The Magnificent Bugattis

There were artistic Bugattis before the surname was a marque. The Petersen Automotive Museum's "The Art of Bugatti" presents the work of an artistic family that includes Art Nouveau designer Carlo Bugatti (above); son Ettore, who started the Bugatti car company; and grandson Jean, who designed the Art Deco curves of some of the world's most famous cars. The show also has works of lesser-known family members, such as Rembrandt Bugatti, a sculptor who had the best name this side of Elvis Costello.

With paintings, sculptures, furniture, and decorative arts—along with the cars—"The Art of Bugatti" will appeal to the art crowd as well as car enthusiasts. Most of the objects are from the Petersen or Oxnard's Mullin Automotive Museum, founded by Peter W. Mullin, chairman of the Petersen board. (Below, a 1939 Bugatti Type 57C, a French government wedding gift to Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, future Shah of Iran.)

Trained as an architect, Carlo Bugatti (1856-1940) never got around to building an actual building. Instead he became the consummate Art Nouveau weirdo. His work is hardly ever seen in L.A. Below is a Moorish-influenced Side Table, c. 1890 shown with two Fringed Chairs from about a decade later. Carlo took fin de siècle in the direction of surrealism; his aesthetic is often compared to Gaudi's.

Carlo is less notable as a painter, but a portrait of his daughter-in-law, Barbara Bolzoni Bugatti, stands out for its alarming hairstyle and side-eyed menace.
Carlo's son Ettore (1881-1947) trained as an artist but became an engineer and entrepreneur, establishing the eponymous automobile firm in Moslheim, France. His son Jean (1909-1939) was the true automotive artist, designing many of the Bugatti models of the 1930s. Jean is responsible for the four bodies applied to the Type 57—Ventoux Stelvio, Atalante, and Atlantic. Below are specimens of the Ventoux (1935) and Atalante (1939).

Ettore's brother, Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916), was a sculptor of animals in bronze. Rembrandt worked from life observation at the Antwerp Zoo. A statuette of a trumpeting elephants was reduced for the hood ornament of the Bugatti Royale. I don't see Rembrandt's work as anything more than charming, but interest in it spiked after a Bugatti Baboon sold for $2.6 million in 2006, a price that can only be described as apeshit-crazy. The Bugatti name must charm collectors who ought to know better, much as the Brueg(h)el name does for Pieter Jr.

Rembrandt volunteered as a paramedic in the first World War. Besides the medical horrors he witnessed directly, the Antwerp Zoo began slaughtering its animals for lack of food. Rembrandt killed himself at age 30, the year before the Armistice.

Jean also died at age 30. In 1939 he crashed a Type 57 race car into a tree at high speed. Though the Bugatti brand has survived to be celebrated in hip-hop, Jean's death put an end to the classic epoch of Bugatti automobiles.

That does not exhaust the corpus of talented Bugattis. Jean's sisters Lydia and L'Ebé were painters, and there are a few of Lydia's watercolors on view—mostly studies for hood ornaments. The family had connections to the post-impressionist painter Giovanni Segantini (Carlo's brother-in-law); the once-fashionable sculptor Paolo Troubetzkoy; and the canonical modernist Alberto Giacometti. None of the latter are in the Petersen show, but a gallery text aptly quotes Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto in praising the bad-boy beauty of the automobile.
Type 46 Cabriolet, 1930


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