Photo via HMN archives.
“That was a game changer; now what should we do?” Susan Edwards, the director of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, asked Ken Gross. The art deco automobiles exhibit that Gross curated for the Frist had just wrapped after attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors, so in response Gross began laying plans for a show that will gather some of Italy’s most breathtaking cars – including the Alfa Romeo BAT trio – later this year.
“Everybody looked to the Italians for great cars after World War II,” Gross said. “Postwar cars were really a renaissance in Italy – you had new coachbuilders, new companies literally rising out of the ashes and out came these sensational cars.”
Of course, Italian cars in art museums is no new thing. The Museum of Modern Art in New York famously put a Cisitalia 202 on exhibit way back in 1951 and has kept it in the collection ever since. Gross has even arranged another Cisitalia 202 to take part in the Frist’s upcoming exhibit as a sort of homage to MoMA’s groundbreaking decision. Yet in the decades afterward, cars were less seen as objets d’art and more for their utilitarian purposes, at least until Gross began to gather significant and striking cars for art museum exhibits a few years ago.
“People no longer throw up their hands in horror at the situation,” he said. “You no longer have to explain to people why we have cars in modern art museums. They’re like Greek and Etruscan vases – sure, they can be utilitarian things that hold flowers or oil, but they also represent the highest form of what an object could be.”
So for the upcoming Italian car show at the Frist – “bellissima! The Italian Automotive Renaissance, 1945-1975” – Gross has curated 19 cars and three motorcycles that represent the highest form of what an Italian car could be. Yes, the exhibit will include Ferraris – three of them, a 1963 250 GTO, a 1961 400 Superamerica, and the 356 P “Tre Posti” that joined the recently closed Dream Cars exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art – but it will also include the aforementioned Cisitalia, the Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 that Batista “Pinin” Farina drove to the Paris Auto Show in 1946, a Fiat 8V Supersonic, the Lancia Stratos HF Zero concept car, and a number of Italian-bodied American cars: a Chrysler Turbine car, the Lincoln Indianapolis, a Cunningham C3, and the Chrysler Ghia “Gilda.”
And, of course, the BAT cars. Created as a collaboration among Alfa Romeo, designer Franco Scaglione, and coachbuilder Nuccio Bertone, the cars were intended to explore the bounds of aerodynamic efficiency in automobiles. The first, BAT (Berlina Aerodinamica Tecnica) 5, debuted in 1953 at Turin with a coefficient of drag of 0.23. Its successor, BAT 7, cranked that number down to 0.19 when it bowed a year later. Both featured some of the wildest wings and most extreme shapes ever applied to a four-wheeled automobile, so Alfa Romeo – which provided the 1900 Sprint chassis that underpinned the BAT cars – decided to tone down the styling and present a somewhat more realistic shape for the 1955 BAT 9. All three have gone on exhibit together elsewhere – most famously at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance – and remain together in the collection of the Blackhawk Museum.
Photo courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Houston.
As for the art deco exhibit that led Gross to curate “bellissima!,” its latest iteration, “Sculpted in Steel: Art Deco Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1929-1940,” will also open this year at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston with 14 cars and three motorcycles, among them Edsel Ford’s 1934 Model 40 Speedster, a 1934 Voisin Type C27 Aerosport, a 1934 Packard Twelve Model 1106 Sport Coupe, a 1929 Bugatti Type 46, a 1930 Henderson KJ Streamline, and the 1934 BMW R7 Concept motorcycle above.
The only one like it built, the R7 features a pressed-steel hardtail frame, an 800cc twin, and flowing bodywork. Though shown when new, it proved too expensive to put into production, so BMW crated it up and essentially forgot about it until 2005, when it was uncrated and restored by BMW’s in-house restoration team. It has since gone on to win the BMW Motorcycle class at the 2012 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
“Sculpted in Steel” will open February 21 and run through May 30 in the Museum of Fine Art Houston’s Audrey Jones Beck Building. For more information, visit MFAH.org. “bellisima!” will open May 21 and run through October 9 at the Frist Center. For more information, visit FristCenter.org.