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.