You don’t have to be an auto enthusiast to be dazzled by the collection of innovative luxury Italian cars on display at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville. It will just happen.
“Bellissima! The Italian Automotive Renaissance 1945-1975” presents some of the finest post-WWII Italian-designed and -built automobiles. Among them are 19 cars and 3 motorcycles crafted into Jetson-era geometric shapes and decked out with the likes of insanely intricate grillwork, crystal knobs and outrageous wings and fins. Most are one-of-a-kind or definitely limited editions. All are held in private collections today.
During the war years, the talents of automobile manufacturers, engineers and designers were recruited (should we say conscripted?) by the military. But after the war, they turned their pent-up creative energy into a legion of stylish, low-slung coupes that could win races and inspire stunning road-going cars. Their often-sensual designs influenced the worldwide auto industry. Their names included Alfa Romeo, Lamborghini, Cisitalia, Lancia, Maserati and Ferrari.
The exhibit has three Alfa Romeo Berlinetta BAT cars, dating from 1953 to 1955. Berlinetta is the Italian word for “coupe,” a two-seat, two-door car with a fixed roof. (BAT stands for Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnicas.) These aerodynamically efficient cars were influenced by the emerging jet aircraft industry, and their curlicue-d tail fins astonish the public just as much today as they did when they were made.
The 1970 Lancia Stratos HF Zero stands a mere 33 inches high and appears to have been chiseled from a block of bronze. And the bespoke 1947 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Speciale was made for a wealthy woman who specified crystal knobs.
A second exhibit the Frist Center is an extensive collection of pottery, “Women, Art, and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise.” The Newcomb enterprise emerged after the Civil War as an unprecedented initiative to help Southern women train as artists and support themselves financially. It was launched at Newcomb College in New Orleans and continued through 1948. Typical characteristics of Newcomb pottery are botanical motifs, a palette of subdued blues and greens and matte glaze. Today, the pieces are broadly coveted and extremely expensive. (An eBay check shows most going in the four-figure range.) The exhibit runs through November 6.
The Frist Center is a beautiful work of art in itself. Constructed between 1933 and 1934 as the city’s main post office, the building combines two of the most prominent architectural styles of the period. The clean lines of the granite and marble exterior is an example of stripped-down Classicism. Inside, cast aluminum doors and ornamental grillwork are distinctively Art Deco.
The building was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. The post office moved out shortly after. Years of indecision about what to do with the building and then a massive renovation, which revealed a massive hidden skylight, went by. In 2001, it reopened as the Frist Center for Visual Arts.
An interesting side note is the Frist Center does not collect art. Instead, it originates and hosts traveling exhibitions from some of the world’s most prestigious collections and museums. Usually, a few major shows are on display at a time, and they change every few months, so the view is always changing. They range from Old Masters to creativity’s newest wave. Upcoming exhibits are photography by Irving Penn and armor, swords and other military accoutrements of Samurai warriors. When I was there, a gigantic cast iron sculpture of a head by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa greeted visitors at the entrance. (His work has been shown in Chicago’s Millennium Park, too.)
The Frist Center also features interactive educational activities for children, a first-rate gift shop and café (the desserts are divine). Children under age 18 are always admitted free.
The Frist Center for the Visual Arts
919 Broadway, Nashville