SENSUALITY INTHE ART OF THE CAR
Beauty & Sensuality in form and design of classic automobiles
ChrysisHood Ornament by René Lalique
Photo by Northstar Imaging
The automobile is a powerful symbol that has stirred the dreams and ambitions of men and women for 100 years. Cars created of passion, remain even more alluring today. They call us to understand their hold on us and their important contribution to the human experience.
As the Memorial Art Project developed, I began to discover many very sensual images of beautiful young women depicted in the memorial art in the cemeteries I was visiting. The use of the nude figure was particularly common in the cemeteries of France, Russia, and Italy. Certainly sensuous figures are linked to a long tradition in Western art celebrating the female secular and religious settings. Chrysis by Rene Lalique above is a beautiful expression of the figurative art of the female form. Lalique produced some of the most desired and beautiful after market hood ornaments for the classic automobiles of the 20s and 30s. For more information on Lalique click here. However, a very compelling question emerged around the significance of this particular art form in the cemetery. How is it that these very powerful images have come to offer solace at times of loss, what is the significance of the link between Thantos and Eros in this very compelling art form? More recently, as I photographed classic automobiles, particularly their hood ornaments, I began to find very similar images. Additional research led to the discovery of similar themes around ship's figureheads and the nose art of WWII bombers. Is there a connection between the beautiful women adorning the historic cemeteries of the world, the cars of the privileged and the war planes of the Second World War?
Ever since the first sailing vessels were built, sailors have tried to ensure safe passage by attempting to pacify mysterious and unpredictable gods with symbols of faith. The ship's figurehead, a typical example of this tradition, took many forms over the centuries. Human figures first began to appear in the late 1770s, and shortly thereafter everything from statesmen to Indians appeared on the fronts of ships. Greek figures and figures dressed in medieval uniforms and battle dress were popular as well. It wasn't long before beautiful female figures began to appear. They were used on a great number of commercial ships after 1800, and often ship owners' wives served as models. This classic pose of the female goddess leaning into the wind began to show up in the form of automobile hood ornaments in the early 1920s. One of the defining images was that of Rolls Royce's "Spirit of Ecstasy" a winged goddess on the bow of the new land ships leaning into both the wind and the unknown and promising future.
Spirit of Ecstasy
In the 1920's and 1930's, people experienced great passion and excitement as a result of their new love affair with the automobile. During this heady period, cars proudly displayed "Mascots" or "Hood Ornaments" on the front of their vehicles. These Mascots were genuine pieces of art that made a personal statement to the world. One of the most famous hood ornaments was the Rolls Royce "Spirit of Ecstasy" designed by the English sculptor, Charles Sykes in 1911. The popularity of Hood Ornamentation continued through the 1940's with ever more diverse creations being added. A variety of Gods, Goddesses, Indians, Birds, Dogs, Lions, Elephants and other winged icons added a personal touch to the cars they adorned. Car manufacturers got into the act by adding their own line of Hood Art on production cars for the working man. The most common theme were the "Flying Ladies" often very sensual and frequently erotic representations of the female form. In an additional juxtaposition ships, cars and airplane are usually experienced as having a female identity. The theme of sensuality emerges in many design elements, particularly in classic automobiles. The goddess not only serves as the hood ornament but is embodied in the graceful and sensual lines and form of the car itself. The winged angel to the left is from Steglieno Cemetery in Genova Italy.
To view more images of classic automobile hood ornaments, click here.
Rene Lalique Mascot - Hood Ornament
Carl Jung observes "A symbol always stands for something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. Symbols, moreover, are natural and spontaneous products. No genius has ever sat down with a pen or brush in hand and invented a symbol. No one can take a more or less rational thought, reached as a logical conclusion or by deliberate intent, and than give it "symbolic form". There are many symbols, however, that are not individual but collective in their nature and origin. These are chiefly religious images. The believer assumes that they are of divine origin - that they have been revealed to man. The skeptic says flatly that they have been invented. Both are wrong. It is true, as the skeptic notes, that religious symbols and concepts have for centuries been the object of careful and quite conscious elaboration. It is equally true, as the believer implies, that their origin is so far buried in the mystery of the past that they seem to have no human source. But they are in fact "collective representations," emanating from primeval dreams and creative fantasies. As such, these images are involuntary spontaneous manifestations and by no means intentional inventions." 15 The sensual images under consideration embody profound symbolic content from our "collective unconscious" and may be some of the most significant and enduring symbolic manifestations of the human experience.
