Le Corbusier was especially smitten with the Normandie, the spectacular 1930s masterpiece of the French CGT line which evolved from the earlier vessels, Paris and Île-de-France. The most powerful steam turbo-electric powered passenger ship ever built, Normandie, as the exhibition illustrates, was also a living art gallery, packed with Art Deco creations in every medium, its Grand Salon designed in emulation of the 17th-century Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Large relief panels depicted Normandy’s Rouen Cathedral and Bayeux Tapestry, the Smoking Room hosted lacquer artist Jean Dunand’s heroic depiction of athletic youth, while Jean Dupas contributed the epic mural, The History of Navigation.
Normandie’s great transatlantic rival was the Queen Mary, operated by the Cunard White Star Line (later just Cunard). She was more conservative in conception, though also decorated in the Art Deco style as well as being liberally furnished with exotic woods from around the British Empire (she was nicknamed “The Beautiful Ship of Wood”). The Queen Mary proved far more commercially successful than Normandie (or contemporary German rivals Bremen and Europa), not least because Cunard White Star made a point of offering desirable tourist and second-class accommodation rather than lavishing most of its efforts on first class, as Normandie did.
After World War Two, a new generation of liners embodied a more modern internationalist style. Under its chairman Colin Anderson, Britain’s Orient Line ships, plying routes from Britain to Australia and the Pacific, featured the work of such British figurative artists as Edward Bawden, Lawrence Scarfe and John Hutton. The American ship SS United States, launched in 1951, was made from aluminium and promptly became the fastest liner to cross the Atlantic in either direction. Its interior showcased the specially-commissioned work of 14 American artists, including sculptors Nathaniel Choate and Gwen Lux. We may never see ships like this again, but it’s remarkable that we ever saw them at all.
Adam Sweeting @ theartsdesk.com