Four-wheeled dreams, Rick Poynor on the seduced but unquestioning approach taken by the V&A’s monograph Autofocus: The Car in Photography, published to coincide with the exhibition Cars: Accelerating the Modern World. In general, Cars shares the muddled-up mix of mirror, signal, manoeuvre as the book. It is a strangely old-fashioned piece of design history, one that falls into the trap of being simultaneously seduced and confused by its subject matter. A rich cavalcade of archive material, specially commissioned films and archive material, design ephemera, models, automobilia and actual physical cars are given a hefty amount of space in the V&A’s new Sainsbury Gallery. Critical distance – or even disengagement – is something that design history has struggled with since the discipline’s inception, walking a fine line between dry academic analysis and goggle-eyed wonder at the contents of old archives and dusty collections, long-forgotten historical cul-de-sacs and of course the retro-futurist’s inevitable schadenfreude at past (over)ambitions.
No other object has been so comprehensively fetishised by society, the result of which is an on-going, acrimonious and bitterly bad break-up that looks set to last for decades. As an exhibition, Cars ticks almost all the boxes one would expect and the staging and curation is competent and cultured. But the story of the car is now so ingrained, complex and far-reaching that any overview-style exhibition like this is doomed to be incomplete. Throw in the need for sponsorship – in this case Bosch, the behind-the-scenes tech supplier that works with practically every manufacturer – and holding a critical view isn’t really possible. There is some great content nonetheless, e.g. The evolution of European motorways 1920 – 2020, this history of streamlining (an absolute mainstay of design history) and short films about three (incredibly male-dominated) Car Subcultures. Staged from the midst of a fast-changing age, Cars: Accelerating the Modern World captures some elements in sharp relief, leaving the background as an indistinguishable blur.