Design

The Art History of Cars

Did Albrecht Dürer design the first 911? Probably not. Though if you’ve ever read a certain famous publication by art historian Heinrich Wölfflin, you could easily believe that he had. The book makes no mention of cars – but that’s beside the point.

  • Essay
    Lambert Wiesing
  • Fotos
    Porsche

In 1915 Swiss philosopher and art historian Heinrich Wölfflin publishes his Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art. Cars are not mentioned in this book – but unlike most classics of art history, cars fit in perfectly with Wölfflin’s ideas. Indeed, one could even say that Wölfflin’s main theses are equally useful for describing style not only in the fine arts but also in automotive design. His reflections on the design of aesthetic objects are based on a simple and original idea: the style of an object, regardless of whether this object is a work of art or not, is determined by the way in which the parts of this object visibly relate to each other – and this is true as much for the individual elements in a painting as it is for the individual parts of a car. In both cases, the respective style arises from the visible qualities of the infrastructure. The wholeness of the form, the ­external shape or silhouette of an object, is entirely irrelevant for the style – a thesis that is perfectly confirmed by the evolutionary history of the Porsche 911. In its sixty years of constant aesthetic transformation, the visible and easily recognizable overall form has always remained the same. It is not the shape of the six Porsche models that changes, but rather the configuration: the visible parts of each have a different visible relationship to each other, a relationship that – as Wölfflin showed – also defines the works of the Renaissance and the Baroque.

Dürer’s work exemplifies the linear style of the Renaissance: a figure in a drawing could easily be cut out of the picture with a pair of scissors and you would have a clearly recognizable figure. The boundaries between the parts of the picture are clear and precise; there are hard and unambi­guous transitions between the visible forms. And it is precisely in this respect that the work of the Baroque artist ­Rembrandt is the direct opposite. His paintings are prime examples of a “painterly” style: the boundaries between the parts in them are fluid and unclear; the forms continuously blur into one another; you can’t tell exactly where one thing begins and another one ends. In a Baroque work the parts have merged with the whole to form a unity. They have lost their independence.

Wölfflin’s main theses are equally useful for describing style not only in the fine arts but also in automotive design.

Who was the designer of the first 911? Albrecht Dürer? This is what the car looks like: The visible design elements are presented as such, individually outlined and acknowledged; nothing blurs indistinctly into anything else. Headlights, windshield wipers, rear-view mirrors, turn signals, fog lights, all of these parts are visible, isolated and separated from the whole by chrome – be it by the many small chrome strips around the respective parts or by chrome-plating of the entire part, such as the mirror or the wipers. Indicators, fog lights and headlights are individual, autonomously shaped lights – and their autonomy is aesthetically emphasized in that they are framed. Quite classically, what is framed is a work in itself – or, as Wölfflin seemingly writes about this Renaissance-era car: “Linear vision, therefore, means that the sense and beauty of things is first sought in the outline – interior forms have their outline too – that the eye is led along the boundaries and induced to feel along the edges.”

The linear style of a car is particularly evident in the way the front and rear windows are interpreted in relation to the body. Chrome strips frame the windows on the first 911. These strips also hold the window in place in the rubber seal – so they do have a function. But what is aesthetically decisive is that there is no technical reason to do it in chrome. This is a purely aesthetic decision, with design determining what the two parts of the car should be seen as: as independent things in their own right or as disappearing elements within the whole. In linear design, the windshield and body are kept at a distance from each other with a clearly visible intermediate line – because they are mutually exclusive. The otherness of the relationship is marked by the form. The boundary line in itself doesn’t differentiate the parts that are foreign; it is the design that transforms the parts into autonomous entities. And it is this linear design principle that defines the original Porsche down to the smallest detail.

Already the first new model after the original 911, the G Series from 1973, marked the beginning of baroquification: a stripping away of the autonomy of the visible parts.