To understand the significance and origin of these symbols and the compelling themes they address, it is necessary to visit the role of the human form in classic art.
The female form is frequently found adorning public buildings, squares, cathedrals, museums and parks around the world. In Western tradition, the ability to master the female figure is often the mark that defines fine artistic talent. Clark observes: "We remember that the nude is after all, the most serious of all subjects in art..." 9 Auguste Rodin observed "The human body is first and foremost a mirror to the soul and its greatest beauty comes from that". Similarly Walt Whitman offered: "If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred. The image above is from Monumental Cemetery in Milan Italy.
1933 Plymouth Coupe
The above image is from a 1933 Plymouth Coupe and the image to the left is from a cemetery in Rome, both have similar classic origins. The French poet, Paul Valery, noted that "The nude is for the artist what love is for the poet" The nude has been a wellspring of artistic creativity in European art and has acted as the visual embodiment of ideas and views about that most constant of human concerns, love, both earthly and sacred. For the Ancient Greeks, the nude epitomized perfect physical beauty of a kind immune from the depredations of time; signified the imposition of order upon the caprices of nature; and symbolized the nobility of the human spirit. It was an art form usually reserved for representations of the deities, while portraits of actual people were generally clothed. The images below are from Monumental Cemetery in Milan Italy. To view more images click here.
Because of the great risks confronted by bomber pilots and mariners there is a connection to classical themes of "The Dance with Death" and "Death and the Maiden". In the Great Plague of 1348-50, a third of Europe's population is thought to have perished in the Black Death. The terrible suffering and mass graves gave rise to what the French called la danse macabre. Ecclesiastical Annals from Germany describe the dance as a kind of mania, characterized by Bacchantic leaps. At Aix-la-Chapelle in 1374, the dancers held hands to form circles and whirl around until they dropped. At even greater heights of frenzy, the first fell to the ground in epileptic convulsions, gasping for air and foaming at the mouth, until they could leap up to perform the strange contortions of the dance. 25
In the French tradition, the dance's legacy is found in 14th-century poetry, frescoes and woodcuts depicting representatives from every station of life, from pope to pauper, paired with ghostly doubles who have come to summon the living partner to the other world. Death, often personified with a sickle in hand for the harvest, came to represent the great leveler of all inequality.25
Monumental Cemetery - Milan
The tradition did not end with the Middle Ages. Periodic outbursts of the plague in the 16th century sparked similar reactions, as shown in Hans Holbein's series of woodcuts on the Totentanz, executed in Basle (c.1523-26). Today, la danza de la muerte is still performed in Spain at festivals by single drummers with skeletal partners who circulate together around inside cavernous cathedrals.25
A Death and Maiden theme emerged from a long mythological tradition. In Greek mythology the abduction of Persephone by Hades, god of Hell, is an early expression of the clash between Eros and Thanatos. The young goddess Persephone gathers flowers while accompanied by carefree nymphs. When Persephone saw a pretty narcissus, she picked it and at that moment, the ground opened and Hades came out of the underworld and abducted Persephone carrying her into his underworld.
Within the Death and the Maiden Theme, a dark bound between sexuality and death is explored. In this iconography, the young girl is not involved in “the dance of death” but enters into a sensual relationship with death, which becomes increasingly erotic as time passes. Despite the sensuality of this genre, it maintained a moralistic goal for it is intended to remind us that life is short as is the exquisite beauty of a woman. This theme becomes relevant to the mariners of the past, the bomber pilots of WW II and the titans of industry. In embracing the beautiful women adorning their vessels they embrace the risk of their journey and the inevitability of their own mortality.
