Thursday, November 17, 2016

Rolling Sculpture - Cars of the Art Deco period

The 1920s and 30s were a period of artistic and technical fervor that touched all areas of human endeavour. Art deco was just one of the transformative art and stylistic movements of this period, but it was one that would leave an enduring mark upon art, design, architecture and transport. Art Deco influence was seen in the era of airships, of the beginnings of long distance air travel, of skyscrapers and motor vehicles. It reflected a future that was was shiny, streamlined and elegant.

Art deco style was as influential in automobile design as it was in aircraft and architecture. The concept of form and function, of smooth lines and elegance found its expression in a number of exquisite motor cars and motorcycles, and this is the subject of a new exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, NC. The exhibition showcases seventteen exemplary vehicles that highlight aspects of the art deco movement of the period.

Some cars, such as the Bugatti Aerolithe and the Talbot-Lago represent the pinnacle of the streamlined form. These cars were handcrafted to their owner's highly individualistic requirements, were often unique or produced in extremely small numbers, so were able to take the streamlining concept to its extreme.

By contrast, the Tatra, which is represented in the exhibit by a 1940 Tatra T87, and the Chrysler Airflow, were mass produced 'off the shelf' cars look positively stodgy by comparison, despite their radical for the time features.

Others, such as the Ruxton represent the artistic aesthetics of the period, which striped paint scheme and elaborate headlights and fittings.

This exhibition includes motorcycles, which I think is very important as motorcycles were such an important feature of the period. Even the cheapest cars in the 20s and 30s were often out of the range of normal people, especially in Europe. The car was an impossible dream and the best your average working man could hope for was to one day own a motorcycle. Even here though one could witness the shining vision of the future. BMW's 1934 R7 motorcycle, represents the start of what would be a long lineage that continues today and is a masterpiece of style and form. It never entered production however and the single example was believed lost after it was exhibited at the 1934 Berlin Motor Show. After the show it was crated up and forgotten, discovered only in 2005.

The 1941 Indian represents something that I believe has been lost these days. The Indian is a work-a-day machine that was built for the common man, but despite this Indian built and styled the bike without any concessions to cost saving. The Indian therefore IS beautiful because Indian insisted that their bikes be beautiful. The effort, craftsmanship and styling invested in this machine by its creators is reminiscent to the elaborate care and craftsmanship that 19th century British architects and builders lavished on the construction of mundane industrial buildings such as water towers and pumping stations; only here its in steel.

The exhibit is on at the North Carolina Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh, NC 27607-6494, until January 2017. Tickets and information is available from their website:

If you can't make it to Raleigh, the museum has produced a high quality hardback book of the exhibition that is very worthwhile. See their website for details.

I received an excellent catalog and a note of thanks for helping them out with some Tatra contacts.

All photos come from the NCMA website, Facebook page and Caroline Rocheleau, exhibition curator.

Here is an interview with the team about the exhibition.

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