The Need for Speed

Artists have been inspired by the automobile since the moment of its invention as an emblem of the progress and destruction that is possible in the world. Even before the first automobiles were actually built, artists and visionaries, including Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer, depicted self-propelled machines that could be used for grandiose effect or a singular purpose. Over the years of its evolution, the car has compelled artists to grapple less with its actual mechanical innovations and technological developments and more with what the machine has symbolized from the moment it hit the road: personal freedom, a unique sense of possibility, and speed.

The experience of speed—a new experience of motion that only the automobile could offer—was an important element in the artistic representations of cars and car culture from the very beginning. In 1896, the same year that Henry Ford built his first four-wheeled car model, and only three years after Germany had begun to successfully manufacture and market the automobile, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec sketched a driving figure composed of squiggly lines and hatch marks— shoulders hunched, eyes goggled, hands gripping the steering wheel and gear shift—hurtling into the future. It was the driver’s sensation of forward propulsion that Toulouse-Lautrec felt compelled to represent rather than the automobile itself, which is only evidenced by a glimpse of the engine cover and steering mechanism.

For several years following the production of Lautrec’s lithograph, art and the automobile were conjoined mainly in advertisements for the various motor races held across Europe that promoted endurance and the dependability of the vehicle over its speed. The winner of one such race—Emile Levassor—has the distinction of being the subject of one of the grandest public monuments to honor the automobile, and one of the earliest sculptures of a car. The Monument to Emile Levassor, 1907, can be found at the Porte Maillot in Paris. Carved from marble, it portrays the driver and his winning automobile as if bursting from a Greco-Roman archway erected on the spot of the original finish line for the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris course. To win the race in 1895, Levassor traveled non-stop over seven hundred miles, at speeds averaging 15 miles per hour, for close to forty-eight hours, a feat unrivaled for several decades.

In 1909, with the publication of the "Manifeste du futurisme" in Le Figaro, the Italian Futurists embraced the automobile as the symbolic embodiment of the tenets of their beliefs: a rejection of the past in favor of modernization, machinery, youth, and speed. For the Futurists, the automobile set a new aesthetic standard, “We say 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.” In fact, the automobile served as the subject of hundreds of paintings, drawings and prints by artists like Giacomo Balla, Luigi Russolo, and Gino Severini. Balla alone created more than one hundred works whose subject matter is the “speeding automobile or a visual record of its effects.”

Borrowing the pictorial vocabulary of fractured lines, overlapping planes and simultaneous perspectives from the Cubists, the Futurists strove to depict “speed and dynamism,” which they saw as the essence of the new reality, brought about by recent technological developments and the energy created by invigorated urban environments. Artists had previously included the image of the automobile in street scenes or racing announcements to signal its importance, but the Futurists represented the car as motion itself: sliced into sections, its form barely discernable through the planes of color and the curved or angular lines that propelled it forward in space and time.

The Futurists were not the only artists to recognize the powerful potential the automobile had in conveying this new world order. Dada artist Francis Picabia credits his excursions to America as provoking a revolution in his artistic production, portending the dominant role America would soon play in the artistic representation of the automobile when he declared, “Almost immediately upon coming to American it flashed on me that the genius of the modern world is machinery, and that through machinery art ought to find a most vivid expression.” Spark plugs, cooling fans and other elements from car engines had a profound influence on Picabia’s art. His erotic object-portrait series from 1915-1917 portrays figures from the artist’s life as the machine parts themselves, with the human form replaced by the seductive elements of motors. It is no surprise that the artist is said to have owned over one hundred cars in his lifetime.