Valentine’s Day may be long gone but the Museum of Fine Arts has just made an enticing play for our affection. Let’s be honest, we Houstonians have always been obvious about what we like when romanced: sexy, hot, fast......cars. The MFAH knows our tastes and is ready to take us on the ride of our life with its new exhibition Sculpted in Steel: Art Deco Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1929–1940.
“The way you arrive has always been an important aspect of public display,” observed MFAH director Gary Tinterow, during a preview walk among the 14 cars and 3 motorcycles in the exhibition. ”Whether it was on a horse in shining armor or in a gilded carriage or whether it was in a fabulous black and ivory Bugatti coupe, that moment of arrival was a way of expressing oneself, one’s position, one’s power,” Tinterow went on to say, making a connection between art, power, transport and presentation.
The exhibition was organized by Cindi Strauss, the MFAH’s curator of modern and contemporary decorative arts and design, working with Ken Gross, noted automobile expert and former director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. And Sculpted in Steel certainly does arrive in high style, putting its flashes of chrome, steel, glass and leather on display for all of Houston to lust after.
But before falling head over heels for this sexy beast of a show, filled with sleek sculptures of resting speed, here’s a few tips to help you decide if this is just a brief art hookup or if you’ve met the One, that exhibition you can have a real relationship with, at least until it hits the road on May 30.
Get to know Sculpted in Steel’s aesthetic philosophy
All the car and motorcycles were designed and created between 1929-1940 and are examples of the intimate relationship between art, industry and technology of the Art Deco period. The design style born in France before World War I and reaching its height in the '20s and '30s influenced the shape and design of everything from cigarette cases to the Chrysler Building.
Steel tears are oh, so sexy (and aerodynamic)
“One of the great design aspects that you’ll see throughout the show both in body styles and aesthetics is the form of the teardrop,” explained Strauss.
This was the era when designers began testing cars for the best shapes for speed and realized the perhaps irony that the shape of a drop of water falling could be most aerodynamic. While the depression era public wasn’t necessarily ready for these rounded bodies, it’s hard not to appreciate the beauty of the flow of tear shapes throughout the exhibition.
Yes, theoretically you could run away with Sculpted in Steel because the cars all run
But if you’re thinking of pulling a Fast and Furious style heist and hitting the not-so-open Houston freeways with one of these babies, well you better have a crew of 20, a semi outfitted for antique car transport, a rollback truck for getting them off the Museum loading dock and access to two of the MFAH’s large freight elevators, because that’s what it took to get them all into the Beck Building. Strauss calls the immense undertaking a “choreographed ballet” of an installation.
Enjoy the big picture but don’t miss the beauty in the details
These vehicles are indeed wondrous sculptures to behold from afar, but move a little closer (though don’t alarm the guards) to see even the smallest features that make them true works of art, from the flush door handles of the 1937 Delahaye 135MS Roadster to the hidden headlights on the 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt.
All the good ones have a mysterious-to-badass pasts they want to reveal
Many of the cars and motorcycles have fascinating stories of their creation, loner lifestyle or near-destruction attached to them. For example, you might imagine Gatsby and Nick tooling around New York in the Edsel Ford 1934 Model 40 Speedster, but Edsel Ford’s real life quest to build this ultimate roadster is a true story that almost rivals a Fitzgerald novel. Ford funded the 40 himself for $100,000. It was sold at his death for $1,000 and is now worth over a million.
Likewise, when the bright orangish-red color and futuristic styling of the 1938 Czechoslovakian Tatra T97 catches your eyes in the last gallery, know that the fact you’ve probably never heard of this car before can be blamed on Hitler. After the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, he ended Tatra T97 production to get rid of this VW competition.
Gallery labels and an audio-tour reveal many more vehicle tales as you wander through the exhibition.
Continue this romance (or bromance) all spring
You can fill your calendar with Sculpted in Steel dates for the months to come, as the MFAH has a slew of days and evenings planned around the exhibition, starting with its companion Deco Nights: Evenings in the Jazz Age. Also check out the schedule for exhibition’s related car talks, tours, performances and Happy Hour Thursdays, which each week will feature a different type or era of antique cars.
Sculpted in Steel is a ticketed exhibition on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston until May 30.