000 sounds generated by machines spanning its entire industrial portfolio, from jet engines to MRI scanners. Dear turned the sounds into a propulsive track called "Drop Science". But artistic inspiration goes even deeper than that. Concert pianist Marie-Agathe Charpagne, who also happens to have a degree in materials science, has worked on a steel superalloy used inside the latest jet engines developed by CFM International, a 50-50 joint venture between GE and Safran Aircraft Engines.


Back To The Future

 width= GIF credit: Chris New for GE Reports.

Science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov never worked for GE, but it didn't stop him from using the company as prism to imagine the future. Half a century ago, he  walked into the GE exhibition at the 1964 New York World’s Fair in Queens and declared that “the direction in which man is traveling is viewed with buoyant hope, nowhere more so than at the General Electric pavilion.” What he saw inspired him to imagine the world in 2014 in an essay for The New York Times. GE created its Progressland pavilion in partnership with Disney. In 1967, after the world's fair ended, it became “The Carousel of Progress” and moved to Disneyland. It then moved once again, to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, where it remains today.