Body Building

Carlo, Rembrandt, Ettore, Jean Bugatti

by Philip Dejean, edited by Nadine Coleno and Uwe Hucke
Rizzoli International Publications (published 1983; out of print), 359 pp., $50.00

The Amazing Bugattis

by Malcolm Haslam and Philippe Garner and Mary Harvey and Hugh Conway
Design Council Books (London), 84 pp., £5 (paper)

Another subject of many plaisanteries was Isadora’s passionate interest in a small Bugatti and its handsome Italian driver. She had seen this little red racing car outside La Mère Tetue’s…. From that moment the car and its driver became the one subject in her mind. She even went the length of discussing the purchase of the Bugatti with her friend. An arrangement was made with Benoît Falchetto, the young Italian, who also kept a garage, to come on Wednesday night, September 14th, and take the prospective client for a drive, and show her how it ran.1

It was to be a fateful ride for Isadora Duncan, and it remains tempting to see it as perhaps a destined ride as well, so apt was her death by the instrumentality of a painted scarf with one end around her neck and the other caught in the rear wheel of a car designed and built by Ettore Arco Isadoro Bugatti. The fatedness was no matter of names or horoscopes, however; it was more to do with the spirit of the times, even the history of art.

Born in 1878 and 1881 respectively, Duncan and Bugatti were both members of the generation hung over from the culture of art nouveau into the age of the Ballet mécanique, Coco Chanel, Mondrian, and the Bauhaus. Bugatti, as the designer of some of the most elegant and successful machines in the history of motor sport, remains as much a legend as Duncan, and his cars, at their aesthetic and aristocratic best, deserve a place in the history of culture, among the most telling monuments to that “significant pause” between art nouveau and functionalism that now goes by the name of art deco. But he was also a direct influence on the functionalist generation—he coincidentally shared a pavilion with Walter Gropius at the celebrated exposition at Cologne in 1914, and Le Corbusier was to illustrate his admiration for Bugatti in publications of the Twenties.

What separates the case of Bugatti from that of Duncan, however, is that whereas she epitomized in her own person and work the modernist regress from art nouveau fame to art deco doom, Bugatti has to be taken together with two, even three, other members of his remarkable clan before the whole picture can be seen. Leaving aside his son Jean for the moment, one sees his father Carlo Bugatti, and his brother Rembrandt, the sculptor, as most immediately revealing. The father was perhaps the most extreme of all designers of art nouveau furniture, not just in Milan, but anywhere at all. Practicing neither the curvy, sexy mode that usually typifies art nouveau, nor Charles Renie Mackintosh’s spindly, prissy version of it, he concocted an unprecedented conflation of Egyptian revival with the more awkward aspects of English Ruskinian, to produce work of an elaborate ugliness that is remarkable even in the history of what is cynically referred to as il buon gusto Milanese.

The lavish book by Philip Dejean offers…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.