In 1909, at a time when automobiles were just starting to gain traction as a technology in society, an Italian poet named F. T. Marinetti penned “The Futurist Manifesto,” which recounts the excitement of a car accident as allegory to inspire a generation of artists to embrace the aesthetics of technology. And in turn, these artists inspired designers, architects, critics, engineers, and even politicians with their language of speed, danger, and mythological struggle. Thirty years later, the European continent was entering its second catastrophic war. Futurism didn’t survive these real-world dangers (and many of the Futurists themselves did not survive it, either). But the aesthetics of speed were already tied in to the shape and feel of our technology.
Material design always seems trapped in an expanded field of sculpture. In one sense, the aesthetics of three-dimensional objects are obviously sculpture, but in another, the engineering of technology and marketing seem opposed to a more “fine” art. And furthermore, something as influential to human society as an automobile seems almost too foundational, too much a part of the foundations of our experience, to qualify as sculpture.
But the Portland Art Museum’s The Shape of Speed exhibition forces a re-evaluation of that notion. While even a person captivated by the connections between sculpture and technology like myself might mistake the exhibition hall as a classic car show, the examples of streamlined engineering on display from the pre-World War Two decade show that the Futurists’ notice of the aesthetic power of technology is something we can still understand today, more than a century later.
In the work of Futurist artists and sculptures, one can feel the aesthetic of speed represented, but in the sculpted hulls of these streamlined vehicles, one can see the way that the engineering of speed developed its own characteristic aesthetic. Chrysler’s pioneering work using wind tunnels— now a standard practice for the industry— literally resculpted the shape of a motorized carriage into the thing that we now recognize as an automobile. The now classic teardrop shape found expression in everything from the Mercedes-Benz Streamliner, built to win a cross-continent race cancelled by the onset of war; to the Stout Scarab, a luxurious precursor to the minivan; to super efficient and yet unpopular Airomobile, a car that looks less like a car than an aircraft.
These designs are part of a history of the evolution of technology, when nothing so fast had ever been engineered, and so every new efficiency would automatically appear revolutionary. One of the most stunning examples is the Graham Combination Coupe, with a “leaning forward” grill that mimics an artifact of photographs of the time, in which speeding objects appear to be leaning forward, because camera shutters could not close fast enough to capture an image of the object in a single place. And perched on the front of that accelerating hood, is nothing less than a pair of pushed back chrome wings, heralding the “first flight of Angels” mentioned in Marinetti’s gushing text.
For the public, these designs were often too radically different from what they were accustomed to, and many of these new streamlined forms never made it out of limited, concept-car prototypes. Today they still feel futuristic, but for a future that never actually came to pass. War took over the industrial capacity of many of these designers, and then, after a brief return to idealism during the Atomic Age, the environmental realities of oil production pushed automobile design towards a more less stunning form of efficiency. Today, cars are in many ways one more appliance— and thankfully so. But as our new technologies continue to hatch from one another in a spiraling evolution, it is worthwhile to see all the possibility that might emerge from the intersection of technology and sculpture.