Aside from the car collection, the Louwman Museum has an extensive collection of ‘Automobile Art’. But are car paintings ever any good?
Ever since the first photograph was produced, the ‘Death of Painting’ has been trumpeted but painting still carries on. One reason of course is that the camera only catches the momentary image – it doesn’t always explain what is happening or why it is happening. Equally in today’s Photoshop world, it’s reasonable to forecast the ‘Death of Photography’. Certainly it is partly dead – most of today’s more glossy motoring magazines would find it hard to produce a cover, or even a main article image, in an unadorned state.
The problem is that cars never really look as heroic as we see them in our minds and, although we once compensated for that with our imaginations, today’s editors don’t trust us to do that. So blemishes are removed, highlights are emphasised and ‘speed’, in the formed of blurred wheels and a flowing road, is added. Apart from the suggestion that magazines are there to report the reality, not to tart up a fantasy on behalf of the manufacturer’s marketing department, for me the problem is that I begin to ask if a real car ever existed under the myriad Photoshop layers. Soon, certainly, that won’t be necessary and the first lavishly illustrated road test, entirely faked by a journalist who couldn’t be arsed to get out of bed, is surely imminent; if not already waiting to be uncovered.
With motor sport, both the abilities and the shortcomings of the camera often made it hard to show what was actually going on, though sometimes the technology inadvertently helped. The distortion caused by a slow moving focal plane shutter travelling downwards meant that many photos of early 20th Century racing cars gave them a forward lean, imbuing an almost cartoon-like eagerness. As shutters and film got faster this distortion disappeared but, on a medium-speed shutter, tracking the car would keep the car image crisp but blurred the background, emphasising speed. Equally a very fast shutter and a narrow depth of field could freeze a moment, catching everything in a perfect crisp combination. So there are certainly memorable photos but, for that extra something, many people look towards the non-photographic artist.
Personally, I’m not actually a great lover of automotive art, or most ‘art’ that is inspired by a singular interest that it seeks to tap. Marine Art, Railway Art, Fishing Art – I can see why enthusiasts for these interests buy it but much of it is pretty dire, and could only be loved by a partisan. But there are exceptions. The 19th Century Russian artist Aivazovsky’s painting of ships in storms are magnificently terrifying and create imagery of something that you believe is real, but that could never be captured by a camera. The film ‘A Perfect Storm’ seemed convincing enough, but his painting ‘Rainbow’ would do far more to prevent me from ever setting out to sea.
For the same reason, I’ve always liked F Gordon Crosby’s pictures because, although meticulous in some respects, they don’t pretend to capture reality, but they do conjure an atmosphere – the intent, if not the actuality. They romanticise the car and its drivers in an age I never experienced. Born in 1885 and generally self-taught after an initial career as a draughtsman, Frederick Gordon Crosby was a leading automotive illustrator in the first part of the 20th Century, employed extensively by Autocar magazine. Working mainly in crayon or watercolour, the Louwman has a fine series of works by him.
I’m loath to counter this with examples of what I consider ‘bad’ automotive art, by which I don’t mean necessarily technically inept, but stuff which doesn’t actually work. These can range from the cheap and cheerful illustrations from the boy’s comics of my youth, as shown at the start of this piece, to big paintings showing a particular sporting hero in action. These are sometimes obviously copied from directly from photos, but reproducing a photo with brushmarks isn’t art – even if it sells well. And some of the stuff which is skilfull, and I might think does work, still isn’t to my own taste since I generally feel that technological devices should be illustrated by technological means. There is something essentially contradictory about an oil painting of a McLaren.
My liking of F Gordon Crosby’s work is partly that it comes from a time I never knew. Crosby died in 1943 but, to put his work into a more recent context, look at Alan Fearnley, obviously a very skilled artist who, although he has his own style, is certainly informed by Crosby. Although no less skilled, I find his paintings of relatively modern racers leave me unmoved. But his narrative paintings of individual cars and their occupants are rather exquisite, his skill overcoming any corniness.
Others use the paintbrush to fragment the image, to try to give a feeling of movement without resorting to cartoonish speed lines. But, without demeaning them in the least, the examples I’ve shown above are all safe choices, broadly figurative work that’s easy to understand. Finding less representational work is hard – the market seems to want the literal. Over 100 years ago, The Futurists, with their worshipping of machinery, attempted to conjure speed with varying degrees of success.
Otherwise, for a different kind of Car Painting, you can look to Brian Miller who photographs the result when painted car meets bare concrete at speed, then transfers it to canvas.
But in the end, much of the most satisfying automotive painting for me is that which is unashamedly trying to sell me the dream.
Note : Excellent though the Louwman Museum is, I’d point out that I have used it as a starting point for this piece. The Crosbys are from their collection, but other examples I’ve sourced elsewhere.