1930 Cadillac V16 Imperial Limousine
Many classical ideals were rediscovered during the Renaissance, when the general tenor of philosophy became humanist. Once again the nude became an embodiment of perfect beauty and an emblem of abstract concepts such as Beauty, Genius, Friendship, Truth and Sacred Love. 1
Monumental Cemetery - Milan
The importance of the nude persisted through 17th century baroque art well into the 19th century, ... retaining its significance because of its connection with subjects of the highest cultural status, whether religious, allegorical or mythological. As such subjects tended to be favored more by aristocratic or ecclesiastical patrons. The popularity of the nude was geographically uneven. One was more likely to find nudes painted in Catholic countries, such as Italy or Flanders, or countries with a strong tradition of State patronage, such as France. 1
For the female figure to be accepted in public places, including automobile mascots, the higher moral purpose of the work had to be convincing and beyond reproach. Cemeteries are sacred places, so work that might have been unacceptable in other settings were cast in a transcendent ambiance. Much like the public buildings and cathedrals, formal cemeteries offered a legitimate venue for the expression of the inherent beauty and symbolism of the female form. Many of the famous sculptors whose works are in the Worlds greatest museums and private collections also have work in the Pere Lachaise, Stagleino, Novodevichye, Montparnasse, Monumental, Forrest Hills and other great cemeteries. The exquisite angel to the right is in Saint Peter's Caththedral in the Vatican and the image to the left is from Monumental Cemetery in Milan. Artists, who were often dependent on the commissions for memorial art, perhaps relished the opportunity to express, their creative talents unfettered in such a noble cause.
During the medieval era, the naked body often stood for temptation and sin. In Christian theology the emphasis was not upon physical beauty but upon the inevitability of the bodys decay and the shame in nakedness which came from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. 1
Much of this work was done in a time of social transition. In Paris the Cemetery Reform Movement introduced a new respect and reverence for the deceased as an alternative to the previous perspective of the corpse as refuge.
Monumental Cemetery - Milan
As part of the cemetery reform movement, Pere Lachaise was privately developed and served as an alternative to the church cemetery for the wealthy of Paris. This private ownership removed the control and influence of the church over the content of imagery and the expression of an unfettered personal and artistic vision. The separation of municipal burial from church burial was an essential development for such creative expression to flourish. A final reality was that for health reasons, the reform movement prohibited mass burial and required individual graves, setting the stage for the increasing importance of individual memorial markers and monuments. For the middle class, commemorative tombs became a way to achieve and confirm social standing.
Statuary expressing the female form brings together powerful forces of death and sensuality, the eternal link between Thanatos and Eros. This expression reached a high level during the romantic era of the early nineteenth century. In Romantic art, death became a metaphor not of loss, fear and horror but of love and desire. William Wordsworth explores this theme in his poem Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known. The sensuous female forms of these monuments make this association explicit. This of course has relevance for the Bomber nose art and its compelling role in the daily danger lived by the crews.
For the Romantics, death was an important theme. For them death was experienced as exquisite emotion and the ultimate expression of love. "To die loving you is better than life itself," wrote Alferd de Musset. The Romantic era was a period of "beautiful death" in which death was perceived as a refuge, a release, a reward and a rebirth. Death was associated with rebirth, conception, birth and sexual expression. The transition from death to eternal life was seen as a rebirth and came to be symbolized by a release of sensual pleasure expressed by the "petite death". It is no accident that the expression of morning by the women in many of the works is indistinguishable from sexual ecstasy. 2 One of the best examples of this theme is The Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Bernini, 1650. Bernini's work is a representation of Saint Teresa of Avila's writings in which she reports: "It pleased the Lord that I should sometimes see the following vision. I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel......He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seem to be all afire....In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it, and he left me completely afire with a great love of God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one's soul be content with anything less than God. It is not bodily pain, but spiritual, though the body has a share in it - indeed a great share. So sweet are the colloquies of love which pass between the soul and God that if anyone thinks I am lying I beseech God, in His Goodness, to give him the same experience. Amen" 13 To the left is The Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Bernini, 1650.