The form remains easily recognizable in the G Series. What changes is the visible infrastructure of the parts – in a strikingly planned and systematic way, as evidenced by the fact that the various strips, which were all chrome-plated on the original 911, develop in different ways to give the new model as a whole a style that is not yet radical, but clearly painterly. This is particularly evident when you look at the trim around the windshield and the headlights. Both were chrome-plated on the original 911 – and both are also present on the G Series model.

But the strip around the windscreen is – like the wiper – black; the headlight trim and the rear-view mirror, on the other hand, are in the same color as the car. These different changes are necessary if the 911 is to be transformed into a more painterly car. The blinker loses its chrome trim and is integrated into the rubber of the bumper. The principle behind these changes is always the same: the ­visible parts slowly but surely lose their autonomy and their contrast to the ­surroundings; a dividing line disappears completely.

The form remains easily recognizable in the G Series. What changes is the visible infrastructure of the parts – in a strikingly planned and systematic way.

You might even conclude that Rembrandt had designed a 911 as well: the 996 from 1997. This car couldn’t be any more baroque – but not because, like the Aston Martin Valkyrie, ornate body parts have sprouted all over the place, but because baroque art, in Wölfflin’s view, has a radically painterly infrastructure. Independent parts are lost left and right. The various lamps – low beams, fog lights, indicators – disappear completely as visible entities behind an equalizing pane of glass, which in turn loses the geometric form that is always present in Renaissance works and becomes, on each side, a sort of fried egg flowing into the bodywork. The headlights are no longer seen as isolated parts in their own right, but as organs integrated into the body. The yellow indicators have to become white in order to create a painterly transition to the surroundings, robbing the part of its own power as a part. The blinker is only allowed to exist at the moment when it briefly flashes yellow, before it immediately disappears back into the painterly cloud.

You might even conclude that Rembrandt had designed a 911 as well: the 996 from 1997. This car couldn’t be any more baroque.

It’s incredible how precisely Wölfflin described the remarkable design of the fried-egg Porsche: “The painterly possibilities open up as soon as the line’s role as a marker of borders is depreciated. It is then as though every corner has suddenly been animated by a mysterious movement. While strongly articulated edging fixes the form to the spot and determines its appearance, it is the nature of painterly representation to give appearances a hovering character: form starts playing around; light and shade become an independent element, they seek each other out and combine with one another from peak to peak and trough to trough; the whole takes on the appearance of a restlessly swelling, endless movement. Whether the movement is flashing and powerful or just a gentle shivering and shimmering, it remains inexhaustible to visual perception.”

It doesn’t get any more extreme than this. The Porsche 996’s infrastructure not only resembles that of a Rembrandt, but also of a late Turner, even Pointillism. Once again, the transition between the windshield and the body is aesthetically significant for the style of the whole, because here it becomes impressionistic in the literal sense, one must even say literally pointillist. The trim, which was initially chrome-plated, then black, has now disappeared entirely, while the transition between the windscreen and the paintwork flows in a painterly manner, with increasingly thinner rows of dots printed on the edge of the windscreen, no longer recognizable as dots from a certain distance. Like Rembrandt’s etchings or Georges-Pierre Seurat’s tiny points, the windshield and bodywork are aesthetically equal.

So if you take Wölfflin’s aesthetics seriously, you have no reason to go to an art museum if you want to have an aesthetic experience. The same principles that apply formally to the images of art also apply to the design of cars – reason enough to finally put an end to any argument about whether something is art or design.

Lambert Wiesing

Lambert Wiesing

Professor of philosophy and columnist
Lambert Wiesing, born in 1963 in Ahlen, Germany, studied philosophy, art history and archeology in Münster. After earning his doctorate degree in philosophy, he became a co-founder of the German Society for Aesthetics. Since 2008 he has been chair of Image Theory and Phenomenology at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena. Also worth mentioning: Lambert Wiesing spent seven years working as a windsurfing instructor on the North Sea island of Juist.

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