Need for speed: how cars have inspired modern art | Arts | DW | 14.07.2017
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Need for speed: how cars have inspired modern art

The Futurists glorified it, Pop Art dismantled it, the Fluxus movement set it in concrete. An exhibition at Art Gallery Emden shows how the car has been an influential art object for over a century.

"Behind the wheel," wrote the media theorist Marshall McLuhan in 1964, "we are transformed into supermen."

Technology, speed, power and noise have fascinated artists since the beginning of the 20th century. But it was the car itself that emerged as the most potent symbol of a new world with endless possibilities. 

A new exhibition at the Art Gallery Emden, in northern Germany, explores how artists including Sylvie Fleury, Andy Warhol, Yngve Holen, Peter Roehr, Gavin Turk and others have made the car a central subject in modern art.

The speed of sound

Early car racing initially helped establish the car as a central subject of art and popular culture. The legendary Nice-Salon-Nice race in 1901, and the Paris-Madrid race two years later, established racing car drivers as popular heroes. The cult of speed was born.

In 1901, German Wilhelm Werner was idealized after winning the Nice-Salon-Nice race in a Mercedes (picture-alliance/dpa/Fotoreport DaimlerChrysler)

In 1901, German Wilhelm Werner was idealized after winning the Nice-Salon-Nice race in a Mercedes

By 1909, an artistic movement called Futurism was formed around a passion for modern technology - and especially fast cars. The lead futurist was an Italian, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, whose "Manifesto of Futurism" celebrated the car as the great symbol of modernity, a form of the concentrated power with which artists could break into the future.

"We affirm that the world's magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed," he wrote in his famous treatise. "A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace (the Greek sculpture in the Louvre in Paris)."

Writer, artist and Futurist founder Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (Sanden/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Writer and artist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti conceived Futurism after a car crash

Man and machine were inseparable in the avant-garde art movements of the early 20th century. Dynamism, noise and violence were the catch cries of Marinetti and his artistic circles - indeed, the idea of Futurism was inspired after the Italian crashed his car in 1908.

The architect Le Corbusier also contributed to this car fever. The automobile symbolized how architecture could become a living machine.

In his "Toward an Architecture," written in 1923, Le Corbusier expressed the avant-garde's enthusiasm for the car by comparing it with the Parthenon in Athens. Both evolved through refinements that completed the "path of progress." This made each a classic and timeless innovation.

The car as artistic motif

Modern technology was becoming central to the work of expressionist artists and painters like Man Ray, George Grosz and Max Ernst. Cogs, tires and wheels appeared in paintings as symbols of the idea of forward ​​movement. At the same time, the city had become an important artistic subject - though it could not be imagined without the car.

Francis Picabia am Steuer (picture-alliance/Everett Collection)

French painter Francis Picabia at the wheel of an early automobile around 1915

The enthusiasm for the car was also unbroken between the two world wars. The flamboyant French Cubist painter Francis Picabia, for instance, collected cars (around 120 over his lifetime) at the same rate as he was said to have courted beautiful women.

Pop art dismantles the car

The artistic desire for machines was deconstructed with the rise of Pop Art. In the age of mass culture, mass production was presented as a consumer fetish.

In the 1960s, Andy Warhol's famous "Car Crash" series portrayed images of car accidents in which victims sit lifeless in smashed cars. Based on press photos - that were enlarged into screen prints - the images play on media sensationalism and the decline of civilization. 

At the same time, American installation artist Allan Kaprow portrayed a crossroads, a world of traffic jams, noise and exhaust fumes. The triumphal march of the automobile had in reality come to a standstill.

In this spirit, German artist and founder of the Fluxus art movement, Wolf Vostell, famously encased a Cadillac in concrete in a piece titled "Concrete Traffic" (1970), one of his early so-called Happenings. Later, in 1987, he also put two Cadillacs in concrete in Berlin ("Concrete Cadillacs").  

Andy Warhol Car Crash (Imago)

Andy Warhol's 'Car Crash' deconstructed the allure of the automobile

Monuments of mobility

Artists have not only seen cars as an inspiration for art, but have been given artistic license to use cars as a canvass for their creations.

The American sculptor Alexander Calder, for instance, was the first to paint a BMW Art Car in 1975. Artists from Roy Liechtenstein to Andy Warhol and Esther Mahlangu have gone on to create such signature art cars. The BMW that South African artist Mahlangu painted in 1991 was solely an exhibit and was never driven.

Esther Mahlangu turned this BMW into a canvass for art that was never driven (picture-alliance/Photoshot)

Esther Mahlangu turned this BMW into a canvass for art that was never driven

Meanwhile, the car has an increasingly conflicted role in modern art. In 1999, the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist created a video installation, "Ever is Over All," in which a young woman runs down the street and smashes the windows of a parked car with a bouquet of flowers. It has been said that the now-iconic scene was borrowed by Beyoncé in the film clip for her 2016 song, "Hold Up."

Automobile vandalism is also the theme in Sarah Lucas's "Car Park" (1997), the British artist having placed a car with broken windows and glass still on the floor in the Museum Ludwig in Cologne - on the wall behind was a series of her photos, "Concrete Void," which were all taken in a London multi-story car park.

 In 2005, Austrian artist Erwin Wurm created an overweight Porsche, his now-famous Convertible Fat Car (picture-alliance ZUMAPRESS/C. Faga)

Austrian artist Erwin Wurm's "Convertible Fat Car"

Later in 2005, Austrian artist Erwin Wurm created an overweight Porsche, his now-famous "Convertible Fat Car" criticizing the cult of cars as status objects.

“Das Auto in der Kunst. Rasende Leidenschaft” (The car in art: speeding passion") runs July 15 until November 5, 2017 at Art Gallery Emden. 


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