The moment of ecstasy corresponds t the self-annihilation spoken of by the mystics of the seventeenth century. Pierre de Berulle starts from the stage of "spiritual death" which the soul has to pass through during the "time of trials" in order to attain the "mystical marriage" with the Bridegroom. It is the Bridegroom who permeates the soul in the "abyss of greatness" and the "gulf of glory" in order to consummate the "spiritual marriage" Benoit de Canfield has written "the Bride of God (man's soul) "desires with all other creatures to be melted, liquefied, consumed, and annihilated." 16
In Bernini's Ludovica Albetoni, the believer is introduced into the Blessed Lady's bedroom and made a witness to her convulsions on the disordered bed. It is not merely a statue, but more like a living, gesticulating actress. In these examples, we see the sculptor's intent to create in the observer a mood of mysticism and ecstasy. 16 The sculpture thus becomes a mirror and indicator of the state of mind of the observer opening the way to salvation. 17
In the private chapel of Sanserero, Naples, is a fine example carved in 1750 by Genoese sculptor Francesco Queirolo. The work is of a naked male figure, who is draped in a net from which he is extricating himself while being aided by an angel. The sculpture is an allegorical monument to Count Antonio Sangro who took holy vows after the death of his young wife. The sculpture shows Sangro throwing off the entangling net of worldly appearances including his worldly coverings and discovering Truth. The work is thought to symbolize the purity of spiritual deliverance achieved with the help of the Holy Spirit. Of special interest in this work is the sheer brilliance of the net, finely carved out of solid marble.18
One of the skills that was applauded in the eighteenth century was the ability to render drapery and some artists indulged themselves in technical brilliance. The drapery is never so glamorous as when , instead of concealing forms, it hints at them, caressing them with the greatest of sensuality. The challenge was not only veil the body and face but to do so in a manner that enhanced the expressiveness and sensuousness of the body. One of the great examples of this work is Faith by Innocenzo. Spinazzi located in the Apse of Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi, Florence. Spinazzi uses the traditional prompts of Faith the chalice and Bible, however he drapes the veil over her face beneath which we can discern an expression of mystical ecstasy where Faith reveals itself in an inward gaze, which is God-given and transcends the mere senses. In Modesty, another statue of a veiled woman by Antonio Corradini, in the chapel of Sansevero, the figure is an allegory of the Virtue Modesty. Under her mourning veil she expresses grief, but the veil is so sheer as to be almost transparent; it unclothes rather than clothes her, bringing out the sensual quality of her body. 19
"The sculptors of the second half of the century were not slaves to doctrine. Before Canova, they sought chiefly to create pleasing images and they favored an iconography and style which celebrated the feminine charms that had a high place in the flirtatious society of this age when women were often treated like queens. Thus the mythological pretexts employed in the earlier part of the century acquired a new lease of life. The idea was no longer to borrow the trappings of pagan gods and goddesses, but to titillate with flirtatious, erotically suggestive scenes. Moreover, mythological motifs were in key with the period's growing reverence for Antiquity, through it sometimes seems as if they were merely an excuse for depicting delightfully sensual bodies in the nude. Psyche Abandoned, (Augustin Pajou 1790) for example, shows Psyche nude lamenting Cupid's disappearance; her flesh palpitates with distress; her despair gives her a languid pose which is not only touching but seductive." 20
Joseph Campbell states "Myths of the Great Goddess" teach compassion for all living beings. There you come to appreciate the real sanctity of the earth itself, because it is the body of the Goddess.5 "And when you have a Goddess as the creator, it's her own body that is the universe. She is identical with the universe...She is the whole sphere of the life-enclosing heavens."6 Campbell goes on to state: "This is the an essential experience of any mystical realization. You die to your flesh and are born into your spirit. You identify yourself with the consciousness and life of which your body is but the vehicle. You die to the vehicle and become identified in your consciousness with that of which the vehicle is the carrier. That is the God." 7 Within the essential experience of birth and rebirth the female embodies the totality from conception to birth and renewal. As Mother Earth she embodies fertility and rebirth and out of death, the eternal renewal of life. The greater the beauty and perhaps the more sensuous, the more powerful the identity is of "Goddess as Mother Earth." To the left is a "sarcophagus from second-century A.D. Thebes that reveals a symbolic connection with the archetypal Great Mother (the container of all life). The inside of the cover bears a portrait of the Egyptian goddess Nut; thus the goddess would "embrace" the body of the deceased." 14
Similarly in some works the subjects are nude or are partially clothed and the works symbolize entry into heaven. The nude imagery of the human form expresses rebirth into heaven, as well as innocence and purity, leaving the fallen material world behind. The exquisite beauty of some of the figures depicted in this work may also be an expression of Gods perfect beauty with man being created in the image of God a theme that has been expressed for millennium.
As early as 2500 BC, Egyptians used statuary, for religious purposes, to capture the essence of the individual represented and as a medium to hold the soul after death. Much of these sculptured images were nude depicting the expected rebirth from temporal life into eternity in Gods presence.
Some argue that the sensuous, beautiful young women are the embodiment of death itself. The romantic notion "Sweet is death who comes as a lover" removes the sting of death and presents it as an experience to be fully embraced and welcomed.
Memorial art often seeks to memorialize the life and accomplishments of the deceased. The Novodevichye Cemetery in Moscow, Russia was used by the Communist elite. For these individuals, their memorial art celebrates individual careers and accomplishment and avoids any notion of spirituality or an afterlife. In Novodevichye, tank commanders are memorialized with tanks as monuments, cosmonauts are in their space suits and the Commander of the Soviet Missile Forces is depicted talking on the phone as missiles launch over his head. However, Western memorial art seeks to make persuasive arguments for life after death going beyond the validation and remembrance of a past life and historical documentation.
