Cars - An Influential Art Motif for More Than 100 Years

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Cars - An Influential Art Motif for More Than 100 Years

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan, media theorist, stated that when people go behind the wheel, they are transformed into superhumans. While this statement may be a bit exaggerated, we can’t deny technology has the power to make us feel more powerful.

Ever since the beginning of the 20th century, speed, power, and technology have captivated artists and became an important part of their creations. However, it was the car itself that evolved to become a true symbol of the new world – a world where opportunities are endless.

Throughout the decades, cars have become a central subject in various works of art, but to what do we owe that?

Creating the cult of speed

The legendary 1901 Nice-Salon-Nice race marks the moment the cult of speed began to develop in modern society, followed two years after by the Paris-Madrid race, which established race drivers as true superhumans.

This moment was followed shortly by the apparition of an artistic movement known as Futurism. In a piece written by lead futurist poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, “Manifesto of Futurism”, he celebrates the car as being an important symbol of the modern world.
And, by taking a look at what the future holds when it comes to electric cars, we believe his statement is still correct.

From that moment on, man and machine became inseparable throughout the art movements of the 20th century.

Modern technology, influencing expressionists

After modernism came expressionism, which also turned the car into a focal point for many works of art. Painters such as Man Ray and Max Ernst used tires, wheels, and cogs as symbols in their paintings, to emphasize the idea of progression and evolution.

In the interwar period, the enthusiasm for cars in art grew even stronger, with cubist painter Francis Picabia becoming known for his impressive collection of cars (120 before his death).

Taking cars apart through Pop Art

When Pop Art became an influential art current in the ‘60s, the car remained an important source of inspiration, only this time deconstruction became the go-to art process. This marked the era of mass culture, where mass production was but a consumer fetish.

Andy Warhol, infamous Pop Artist, put together a famous art series called “Car Crash”, comprised out of images portraying car accidents with victims still trapped inside the vehicles. He based his work on press photos, which were enlarged and played on sensationalism, suggesting the decline of our civilization.

Then followed a series of works by various modern artists such as Allan Kaprow and Wolf Vostell, who used cars to express their artistic views. Vostell even went as far as to encase Cadillacs in concrete as part of his work.

Cars become the canvas

Come the ‘70s, artists took cars to a whole new artistic level and receive licenses to use these cars as their own canvases. The first one to paint a BMW Art Car was Alexander Calder back in 1975, followed by Andy Warhol, Esther Mahlangu, and Roy Liechtenstein.

Cars continued to be an artistic motif throughout the ’90s and 2000s as well, with one notable piece of art coming from artist Pipilotti Rist in the form of a video installation. In this installation, a young woman walks down the street and uses a bouquet of flowers to smash the windows of a car.

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