The N.C. Museum of Art opened a new exhibit on Saturday featuring 17 rare pieces of art that tell the story of human hope and ingenuity through the vernacular of the vehicle.
“Rolling Sculpture: Art Deco Cars from the 1930s and ’40s” is a carefully curated show of artists who expressed themselves in steel, chrome and leather at a time when the world worshiped new machines but still admired hand-craftsmanship. Many are one-of-kind, built to test a concept or technology, or to serve as mobile marketing tools to draw attention to a brand.
Like an earlier show at the NCMA that featured Porsches, this exhibit is expected to be popular and to draw people who rarely, if ever, see the inside of a museum gallery.
King Nelson of Mebane brought his 14-year-old son, Eric, to tour the exhibit. Before it opened, they had already been to a cars-and-coffee event in Morrisville and perused the models on display at the classic car meetup in the museum parking lot.
“It’s a full day of cars,” King Nelson said.
Eric said he got interested in cars as a little kid, watching his grandfather restore European cars from the 1960s. Mostly, he said, he was interested in the mechanical elements.
“I’m hoping he’ll grow to appreciate the artistic side of design,” his father added.
This exhibit celebrates both.
Cars in “Rolling Sculpture” represent the Art Deco period, which become popular with the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris and went out in the 1940s before being revived in the 1970s. While it includes a wide range of styles, some of the hallmarks of Art Deco design are the juxtaposition of industrial and natural forms and materials, the use of sweeping curves and long lines, and a sense of elegance and glamour. The Chrysler Building in New York is a classic example of Art Deco design.
Many in the still-young automotive industry fully embraced the style, incorporating its visual elements into body design and its inspirational quality into engine design. The results had an experimental feel, and “Rolling Sculpture” has examples of failures and successes.
The 1935 Chrysler Imperial Airflow, reportedly designed with input from Wilbur Wright, had aerodynamics based on early wind-tunnel studies but “was so advanced, it scared the public and nearly put Chrysler out of business” because of lackluster sales, according to the museum’s interpretive material.
Before the Beetle
The 1940 Tatra T87, of Czechoslovakian design, was an early air-cooled, rear-mounted engine that was clever and shapely enough that a court later agreed with the company when it sued Volkswagen for stealing the design for its Beetle.
The 14 cars and three motorcycles on display were selected by guest curator Ken Gross, a celebrated automotive journalist and former director of the Petersen Automotive Museum. The museum’s Caroline Rocheleau, curator of ancient art, coordinated with Gross to help put the cars into context with what was going on in North Carolina and around the world at the time.
Liz Scott, a museum docent, proved how easy it is to view cars as art as she talked with three of Melinda Radziewicz’s four young children Saturday. Scott used a laser pointer to highlight the shiny chrome spindles in the wheels of a 1938 Talbot-Lago Teardrop and taught the children the word “spokes.” She talked to them about the signature shapes that gave the car its name.
“Have you ever cried?” she asked. “What is it that comes out of your eyes when you cry? Teardrops!”
Scott helped the children find the swooping teardrop shapes of the car’s front and back fenders.
“That’s one of the things we like about this museum,” said the children’s mother. “The accessibility of the art.”
If you go
What: Rolling Sculpture: Art Deco Cars from the 1930s and ’40s
Where: N.C. Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday. Runs through Jan. 15.
Tickets: $19 adults; $16 seniors 65 and older, military, college students; $13 youth 7-18; free for children 6 and younger