It is possible that these exquisite young women adorning the cemetery, automobiles, ships and bombers, as some of the most beautiful among us, convey a sense of heightened status and prestige to the deceased, the pilot and the mariner? Forever present, forever young and forever beautiful they convey, vitality, passion and rejuvenation. It is conceivable that these figures eternally perform a similar role to their mortal counterparts, serving as beautiful trophies at the side of successful, powerful and adventurous men.
Cemeteries are places of infinite optimism where life everlasting takes precedence over death, loss and mortality. The focus is turned from the temporal past to: salvation, rebirth and everlasting life. Memorial art functions as both tribute and hope with these sensuous figures embracing this powerful duality. It is interesting to observe that the cemetery is the ideal venue for art dedicated to exploring this important duality. In one regard, these are surrogate mourners depicting how great the loss is and how deeply the deceased is missed. Their idealized beauty is spiritual: representing innocence, birth, rebirth, renewal, purity, fertility, commitment and passion. The greater their beauty the greater and more profound the loss and the greater the promise of eternal life. However in their dual role these women also serve as escorts in the journey ahead. As surrogate companions they stand post, watching over the both the deceased and the traveler. Forever present and forever young, they communicate the hope for eternal youth, beauty and vitality in the life to come. 2
Classic automobiles, ships and bombers are always perceived as having feminine identities. The complex role of the feminine goddess becomes embodied in the vehicle itself in its sensuous design, form and lines and the pilots and drivers enter into an intimate dance with the machine and experience profound joy in possession of the object.
1954 Jaguar XK-120
These images and their associated symbols explore a collective yearning to understand the human condition, our vulnerability, our mortality, renewal, redemption and the terror of the unknown. These are the deep issues seeking transcendence and result in a profound desire to understand the meaning of our existence. Such passion is at the foundation of the great art of the Western World and our ultimate hope that the universe is not random.
The Transcendence Portfolio - Offering
Cemetery Art Pere Lachaise
Coney Island Cemetery & Memorial Art Links
Northstar Gallery - Home Page
Sensuality in the Art of the Automobile
Links - Automobile Art
1. Robson, Deirdre. The Art of the Nude. p5
2. Robinson, David. Saving Graces. Afterward
3. Krupa, Frederique. Paris: Urban Sanitation Before the 20th Century
5. Campbell, Joseph. (1988). The Power of Myth. p.165
Campbell, Joseph. (1988). The Power of Myth. Apostrophe S Productions, Inc., United States
Robinson, David. (1995). Saving Graces Images of Women in European Cemeteries. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.Robson, Deirdre. (1995). The Art of the Nude. London: Parragon Book Service Ltd. Krupa, Frederique. (1991). Paris: Urban Sanitation Before the 20th Century [On-line].
Camille, Michael. (1996). Master of Death - The lifeless Art of Pierre Remient - Illuminator. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Clark, Kenneth. (1953). The Nude - A Study in Ideal Form. The United States: Princeton University Press.
Kasson, Joy. (1990). Marble Queens and Captives. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
Godwin, Malcolm. (1990). Angels - An Endangered Species. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Jung, Carl. (1964). Man and His Symbols. London: Aldus Books Limitted.
Ceysson, Bernard; (1996). Sculpture From Renaissance to the Present Day (15th to 20th Century). New York: Taschen
Yalom, Marilyn. (1997). The History of the Breast. New York: Random House.
Harris, Mike (1998) Dance of Death Internet site http://danceofdeath.tao.ca/index.html
Pollefeys, Patrick (1998) Dance of Death Internet site http://www.geocities.com/Paris/Rue/3757/main.html
Friedhofs Engle http://www.friedhofsengel.de/frame1.htm?k1/k1i1.htm~Work
John D. Sherer http://www.laliqueglass.com/
Hood Ornaments & Mascots: http://www.geocities.com/katnat2/crossleyL.html
Finesse Fine Art: http://finesse-fine-art.com/
Your comments on The Northstar Gallery are very much valued, please respond to firstname.lastname@example.org
© Copyright 2000 Northstar Gallery
These images are the exclusive property of the artist and may not be used, downloaded, manipulated, or reproduced without prior written consent.