BMW Art Cars

Cars Culture

The Art of Movement

Words by Helen Gilchrist

Movement. Stop and think about it for a minute. It’s one of the most valuable capabilities known to man. Since the dawn of time, mankind has cherished the freedom and adventure that movement brings – whether it’s running, riding a galloping horse, or the roar of a fat engine and the thrill of the open road. The dream of moving as easily as possible across land, sea or air is one of humanity’s greatest visions – one that has not only driven technological developments, but also inspired a great deal of artistic attention. From the Roman charioteers decorating their chariots with personal objects to what you see on these pages is surely a natural progression. These just move at unnatural speeds.


After the invention of the automobile in the 1880s, it was not long before both the car and the mobility that it brought provoked a variety of creative responses. This came from both the design of the car itself, and the associations that it evoked in people’s minds. Speed. Ease. Discovery. A new sense of freedom. The wind in your hair. In the Roaring Twenties, people often decorated their old cars (‘flivvers’) with sexy characters like Betty Boop as a way of expressing their free spirit.

In the late 1960s, Janice Joplin had her Porsche 356 vamped up with wild psychedelic paintwork, while John Lennon tore about in a paisley Rolls Royce. This inspired a host of Day-Glo VW buses and customised vehicles that are now synonymous with the age of peace and love, man. There are still amateur ‘cartists’ all over the world who have been known to use tree bark, pennies, brick and computer boards, as well as the favoured one-shot sign enamel paint, to adorn their wagons – one noting that his lovingly decorated motor got him “500 smiles per gallon”.

BMW embrace the car as art

BMW 850csi art car by David HockneyIn the 1970s, BMW embraced the art car phenomena, bringing with them their customary class and finesse. This was to carve out a new genre on the scene – the art car was to move from its more-often-than-not cheerful gimmickry to become a genuine work of art. Some of the most famous and accomplished artists in the world would paint some of the most advanced and technologically exciting cars in the world to produce something truly unforgettable.

In 1975, auctioneer and racing driver Hervé Poulain was looking for a way to link his involvement in both the racing and art worlds. He came up with the idea of asking his artist friend Alexander Calder to paint his 480 hp BMW 3.0 CSL. BMW welcomed his idea wholeheartedly, and, unsurprisingly, it went down a storm when it was driven in the 1975 Le Mans 24-hour Race. Realising the success of their first Art Car and the enthusiasm it generated, BMW decided to continue with the experiment, and commissioned New York artist Frank Stella to paint a BMW coupe the following year.

Fast forward 30 years, and there are now 15 BMW Art Cars, created by artists spanning all five continents including Roy Lichtenstein (USA), Andy Warhol (USA), Michael Jagamara Nelson (Australia), Matazo Kayama (Japan), César Manrique (Spain), A.R. Penck (Germany), Esther Mahlangu (South Africa), Sandro Chia (Italy), David Hockney (UK) and Jenny Holzer (USA). These cars form “a mirror of our culture, as exemplary as it is unique” (BMW), and have been exhibited in the world’s finest art museums, including The Louvre in Paris, The Royal Academy in London, and The Guggenheim in New York.

Over the same period, the company have built up their brand around their relationship with art and culture, with art cars, Bond films, London Design Museum lectures and a partnership with the Goethe Institute at the forefront of their ‘avant garde’ image. In the words of BMW: “Technology shapes our culture in the same way as culture refines our technical world.”

Roy Lichtenstein’s Comic Book BMW 320i

Roy Lichtenstein at work on a prototype modelIn terms of cultural icons, Lichtenstein, Warhol and Hockney are arguably ‘the big three’. Lichtenstein is generally regarded as the father of American pop art; his celebration of the ordinary and trite in comics and advertisements heralded a totally new style of art in 1961, and his striking comic style has become etched in the minds of generations. On producing his racing car, a BMW 320i in 1977, he said: “I wanted to use painted lines as a road, pointing the way for the car. The design also shows the scenery as it passed by. Even the sky and sunlight are to be seen… you could list all the things a car experiences – the only difference is that this car mirrors all these things even before it takes to the road.”

There is a stunning harmony between his free composition and the 320i’s aerodynamic features, the result being nothing short of breathtaking. This car screams out Lichtenstein – although his comic art was a thing of the past by the time he came to produce it in 1977, his designs are hugely influenced by it. The long drawn coloured strips act as ‘speedlines’, a popular comic device for showing speed, and the oversized ‘Benday dots’ are straight from his iconic comic strips a decade earlier. After completion, Lichtenstein’s car premiered twice: once as a work of art at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and once as a racing car in the Le Mans 24-Hour Race, where it was driven by Hervé Poulain (the daddy of the BMW Art Car) and Marcel Mignot. It finished 9th overall and came first in its class.

Roy Lichtenstein's BMW 320i art car.

Andy Warhol’s hands-on BMW M1 Group 4 project

Andy Warhol works on the BMW M1 Group 4 art carIf Lichtenstein invented pop art, Andy Warhol became it – his name is almost synonymous with the style. At his legendary ‘Factory’, he and a whole team of workers overturned classic art concepts in an unprecedented way, producing ‘mass productions’ of famous faces and striking pictures of trivial objects like soup tins and Coca Cola bottles. In keeping with his view of art, he saw the idea of a car as a rolling work of art as more typical than unusual, seeing no conflict between functional technology and free artistic composition.

Where his predecessors had started by painting a draft version on a scaled-down model before transposing it to the car with a team of assistants, Warhol set to work on his BMW M1 group 4 racing version in a zealous and unabashed manner. He was the first artist to paint everything himself, this spontaneous and direct execution stamping his own character on it. Warhol later explained of his car: “I tried to portray speed pictorially. If a car is moving really quickly, all the lines and colours are blurred.”

Andy Warhol's BMW M1 Group 4 Rally Art Car

David Hockney’s ‘transparent’ BMW 850CSi

David Hockey working on his BMW 850CSI Art CarWhere Lichtenstein’s car mirrored the outside world, Hockney’s concept for his BMW 850CSi was based around transparency – revealing the inside of the car, be it the engine or the dog on the back seat. Stylistic impressions of the engine adorn the bonnet, and the driver is also visible through the door.

There’s no doubt that Hockney loves driving – the hills, winding roads and deserts of California, his chosen home, have provided inspiration for much of his work, including the famous Pearlblossom Highway. His sensitive perception of the driving experience led to a powerful visual interpretation of it.

“Driving and design go hand in hand,” he explained. “Travelling around in a car means experiencing landscapes – which is one of the reasons I chose green as a colour. The car has wonderful contours, and I followed them.”

David Hockney's BMW 850csi art car.

BMW’s priceless Art Car collection has just embarked on a massive world tour. Taking in Malaysia, Singapore, The Philippines, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, China, Russia, Africa, Turkey, Europe and the USA, this rolling exhibition will continue until 2010.

This year also sees another exciting new development – the first BMW Art Car of the 21st century. The record-breaking hydrogen-powered BMW H2R painted by contemporary Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, will be unveiled this spring. Eliasson was chosen not only for his prowess as an internationally acclaimed artist, but also for his philosophy as a champion of renewable energies. The H2R set nine world records for hydrogen-powered vehicles at the Miramas Proving Ground in France in 2004, so the 16th in the series is set to be an explosive combination. Watch this space.


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