The Ocean Liners: Speed & Style exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London displayed the fascinating evolution of cruise liners.
Between the mid-19th and late-20th century, the cruise liner revolutionized ocean travel.
Ocean Liners: Speed & Style, which was on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, was the first exhibition to explore the development, design, and cultural impact of the ocean liner around the world.
The exhibition, which ran until June 17, revealed the untold stories behind the construction and lifestyle aboard some of the world’s greatest cruise liners, including the Titanic, the Normandie, the Queen Mary, and the Canberra, elegantly reconstructing the golden age of ocean travel with over 250 artifacts including sculptures, models, photographs, paintings, original posters, and film.
Beginning with Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s steamship, the Great Eastern of 1859, the exhibition traces the history of ocean liner designs from the Beaux-Arts interiors of the Titanic, and its sister ship, the Olympic; and the floating Art Deco palaces known as the Queen Mary and the Normandie to the streamlined modernist designs of the SS United States and the QE2.
Yet it also goes beyond the story of the ships themselves to feature artists, fashion designers, and architects, including Albert Gleizes, Charles Demuth, Eileen Gray, and Le Corbusier, whose work was inspired by ocean liners, as well as revealing the largely forgotten story of artists who contributed to the design of the vessels, such as William De Morgan, Richard Riemerschmid, Jean Dunand, Edward Bawden, and Edward Ardizzone.
Art that moves
In the early 20th century, migrants still made up the bulk of ocean travelers, but after the First World War the U.S. tightened its immigration policies and liners reinvented themselves to appeal to the growing number of upper and middle-class tourists.
Governments of the era often subsidized the shipbuilding industry, which was both a creator of jobs and a symbol of national prestige at a time when overseas empires were flagging.
The glamorous side of the ships of the era are amply represented in the exhibition with highlights including a precious Cartier tiara recovered from the Lusitania, sunk by German U-boats during World War I; a panel fragment from the Titanic’s first-class lounge; a stunning lacquered wall from the Smoking Room of the French cruise liner, the Normandie; and Stanley Spencer’s painting ‘The Riveters’ from his 1941 series Shipbuilding on the Clyde.
Other notable attractions include the Christian Dior suit worn by legendary actor and singer Marlene Dietrich as she arrived in New York aboard the Queen Mary in 1950, a striking gown made by French designer Lucien Lelong that was worn on the maiden voyage of the Normandie in 1935, and Jeanne Lanvin’s famous Salambo, or ‘ apper,’ dress.
Photographs taken by the great Swiss architect Le Corbusier on board an Italian passenger ship in 1936 are also among the exhibits. Le Corbusier’s journey from Brazil to France took place during the golden age of ocean liners in the 1920s and he rhapsodized about les paquebots (a French term for the ships) in his manifesto on architecture, published in 1923. Le Corbusier said that houses should be machines for living in, just as ships were machines for sailing in.
The nautical influence
As ocean liners evolved, bigger and faster ships boasted fancy restaurants, swimming pools, cinemas, and even department stores. Glitzy art-deco interiors were the order of the day. is in turn had an impact on the art world itself. While modernist designers turned their noses up at the ‘bourgeois’ interiors of many ocean liners, they nevertheless admired them for their clean lines and technological prowess: a perfect marriage of form and function.
In the 1930s, nautical forms—streamlined curves, white walls, flat roofs, balustrades and even portholes—found their way into the architectural styles of many European and American buildings. One of the more literal manifestations of ocean-liner style was the Coca-Cola distillery in Los Angeles, designed by Robert V. Derrah and finished in 1939, which looks like a ship that has run aground.
Ocean liners also inspired Le Corbusier’s famous unité d’habitation, the architectural model for much high-density social housing in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. In short, these incredible machines may have taught us how lots of people could coexist happily in a limited space for a few days. But when that limited space is on dry land, the freedom of the ocean can seem far away.