In 1939 Hermann Goering "invited" Lili Rethi to produce art glorifying the Third Reich. Rethi requested permission to travel to Denmark to finish drawings of a bridge there. She never returned to her native Vienna, where she had grown up sketching canals, shipyards, bridges and other man-made wonders.
Rethi arrived in New York in 1939 to draw the World's Fair for a London magazine. It was love at first sight: "I arrived on the Queen Mary one morning at 5 o'clock and saw the New York skyline, orange and pink, and the light blue shadows of skyscrapers, and it was as I always had dreamed it would be. At 10 o'clock that morning I applied for citizenship." (New York Times 5/5/1964)
Over the next thirty years (she died in 1969 at age 73), Rethi illustrated over fifty books, but she also drew numerous major construction projects, often for the Times. In the 1940s there was the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. In the 1950s, there was the United Nations headquarters and the White House reconstruction. (The White House was declared unsafe for human habitation in November 1948, and had to be gutted and rebuilt.) In the 1960s, there was the enormous Daniel Johnson dam in Quebec, and in New York, Lincoln Center and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Her last set of drawings was for the World Trade Center.
Rethi's drawings, full of minute and exactingly correct detail, point up the difference between photography and drawing. The details are always subordinated to one aspect that she has decided to emphasize. She is extremely selective in what she includes, even though she includes a great deal.
Several of Rethi's drawings of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
are on view through March 20th at the Brooklyn Historical Society
(www.brooklynhistory.org). These drawings were reproduced in
two books, unfortunately in much reduced format: Gay Talese's
The Bridge, and The Great Bridge, with text by Edward M. Young.