Bella Bugatti

CMA showcases a celebrated family's talent for merging function and aesthetics.

The first American owner of a Bugatti Type 37 thought the car's clutch was so beautiful, he pulled it out of the car, had it gold-plated, and used it as a coffee-table conversation piece. The Bugatti family probably would have appreciated the owner's ability to see aesthetic potential where other car aficionados would have seen only nuts and bolts.

For three generations, members of that illustrious Italian family designed objects that were functional and aesthetically pleasing: everything from cars to tea sets, rocking chairs, and bronze animal sculptures. The latter, even if they did not serve a designated function, nevertheless helped create a better understanding of animals in captivity. Examples of the Bugatti dynasty's efforts in all these endeavors are now on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art as part of a blue-ribbon exhibit called simply Bugatti.

This comprehensive show confirms and celebrates the popular association between the Bugatti name and cars (six of these magnificent autos are part of the exhibit), but it goes a step further by arguing convincingly that the Bugatti name ought to also be linked with innovative furniture design and finely wrought sculpture based on animal themes.

Works by Carlo Bugatti, the patriarch of the family, fill an entire room at the museum and substantiate the exhibit's novel spin on the Bugatti legacy. Here are 45 objects, mostly furniture pieces, which refuse to submit to categories. CMA Curator of Renaissance and Later Decorative Arts and Sculpture Henry Hawley, principal organizer of this show, portrays Carlo as an artistic renegade whose work sometimes bore the influences of Islamic art and European Romanesque architecture ( i.e., onion-shaped design elements from the former and round arches and stout columns from the latter), but which, in the end, retained its own identity because those styles were so thoroughly absorbed and understood.

Density of detail is a recurring characteristic in the elder Bugatti's work, and sometimes it seems that every square inch is stuffed with activity. He was probably familiar with the fourteenth-century Islamic palace called Alhambra, which, to this day, reminds visitors to Granada that Islamic culture once flowered there. Tile decorations in the Alhambra are, like many of Carlo's pieces at the museum, full of sunburst shapes, vegetable forms, and a smattering of geometrical patterns. The idea in Islamic art is that every motif is important, a notion which provides a way of expressing Islamic mysticism visually. Carlo took religion out of the equation and sought secular variations of his own.

In works such as "Table With Tea Set," executed around 1907, Carlo was not concerned with illustrating religious principles, but with intertwining ornament with function. Rounded forms are used as unifying elements — the curved handles of the tea cups, which are fashioned from ivory; the rounded table legs; and the elliptical patterns that appear on each side of the table's central shelf. The inlays of bone and mother-of-pearl throughout lend a faintly decadent touch. The most impressive thing about such a work is how the artist was able to weave decorative patterns and structural elements into a sensuous whole with multiple angles and clever contrasts between solids and voids. And, it must not be forgotten, the thing was designed to facilitate a mundane daily ritual like a cup of hot tea at midday.

Some of Carlo's most interesting work, though, reflects his early architectural training and eschews ornate decorative touches altogether. A rocking chair done around 1903 looks as though it could have been created yesterday. Here, he attached a cantilevered seat to the legs of the chair, but avoided contact between the seat and the back. This work is the design equivalent of a cold glass of spring water. After imbibing Carlo's exotic cocktails elsewhere, one can return to this work and see how artists go back to the basics to get their bearings.

The rocker discloses the secrets of its construction immediately, not because the design is self-evident (this rocker was hardly a spur-of-the-moment creation; it followed on the heels of several similar but not yet perfected designs), but because here, the drive toward simplification has been so successful. Like an expert tennis player who, due to perfect positioning, seems to have all the time in the world to make the next shot, Carlo sometimes came up with designs that were so logical that he made them look easy. This cantilevered rocker is a fine example of such work.

If a Carlo Bugatti design was often an original blend of practicality with fugitive flights of fancy, the animal sculptures of his son Rembrandt are, by contrast, modest in scope. Still, they suggest that the young man had an uncanny way of catching animals in characteristic poses and for transferring his knowledge of animal behavior into works of art that served as a distillation of that knowledge.

In a 1908 work called "Begging Elephant," Rembrandt Bugatti expertly modeled an Asian elephant while it gingerly extended its trunk to take a piece of bread. Rembrandt captured the animal's surprising dexterity: It looks as though it's standing on its tiptoes (if that's possible), and while the head is lowered, the trunk is preparing to take a tasty morsel. Equally impressive is a work called "My Antelopes" from 1908, a life-sized bronze of two antelopes that lived with Bugatti at his Paris residence for three months. Rembrandt's affection for these animals as well as his deft expressive touch is clear in this finely wrought bronze, which captures the moment when these animals drew near and one gently licked the other's face.

So devoted was Rembrandt Bugatti to his favorite animals at the Antwerp zoo (where he became friends with the keeper of the cats and was given permission to sculpt them at different ages) that, when World War I broke out, and the animals were killed to make way for a military hospital, he spiraled into depression. He committed suicide at his Paris studio in January of 1916. He was 31.

Ettore Bugatti (Rembrandt's brother) and his son Jean were the Bugattis who took automotive design to previously unscaled heights during the 1920s and 1930s. At the art museum, we have a rare opportunity to view such classics as the Type 55 Roadster, the curving fenders of which are echoed by the wheels and capped off by the egg-shaped grillwork at front. The Type 41 Royale, which came out around 1930, is perhaps the most famous of all Bugattis. Mickey Mishne, the longtime Bugatti expert who contributed the well-written article about Ettore and Jean Bugatti for the copiously illustrated catalog published in conjunction with this exhibit, wrote an article in the mid-'60s in which he stated in no uncertain terms that, if he had his choice of all the cars in the world, it would be the Type 41 — all twenty feet of her, with an airplane engine adapted for use in an automobile and meticulous, custom-made parts. Thirty years later, Mishne says that he has not changed his mind. Viewers of the Type 41 (only six of which were ever built) will have a rare chance to see firsthand why this car (really a sculptural environment that does double duty as a car) has been the subject of such praise.

In 1913 Henry Ford's automobile company produced 1,000 Model T's per day. In comparison, Bugatti made only 7,950 cars during the entire 42 years, from 1909 to 1951, that the factory in Molsheim, France, was in operation. The slim output was, and is, understandable. Ettore Bugatti's cars not only were designed to cruise the roads of Europe, they were designed to chew up the competition at races like the Monaco Grand Prix. Not only were they meant to serve as social signals for their owners' wealth, they were meant to reflect the aesthetic sensitivities of people who could see beauty in the clutch of a car. In fact, whether it's Carlo's furniture or Rembrandt's animal sculptures or Ettore's cars, the Bugatti story is about the marvelous things that can happen when people discover the thing that they are, by talent and by disposition, best suited for, and who then pursue that thing with everything they've got.