by Rob Alen
The modern automobile came of age in France. Rene Panhard first started series production in 1891. The first motor races were in France. And today, Paris' Salon Retromobile has just celebrated its forty-fifth anniversary as one of the premier classic car events.
Salon Retromobile is a classic car city, with neighborhoods: classic car dealers, are in one area of the exhibit floor, two districts of scale model cars, from children's toys and hobby models to precise, accurate miniatures of phenomenal detail. Off in the suburbs, are motoring clothes, clutter, parts, and automotive art.
Like the artist "quartier" in Paris' Montmartre there are avenues of artists exhibiting side-by-side their vision of life with the automobile. No other classic car event I know of, has such a concentration.
This year at Retromobile there were forty-three artist exhibitors with different styles depicting various automotive subjects. It leads one to wonder exactly what is art, versus decoration, versus something simply schlocky. To be fair, each can have their place.
For example, the engine block that doubles as a wine bottle holder or the base of a glass topped table. A realistic, nostalgic reminiscence of a Ford GT at Le Mans as you know it, remember it or read about for your garage office. Or the scene of a Bugatti being chased by an Alfa at the old Station Hairpin in Monaco that inspires you to want to go back in time. Practically speaking, the test for automotive art is when your wife lets you bring it into the living room.
Much of "car" art stems from the romantic, golden age of motoring or the "la dolce vita" period of the 50s and 60s. There are not many contemporary McLaren 570S, Jaguars, or Aston Martins. Lamborghinis maybe, a Ferrari F40 wouldn't be out of place.
There are drivers and celebrities. The leader is Steve McQueen. On every imaginable surface may be his two-fingered salute or other familiar scenes from his "Le Mans" movie. His coolness of the "Great Escape,""Bullitt" or the black-and-white photos of him at home, all have been faithfully re-imagined and are plentiful.
The one Hollywood celebrity who raced and finished second at Le Mans is missing: Paul Newman.
Car art can play an important role for the ardent enthusiast; in being a surrogate for what's in the garage, dreamt for the garage or what was once in the garage. Art, whether automotive or not, is seeing and showing what the world has not seen before in a way each time you look at it, you feel and see something new and different.