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You Got a Fast Car: Automobile Art

Roy Lichtenstein, In the Car, 1963, National Galleries of Scotland.

Art State of Mind

You Got a Fast Car: Automobile Art

I’m desperately trying to pass my driving license exam (so far no good). I thought that maybe art and Tracy Chapman could give me some speeding vibes in the car?

Renaissance Vehicle

Leonardo da Vinci, Automobile, 1480, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy.

This drawing presents the original idea for the first self-propelled vehicle in history. Leonardo probably designed it for one of his patrons as a ‘show-piece’. Well, it definitely made an impression. If you’re curious what it looked like, you can find the replica at the museum Clos Lucé, near Château d’Amboise, in France.

Futurist Car

Automobile Art
Giacomo Balla, Velocity Of An Automobile, 1913, private collection.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti devoted to cars in the Founding Manifesto of Futurism from 1909 a whole point number 4: “We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. 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.” (translation by R.W. Flint). Well, I was never convinced by this, but all the Futurists were. They dedicated many drawings and paintings to the study of movement and speed.

Giacomo Balla, Abstract Speed + Sound ( Velocità astratta + rumore ), 1914, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Italy.

Around 1913 Balla turned to the studies of movement and as a study case he chose cars which had been manufactured in Italy only for a decade. In numerous studies to this work, he focused his attention on the landscape is being altered “by the passage of a car through the atmosphere” (Virginia Dortch Dorazio, Giacomo Balla: An Album of His Life and Work (New York: Wittenborn, 1969). Some suggest that this work is a central panel to a triptych.

Surrealist Automobile

Automobile Art
Salvador Dali, The Fossilised Automobile of Cape Creus, 1936, G.E.D. Nahmad Collection, Geneva, Switzerland

It was always Gala behind the wheel of the Cadillac because Dalí never got a driver’s license. Nevertheless, unlike most surrealists, he often depicted cars, often imbuing them with meaning: here, by presenting a fossilised car and the rocks of Cap de Creus in Catalonia, he created a juxtaposition. Cars, a recent human invention which uses fossil fuel, are linked in a way to fossil materials, which are in turn immemorial in time. Tricky, isn’t it?

Salvador Dali, Double Victory of Gaudi, 1982, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, Spain.

Here we have a Surrealist ‘wink wink’ at Marinetti’s manifesto since Dalí presents Victory of Samothrace surrounded by two cars. Does he compare the beauty of the machine to the classical ideal? Or is it a parody of Futurists? And can we treat as the answer his 1929 note that “The most perfect and most precise metaphors come to us today coined and rendered objectively by the industry”.

Neo-Dada Tires

Automobile Art
Robert Rauschenberg, Automobile Tire Print, 1953, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), San Francisco, CA, US.

Here it gets even trickier. Rauschenberg made a step further in the study of movement and especially artistic expression and authorship. As a provocative response to Abstract Expressionism, which was the most popular trend in the 1950s in the States, all about artistic license to express oneself, Rauschenberg made an expressive act/drawing/print/performance/ installation piece (you name it): he asked his friend John Cage to drive a Ford in a straight line over twenty sheets of paper laid by him on the road outside his studio in Lower Manhattan. Was the work still Rauschenberg’s if he didn’t make it with his own hand? If yes, what makes one an artist in the automatized era?

Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.


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