The Petersen’s Bugatti exhibit shows a family of artists and their creations

When the Petersen Automotive Museum closed in 2014 for a complete makeover, patrons and the public had trouble conceiving what lay ahead. Since first opening in 1994, the Petersen had offered hokey displays of cars in quaint naturalistic backdrops. You went once, enjoyed it and checked the soles of your shoes for manure on the way out.

The museum reopened in December 2015, but it’s the “The Art of Bugatti,” the new exhibit on display through Fall 2017, that exemplifies what the Petersen’s promoters meant when intimating a higher concept that would help the museum step toward greatness. Rather than a random sampling of automotive prizes and curiosities, which is how most car museums approach their business, the new Petersen would present cars as art and deliver the patron to the point of profundity, as any great museum will do.

As it turns out, Bugatti is the perfect linchpin for the undertaking. “This is the most significant Bugatti exhibition ever mounted,” said Stefan Brungs, the Bugatti Automobiles board member who came from Molsheim for the opening and brought along a new Bugatti Chiron, to stay a few weeks. Nearly all of the classic Bugatti cars and art collectibles displayed are from the collection of the Petersen’s chairman Peter Mullin, who first became enamored of French automotive design when he went out exploring after a Paris business meeting was canceled.

His acquiring so many great cars in the decades since is one thing, but what about these other treasures?

“It’s kind of a passion, and I have a bias toward action,” Mullin said in an interview during the opening. “If something comes into my head, I say to myself not ‘Should I do it?’ I say to myself, ‘Why shouldn’t I do it?’ If I have the discipline and the focus and the capacity, then I love to achieve these visions and see if I can’t add them to the collection and then show them to the public, which is really what I’m about here.”

What Mullin helps us to understand about Bugatti is the extent of artistry and artisanship within the family. For starters, the program describes the family’s patriarch, Carlo Bugatti, as “an audacious and widely admired decorative artist.”

Born in 1856, Carlo painted, created jewelry and invented musical instruments. Receiving special emphasis are his unique and sometimes impossibly intricate furniture pieces. A desk created in 1902 – the year of his triumphant “Snail-room” collection in the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art, held at Turin—blends Moorish (“Mauresque”) touches with Art Nouveau forms and meticulous surfacing of the type we would later see on son Ettore’s cars.

If “The Art of Bugatti” is to be faulted for anything, it’s for not even more boldly underscoring such connections. For instance, the extent of Carlo’s renown and self-regard isn’t clear. As we learn elsewhere, when the Queen of Italy congratulated him on his mastery of the Mauresque style, he imperiously responded, “You are mistaken, majesty, this style is mine.” Nor is it apparent that Carlo’s quest to identify the “ideal shape” found eventual expression in Ettore’s radiator grilles.

With a father as gifted and accomplished as Carlo, it comes as no surprise his sons were prodigies. The exhibit offers plenty of four-wheel Bugattis, starting with the beautiful simplicity of the 1925 Type 35C Grand Prix. Here, we are helpfully reminded that the “all-in-one wheel rims, spokes and brake drums were cast as a single piece of aluminum that could be replaced with only one nut.”

As dogged as Mullin has been in building his collection, not even he could land a 1932 Type 41 Royale, of which only seven were built and six survive. Lucky for us, Bugatti Automobiles has lent its own example to the exhibit. The behemoth starts with a mascot depicting a trumpeting elephant on hind legs, a sculpture created years earlier by Ettore’s younger brother, Rembrandt. After 12.7 liters of straight-eight engine and 21 feet of Coupé de Ville bodywork, it’s very clear this is no mere Rolls-Royce.

Between the lithe racing car and grandiose limousine, there is pretty much every other important Bugatti you can name, including a breathtaking Type 57SC Atlantic.

A selection of Rembrandt Bugatti’s bronzes help to round out the exhibit. As a preeminent animalier, Rembrandt devoted himself to capturing in bronze the grace and power of animals. The Art Nouveau collector S. Joel Schur might have had more of Rembrandt’s pieces, but here we still enjoy a generous sampling—and their beauty is attended by the tragic story of the sculptor’s suicide after his beloved zoo animals had to be put to death during World War One.

The plethora of Bugattis united for this exhibit is elevating enough on its own, and as the major contributor, Mullin deserves all accolades. As he said, though, “I have no interest in storing away stuff in a dark corner and bringing down a couple of friends by candlelight to look at it.”

But “The Art of Bugatti” also serves to endorse the broader vision behind the museum’s makeover and the new mission of presenting cars as art. Of course, a large salon full of Bugattis – whether they’re rendered in aluminum, walnut, or bronze – is a good way to start.

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