Skip to main content

On art and NASCAR


Why do we love cars?

Maybe some of us don’t love cars at all. We have one because we have to, because it performs a function, like a toaster or a microwave.

Some of us, though, love cars because of their machined perfection, because they can go so fast, because there’s something thrilling about the sensation of the human body hurtling through space at high speeds—whether we experience that on an empty desert highway, pressing the foot down hard on the gas pedal when we’re sure there are no cops around; or we go to giant speedway stadia, where we gaze enviously at machines that are permitted, indeed encouraged, to whizz around at nearly 200 miles per hour (all hail fellow car lovers at the Talladega Superspeedway this weekend!).

Some of us love cars because they are simply beautiful objects. Maybe not so much now, when manufacturers have honed and cloned their designs until they all start to look the same, and the minute differences between one model and another are visible only to the true aficionado. But the classic cars, the Ford Model A or the Ford Deluxe Coupe, the Hispano-Suiza (Picasso owned one, though he never learned to drive), the gorgeous gas-guzzling giants of the American 1950s, the Thunderbird, the Impala: these are works of art that an aesthete like me cannot help but fall in love with.

At the beginning of the twentieth century and the dawn of the automobile era, artists, too, responded visually to cars, for similar reasons. The Italian Futurists painters (Balla, Russolo, Severini, Boccioni, Carra) created many paintings and drawings in which they tried to depict the thrill of speed:

'Speeding automobile', 1912, oil on canvas, Giacomo Balla

Leaving aside the links between the Futurists and Fascism (I know, that’s a big omission), what we see in these paintings is the division of space into small shapes, repeated across the picture plane in sweeping rhythms that draw the eye to and fro in a swirling motion. Bits of cars are recognizable in some of the paintings. In pictorial terms, they recognized the potential of abstract painting to suggest movement on a two-dimensional surface. They united this with their worship of the car as the object that most perfectly represented the coming machine age: an age of scientific progress, of “hygienic violence”, of the beauty of perpetual motion, all concepts that made a decisive break from the hidebound traditions of the nineteenth century (particularly in Italy).

It’s interesting how, even though these paintings were made nearly a century ago, the rippling patterns look like that special effect in ‘The Matrix’ films used to suggest bullets flying and bending through the air. Perhaps it shows how they were on to something.

This identification with the car, though, changed over the course of the twentieth century, in ways that mirrored the changes in major twentieth century art movements. In future posts in this series, I’ll look at how other important artists used cars in their art—from Picasso to Philip Guston and beyond. And if anyone reading this happens to like art AND owns a well-kept classic car, please email me a picture and I’ll publish it here on this blog along with a drooling appreciation.

 Subscribe to Praeterita in a reader

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Brancusi in Plastic

Artist Mary Ellen Croteau is showing these columns made from recycled plastic cartons and lids in the window of the Columbia College bookstore on Michigan Avenue. They are a playful homage to Brancusi's "Endless Columns", with a serious environmental message for our times:

Mary Ellen also runs a wonderful experimental art gallery in a window space in west Chicago, called Art on Armitage. I will be exhibiting a mixed media piece there during August 2012.

How to etch a linoleum block

Linoleum as a material for printmaking has been used for nearly a hundred years now. Normally, you cut an image out using special gouges similar to woodcut tools, cutting away the lino around the image you want to print. This is called relief printmaking, because if you look at the block from the side, the material that remains stands up in relief from the backing material. You then roll ink with a brayer over the surface of the block, place paper over it, and either print by hand or run it through a press. You can do complex things this way (for example, reduction linocuts), but the beauty of the process is that it is quick, simple, and direct.


A few years ago, I saw some prints that were classified as coming from etched linoleum blocks, and I loved the textures I saw in them. In the last few months, I've been trying to use this technique in my own studio, learning about it as one does these days from websites and YouTube videos. I've also had email exchanges with several pr…

A List of Every Drink in Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises"

I first read Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel "The Sun Also Rises" when I was a teenager, and immediately fell in love with it. For the last couple of years, I have had the incredible privilege of teaching a class based around Hemingway in Paris -- while living and teaching in Paris itself, close to the Boulevard du Montparnasse, where most of the action of the novel's first half takes place.

Of the many things that one notices about the book, the colossal amount of drinking is something that stands out. These people didn't just drink like fish: they drank like whales, as if the ocean they swam in was alcohol and they had set themselves the task of drinking the seas of the world dry of it. During my read-through of the book before class started last year, I tried to underline every mention of drink in the book. And now, purely in the interests of science, I am listing the entire menu of booze mentioned directly by name. Some preliminary observations:
Most of this is…