Fitz and Van’s GM swansong.
Recognised as perhaps the most significant commercial automotive illustrators of the modern era, Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman made their names from evocative, highly stylised, yet beautifully wrought promotional illustrations for General Motors in the United States, and for the Pontiac marque in particular. But in addition, this gifted duo would also define a mode of expression, one few have equalled without accusation of parody or copy.
Towards the latter portion of their career, with their services no longer required in Detroit, Fitz and Van were commissioned by GM’s European division to provide their distinctive illustrative style for Rüsselsheim’s promotional material. The three images shown here were taken from an early 1970s (I would hazard 1972/3) Opel Programme brochure, featuring the entire Opel range at the time, from Kadett to Diplomat. While lesser models employed a mixture of studio or location photos, the Rekord, Commodore and Admiral pages featured hand-drawn illustrations, each bearing the inimitable VK AF moniker.
While the gorgeous sun-dappled image for the new for 1972 Rekord D saloon with its lush riverside background could conceivably have hailed from the duo’s 1960s heyday, at first glance the stark picture created for the Commodore GS Coupé (lead image) gave location artist, Van Kaufman comparatively little to play with. However, study the picture more closely and despite the spare backdrop, both the human figures and the vintage cars they are poring over are beautifully rendered, so even if one might feel slightly short-changed on Kaufman’s usually more generous canvas, there is no diminution of craft or technique.
The illustration displaying the Opel Admiral’s wares however proves a good deal less satisfying to the eye. While that of the Commodore makes virtue of its economy of detail, this fully realised scene appears somewhat inert, a little washed out. Worse still, in draughtsmanship terms, the Admiral itself, while competently (if not perfectly) drawn, perhaps betrays the time honoured VK AF process a little too overtly – for in terms of scale, neither car nor background appears to be quite in harmony. To these eyes at least, it represents perhaps the least convincing example of their oeuvre.
Art Fitzpatrick on an off-day perhaps, or was it simply the subject matter? Certainly the Chuck Jordan-helmed Commodore B design (especially in elegant coupé form here) lent itself more to artistic realisation. This latter illustration represents the duo’s style in all its expressive glory: The gilded couple. The ski resort. The upmarket, indulgent (and curiously unmuddied) GT. Molten sunlight upon snow capped mountains. Aspiration rendered sublime.
By 1973, it appears that the rise of the photographic image had become irresistible, and with both Fitzpatrick and Kaufman consigned to a more romantic Madison Avenue-tinged past, starker realities entered the automotive domain. Automotive illustrators were for a time prolific, however few truly excelled. Fewer still became known by name. Fitz and Van represented the pinnacle of a certain hyper-realised, somewhat exaggerated form of auto-romanticism, one which spoke to an era where the motor car represented the apogee of consumerist desire.
Within this narrow oeuvre, Fitz and Van were giants. Their finest work was of such quality as to elevate (relatively) simple promotional images to the level of artform. Future generations may well stare at cars such as these, boggle-eyed that we could hold these strange, toxic objects in such esteem, to have them rendered thus as gods. They might well consider us insane. But perhaps by viewing the artwork of Fitz and Van they will come to understand both how and why the motor car briefly held us in such thrall.
8 thoughts on “Drawn Out”
Thanks for posting this. You´re right – the green Admiral is not satisfactory. The car seems to be on a plane in a separate realm from the background and the perspective is off by a tiny amount. Drawings are not trusted in the same way photographs are. I once faithfully copied a photo and even if every line was in the right place it looked wrong. The process of transforming it to a drawing robbed it of other elements that told my brain “it´s okay, it´s the real thing.” It could very well be that too look right a drawing has to over-compensate perspective geometry. I think the green Admiral might indeed lack this over-compensation.
Fitz and Van ought to have tried doing other graphic design effects as times changed. I guess they ossified.
Good morning Eóin. I want to love these illustrations, but I find most of them somewhat unsatisfactory. For me, there is a dissonance between the rendering of the cars and the surrounding imagery. The backgrounds are beautifully drawn in a gentle mid-century artistic style, while the portrayal of the cars is almost a (sometimes poor) attempt at photorealism. This is most apparent in the illustration of the green Rekord saloon. Look at the entirely literal way the reflection of the trees in the car’s bonnet is drawn, in contrast with the somewhat impressionistic style in which the grass and water is portrayed. It is almost as though the backgrounds and cars were rendered by two different hands. (Might they have been?) This makes the cars look artificially superimposed on their settings.
The cars themselves are sometimes unconvincing. The red Commodore coupé sits too low on its wheels, while the perspective of the admiral is exaggerated (the front is too large relative to the rear) and distorted (compare the camber of the front and rear wheels). By far the most convincing image is, as you say, the yellow Commodore coupé, which sits most comfortably and naturally in its surroundings.
Yes, that was indeed their style and the foundation of their creative partnership, one of them did the backgrounds, the other one finished it up with doing the car on top. I would say the result was more coherent earlier in their careers, their respective style strived with time until it became a little bit mismatched. And event though the cars may look photo realistic, make no mistake, perspectives are skewed to the extreme while still being believable to make the cars look at their best.
The Admiral painting stands apart, I think because it portrays wealth and business, but there is nothing glamorous about the public street outside a gated mansion. The viewer could imagine themselves in the scene, a stark and boring public street, separated by walls and gates from a mansion, hardly fun or romantic.
The Opel work is also different from most of the Pontiac work where the stylization of the painting, texture in particular is overlaid on the car which helps to unify the image, in the example below there appears to be both a pointillist effect, perhaps applied with an airbrush, and a canvas like texture applied to the entire piece.
Some information about the Fitz and Van technique :
Perhaps the bosses at Opel wouldn’t countenance any “noise” on the cars at all, not just the absence of water droplets and mud splash.
Maybe that pointillism effect I mentioned is actually an artifact of the printing technique? In any case I think this Opel ad works a bit better than the green Rekord and yellow Commodore GS renderings where the Fitz’ hyper realistic style contrasts slightly too much with Van’s impressionism.
In many cases that had worked for them in terms of depth of field focus, placing the desired emphasis on the product because the car was always in the extreme foreground.
One of my favorites however, is entirely stylized, also quite Freudian:
Never mind the art-work – those Opel Coupes were really good-looking !
Lovely to see those – thank you, Eóin. As well as being able to represent an ideal which may not exist in real life, the drawings also encourage one to stop and look at the details in these pieces and thus take in more of the advert’s message.
Vauxhall used drawings to advertise its FE Victor, too.
I was trying to remember when I last saw an illustration of a car used in an advertisement, and I guess it must have been in the 1980s, for the Citroën 2CV, although those were more black and white drawings / cartoons.