Art of speed

Browse pages
Current page

2

Current page

3

Current page

4

Current page

5

Current page

6

Current page

7

Current page

8

Current page

9

Current page

10

Current page

11

Current page

12

Current page

13

Current page

14

Current page

15

Current page

16

Current page

17

Current page

18

Current page

19

Current page

20

Current page

21

Current page

22

Current page

23

Current page

24

Current page

25

Current page

26

Current page

27

Current page

28

Current page

29

Current page

30

Current page

31

Current page

32

Current page

33

Current page

34

Current page

35

Current page

36

Current page

37

Current page

38

Current page

39

Current page

40

Current page

41

Current page

42

Current page

43

Current page

44

Current page

45

Current page

46

Current page

47

Current page

48

Current page

49

Current page

50

Current page

51

Current page

52

Current page

53

Current page

54

Current page

55

Current page

56

Current page

57

Current page

58

Current page

59

Current page

60

Current page

61

Current page

62

Current page

63

Current page

64

Current page

65

Current page

66

Current page

67

Current page

68

Current page

69

Current page

70

Current page

71

Current page

72

Current page

73

Current page

74

Current page

75

Current page

76

Current page

77

Current page

78

Current page

79

Current page

80

Current page

81

Current page

82

Current page

83

Current page

84

Current page

85

Current page

86

Current page

87

Current page

88

Current page

89

Current page

90

Current page

91

Current page

92

Current page

93

Current page

94

Current page

95

Current page

96

Current page

97

Current page

98

Current page

99

Current page

100

Current page

101

Current page

102

Current page

103

Current page

104

Current page

105

Current page

106

Current page

107

Current page

108

Current page

109

Current page

110

Current page

111

Current page

112

Current page

113

Current page

114

Current page

115

Current page

116

Current page

117

Current page

118

Current page

119

Current page

120

Current page

121

Current page

122

Current page

123

Current page

124

Current page

125

Current page

126

Current page

127

Current page

128

Current page

129

Current page

130

Current page

131

Current page

132

Current page

133

Current page

134

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…