The Daily Heller: Looking Up for Visions Below

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For forever, humans have looked upward. We’ve wanted to conquer the skies and challenge nature through technology and design. And a new exhibition at The Wolfsonian–FIU in Miami Beach goes high as others go low. Drawing largely from its renowned collection of art and design, curator Lea Nickless reveals the modern-age fascination with the sky in Aerial Vision, “an exhibition about progress, promise and perspective,” on view through April 24.

Nearly every era has heights. The early 20th century was marked by once-inconceivable inventions, and from airplanes, skyscrapers, elevators and beyond, Aerial Vision includes more than 100 artifacts, including some rare large-scale paintings to prints, drawings and an array of media that captures the scale of modernity.

This is an exhibition that holds a sense of optimism and progress. Here, Nickless talks about the vision and passion to soar, as seen through art and design.

Decoration of the Salon de l’Aéronautique at the Grand Palais, Paris, 1938. André Granet (French, 1881–1974).

What made artists interested in the skies?
I think artists have long looked to the skies (the heavens) for inspiration, but it was the new availability of elevated vantage points in the early 20th century that provided previously unseen vertical perspectives. From the air, manmade and natural forms were radically simplified, reduced from 3D to 2D, unknown patterns emerging. Access to these heightened vantage points hugely impacted visual thinkers—artists, architects and designers—and was critical to the evolution of 20th-century modern art (think Cubism, Malevich, etc.). In Italy, Futurism responded with Aeropittura, well-represented in the exhibition.

The future in the early 20th century, if not before, was in flight. How far back does your exhibit go, and were these fabulous imaginings or real-life depictions?
The earliest pieces in the show don’t reference flight but the Eiffel Tower, the tallest structure in the world from 1889 until it was surpassed by the Chrysler Building in 1930. The Eiffel Tower’s observation platforms first provided astonishing vistas across Paris to international fairgoers to the 1889 Exposition Universelle. There are two very different objects that represent the Eiffel Tower—one a pristine children’s toy/puzzle from 1889 that, once assembled, creates a three-dimensional structure in cardboard, and the other an exquisite rendering for the lighting design for the Paris 1937 exposition.

The earliest depiction referencing flight is the 1911 poster proof for the Third Exposition of Aerial Locomotion at the Grand Palais in Paris, eight short years after the Wright Brother’s first successful ascent. It is amazing to think that a trade show of this scale was already established and in its third year by 1911. (This event continues to this day as the Paris Air Show.)

Mural study, ceiling painting for the Great Hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers, London, c. 1919. Charles Sims (British, 1873–1928). Oil on canvas.

In the small gallery Every Roof an Airport, I gathered all sorts of fantastical imaginings. A collective sense of euphoria around technologies and their endless possibilities produced some imaginative ideas, such as an airplane in every garage, and skyscraper airports. I am particularly fond of the rendering Futuristic View of Intercity Transportation, in which San Francisco graphic designer John B. Ricketts Jr. designed an “individualized transportation” system.

Poster proof, for the Third Exposition of Aerial Locomotion, Grand Palais, Paris, 1911. Georges (Geo) Dorival (French, 1879–1968), designer. Geo Dorival et de Renaucourt, Paris, printer. Offset lithograph.

Planes are such design treasures. Aerodynamics and design have a solid marriage. What in this exhibit best represents this union?
Ideas around aerodynamics had a huge impact on design and are found in aspects of streamlining and the Art Deco and Art Moderne styles. The Viktor Schreckengost trophy for a women’s air race in Miami in 1939, especially as seen in the design drawing for the trophy, is an example. An allegorical female figure atop a streamlined plinth holds an airplane in her hands. Schreckengost designed the trophy in such a way that each year’s winner would take the large trophy for one year, retaining a small replica of her winning airplane thereafter. Another that incorporates and begins to abstract aerodynamic forms is Edmond van Dooren’s La Ville (The City), in which stylized skyscrapers, zeppelins, rockets and trains fuse together in a futuristic cityscape. Even Henri DeFrasses L’Île flottante (The Floating Island), a proposed mid-Atlantic refueling stop, has an aerodynamic form.

Drawing, study for the Illumination of the Eiffel Tower for the Exposition Internationale des Arts et
Techniques, 1937. André Granet (French, 1881–1974). Paris. Gouache on paper.

How did you come up with the idea for the show?
I honestly don’t remember but it was years ago when I thought that an exhibition around the idea of “point of view” could be interesting. It was probably after cataloging numerous airline posters and seeing the various ways artists interpreted the view from above. We are now so jaded, taking for granted the view from above, but I like to imagine how exhilaratingly transformational those early experiences of the elevated view must have been. And not only from an airplane window but also from an observation platform at the top of the Eiffel Tower or a skyscraper.

I am betting that finding enough material was not a struggle. What is represented the most—commercial travel? Or something other?
You are so right! In fact, I had to cut at least 50% from my initial checklist. The Wolfsonian–FIU’s collection is so deep and rich that looking at this subject from almost any lens delivers amazing content. Commercial travel posters holdings are particularly well-represented but the library holdings were almost overwhelming, especially in reference to books and games for children. There are also two massive birds eye–view paintings—one of Sarasota and one of Miami—that were created in 1925 to sell land at the height of the Florida land boom. These paintings, sometimes referred to as “realtyscapes,” were commissioned by real estate agents for their offices.

What do you want the viewer to leave the museum with in terms of experience?
I would like to challenge the viewer with the idea of how technologies have impacted our past and shifted how we perceive and interpret the world and our place in it. And it is my hope that some will consider and examine how new technologies continue to shape our perceptions.