Articles

Airplane Art Through the Ages

by Laura C. Mallonee on June 30, 2014

(Screengrab via Youtube)

Os Gemeos’s Brazilian national soccer team plane (screenshot via Youtube)

This World Cup, the Brazilian national soccer team has been taking its characteristic flair to new heights: it has been flying to games in a Boeing 737 painted by identical twin street artists Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo, better known as Os Gêmeos. Commissioned by GOL Airlines, the brothers covered the plane in a collage of yellow, brown, and white faces that showcase Brazil’s diverse ethnic makeup. It also begs the question: why aren’t more planes covered with art? 

Francesco Baracca in front of his plane (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Francesco Baracca in front of his plane (image via Wikimedia Commons)

There’s certainly a historical precedent. As early as World War I, fighter pilots like Italian aviator Francesco Baracca personalized their planes with good luck symbols and mascots; Baracca’s prancing stallion later became the emblem for Ferrari. During World War II, voluptuous pinup girls posed seductively on aircraft noses, though sharks often made appearances as well.

Yet commercial airplanes remained largely drab affairs until Texas-based airline Braniff International’s “End of the Plain Plane” campaign in 1964. Under the direction of pioneering ad executive Mary Wells Lawrence, the company hired the architect and designer Alexander Girard to reimagine what an airplane could look like. Girard’s transformation was simple but effective: he had the planes painted in crisp, candy-like hues that conjure giant jelly beans with wings.

"Flying Tigers" by R.T. Smith, 1942 (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

“Flying Tigers” by R.T. Smith (1942) (image via Wikimedia Commons

Associating art with glamour, Braniff branded itself as the airline of choice among artists like Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali, both of whom appeared in its advertisements and commercials. And between 1973 and 1975, Alexander Calder painted two planes for the company’s “Flying Colors” campaign — one for South America in his signature red, blue, and yellow geometric shapes, and another for the United States in wavy red and blue swirls to celebrate the bicentennial. Who wouldn’t want to fly in an aircraft emblazoned with the kinetic sculptor’s name?

Alexander Girard's design for Braniff International (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Alexander Girard’s design for Braniff International (image via Wikimedia Commons)

"Flying Colors of South America" by Alexander Calder (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

“Flying Colors of South America” by Alexander Calder (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Rene Kulitja's "Yananyi Dreaming" for Qanta (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Rene Kulitja’s “Yananyi Dreaming” for Qanta (image via Wikimedia )

Since then, plane painting has had a few bright moments. Most notably, starting in the mid-’90s, Qantas airlines has featured intricate artwork by Aboriginal artists like Rene Kulitja. For the 2012 London Olympics, Brighton-based designer Pascal Anson transformed nine British Airways planes into golden doves. In celebration of the Chinese calendar’s Year of the Dragon in 2013, AirAsia unveiled a plane featuring a menacing, wide-mouthed serpent.

And aside from a few other such corporate commissions, there was the 2011 Boneyard Project curated by the critic Carlo McCormick at Eric Firestone Gallery in East Hampton, which offered graffiti artists like How & Nosm, Nunca, Retna, Saner and Faile, and Andrew Schoultz the chance to resurrect rusty fuselages found in the Arizona desert with their designs. But if discarded aircraft make worthy canvases, why not working airplanes?

It may be that the sleek design of an airplane is more sculptural in its own right. And it’s also true that in recent years, many airlines have struggled just to keep complimentary peanuts on the menu, much less spiffy up their liveries. Still, it’s kind of fun to think about lying in the soft grass on a summer day and watching a plane painted by Regina Silveira or Sarah Sze fly low overhead.

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  • Mark Sheerin

    While it would be brilliant to see more planes covered with art, an episode from 1997 reveals how entrenched opposition can be. That was the year BA adopted the world image livery on tail fins, thought by many to be alarmingly ethnic. Margaret Thatcher went well beyond her remit as former PM to offer the following design crit: “We fly the British flag, not these awful things”. God knows what she would have thought of Os Gemeos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78CqcbwFeBA

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