Motor racing posters are always arresting, but 1920s and 1930s examples were especially dramatic. Gordon Cruickshank asked art historic Brian Sewell to assess some of them.
Design between the two world wars saw a profound shift as the Modernist movement reshaped architecture, products and graphic design. With motor racing becoming the perfect expression of technological progress, it is not surprising that racing posters of the period show a new boldness.
Brian Sewell, a car enthusiast himself, is well placed to consider how they reflect their time. “Design in the 1930s was infinitely improved across the board – graphic arts, products, machinery,” he says. Though associated normally with the world of fine arts, Sewell is also interested in functional objects, including cars. “There is a prejudice in the art world against industrial forms, so I am pleased when something like a Cisitalia is displayed in a major museum. Corbusier was right – a functional thing can be beautiful.” Equally, he appreciates the task facing the commercial artist, who much broadcast a message in his work, as the following comments make clear.
11th San Sebastian Grand Prix, 22 September 1935
Now this comes close to painting – it displays an ideal of heroism, focussing only on the head, hands and windscreen. A lot of English painters were simplifying in this manner at the time – the head is suggested by minimal planes, which works particularly well for commercial art with its four-colour plate process. 1935 was a difficult period for Spanish art; the civil war virtually brought artistic activities to a halt in the country, so I think it very likely that this is by a French artist.
Mercedes victory proclamation following Tripoli Grand Prix, 1939
This is just too crowded, too much information. The token symbols for Libya – minarets and palm trees. Of course this is a victory poster boasting about the two Mercedes coming first and second in the Tripoli Grand Prix; it’s not trying to convey useful information about a forthcoming event.
10th Monte Carlo Rally, 1931
This is a wonderful expression of the Art Deco aesthetic; really, the quality is so good that it is approaching art. There’s a wonderful diagonal line leading up from the bottom corner to the car on the surface of the globe outlined against the sun. It’s almost kitsch, but it works. Commercial art is often more ingenious than pure art; it has to combine an image with a message in a way that pure art does not. Sometimes commercial art is actually ahead of pure art.
Poster advertising the sale of lottery tickets for the rigged 1936 Tripoli Grand Prix
This belongs to a period when Libya belonged to Italy; the use of lettering in this way, not just flat on the page but turned into an architectural form, is something of an Italian feature which goes back to the Futurists before the First World War. It’s a clever idea – the perspective of the letters establishes a sense of scale, but within an unreal space. The use of the shadowed minarets and palm trees is a simple way of representing that this race takes places in an exotic country – but not in a very imaginative way.
Circuito Allesandria, Italian National Championship, date unknown
There’s definitely an Italian Futurist influence at work here – look at how the rectangular shape of the flags is distorted into diagonal, arrowing forms. Although the British flag sticks out rather – there’s not much you can do with it. This is the nearest to a decent painting here. In fact the more you look the better it gets – the luminosity of the car broken up into planes of light, the downward fan of flags with the contrasting diagonal of the Italian flag on its staff spearing off to the right… It’s a brilliant concept.
Grand Prix de l’ACF, Montlhéry 1935, by Geo Ham
This again is near to art – the use of straight lettering at the top to stabilise the design, then the national colours sweeping down and blending into recognisable cars – one of the few of these posters to show identifiable cars, even if the Auto Union is a bit distorted. There’s a very clear association of car and country both by colour and the exhaust trail which continues the sweep of the cars’ movement up to the curving country names above.
Le Mans 24 Hours and Rudge-Whitworth Cup, 1925
There’s a slightly Van Gogh quality to the treatment of the moon’s rays in the night sky – but he’s not good with wheels, is he? It’s interesting that the headlamp rays are so prominent; this was a time when big, powerful headlamps were coming into their own. You had to have Lucas P100s on your car. It’s likely that night racing at Le Mans and elsewhere drove that development. But there’s just too much print here; it dilutes the impact.
German Grand Prix, Nurburgring 1937
Bog-standard – not special at all. Yet the Nazis were a formidable artistic influence. People tend to dismiss Nazi art and architecture as being evidence of a corrupt, dominating regime, but there was much creative work in Germany at that time which was very distinguished indeed – often better than what was going on in the UK at the time. Both communism and fascism were very stimulating artistically; the stated ethos was emancipation of the people, and some exceptional work came out of it. Not this, though; it just doesn’t work.
Beach racing, Fano Island, Jutland, Denmark, 1923
Pretty feeble; this has nothing to recommend it at all. It’s an age-old style; think of Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters for the Jardin d’Avril – the scale set by a huge figure against a distant scene. But Danish peasants aren’t the important thing here, it should be the racing; yet he has made that less significant. All I can say for it is that at least it is successful in reminding me of Jutland, the only place I’ve been where the wind was so strong that I could lead against it at 45 degrees!
Fifth Grand Prix of Switzerland, Berne, 1938
What a pronounced contrast with the Nazi one. It’s very simple, very graphic. The flag says Switzerland, the car says it’s a race. Just three colours, red, white and shades of black, yet it has power; it arrests the eye and carries a short, powerful message. It’s a perfect advertisement and a strong piece of graphic art. I think this is my favourite of the posters you’ve shown me; well, this and the one with the Futurist flags…