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'The Allure of the Automobile' at Atlanta's High Museum by Blake Gopnik

Art critic Blake Gopnik arrived in Atlanta for The High Museum's "The Allure of the Automobile" as a car novice. He left with a great admiration for these rolling works of art.

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By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, May 9, 2010

ATLANTA -- O n a recent holiday Friday, when they could have been out fishing, a gaggle of 10-year-old boys walked into an art museum and responded with surprising, almost blasphemous enthusiasm: "Holy God!"

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"Pretty awesome!!"

Even more surprising was the reaction of this jaded critic, almost five times their age. I shared their awe.

My enthusiasm came as a surprise, even to me, because of what we were looking at: some of the finest cars ever made, from a 1934 ultra-deluxe Packard Twelve Runabout Speedster to a 1961 Aston Martin DB4GT racecar, almost 50 years old yet so great it seemed timeless.

Every one of these automobiles turned out to be stunning, irresistible -- awesome. That inescapable appeal also called them out as complex, almost troubling works of art, on the order of the sacred masterpieces painted in Spain under the Inquisition or the glorious tapestries that helped sell autocratic rule in France.

A boy too young to drive can adore cars anyway. So can a non-driving art critic, I discovered. (Actually, I have driven -- at least 10 times.) Unlike those youngsters, my lack of automobility is mostly based on principles: I hold cars responsible for a number of evils, from global warming to suburban sprawl. Yet here I was grinning like a kid among the 18 cars in "The Allure of the Automobile," a show organized by the High Museum in Atlanta.

Then it occurred to me that my carefree reaction was precisely what these cars had in mind. Their aim is to sell their own mechanical utopia so well that even the greatest skeptic can't resist. They convincingly deny that anything could be wrong with the modern world that gave birth to cars and that cars have helped move ahead. They are hand-built, custom-crafted propaganda for a world of mass production.

Like all propaganda, deluxe automobiles tidy up the messes in the system they are selling.

The origins of cars are in a factory's smoke, noise and stink. Yet the greatest of them have clean lines that are so close to Platonic that it's hard to imagine them getting made at all. These cars seem to have sprung to life in a state of perfection, in some glade among the country lanes where their photos always place them.

There seems to be something inalterably right about the dropped rear end of a 1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster. In a 1933 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow, there's perfection in the molten flow of metal that leads from headlights into hood into body. Fingers long to feel the immaculate curves of a 1957 Jaguar XK-SS.

Yet these cars don't appeal to us simply as gorgeous abstract sculpture. Sure, you could claim that the curves of the fenders on a 1937 Hispano-Suiza H-6C Xenia are as much to be admired as the shoulders of the Venus de Milo; that the radiator grille on a Delage D8 120-S, a car also from 1937, is as impressive as the flowing lines of a Renaissance engraving. But the truth is that we admire cars as cars, and marvel that technology could rise to such aesthetic heights. A great car's goal is to get us to marvel at just that.

Though all of them are functional machines -- the automobile is the iconic functional machine of our entire modern era -- these one-off cars make pedestrian function fade away behind good looks. They're out to appeal even to visitors too young to know what it would feel like to use them; their force is as much visual and symbolic as mechanical and practical.


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