Seeing red

Why the colour red is a signifier of passion, romance, power and excitement

A Ferrari is a sculpture, an icon, a symbol, a gesture, an emotion. All qualities found, coincidentally, in works of art. You just need to think how, in the world of art, red adds aesthetic and financial value to a work, whereas green, for example, detracts from it. A green picture is difficult to sell, while a red one just flies off the shelves. Who knows if the same goes for cars?


In the history of art, red is a colour that changes perception of the work and subject. Just one single detail adds immediacy to a painting. Take a look at the hat worn by a gentleman in a painting by an artist who was very familiar with red and who, coincidentally, was named Rosso Fiorentino. The cap and breeches of a young man painted by Pontormo, another great Renaissance artist, make it unforgettable.

Sir Anthony Caro pictured with his Early One Morning sculpture  
Photo: PA Images

However, it’s in art from the post-war years that red becomes a key feature of artistic creation, particularly in Italy, but also elsewhere. During the 1960s, Sir Anthony Caro, one of the greatest British sculptors, created works painted red, like fragments taken from a racing car chassis, even if they looked rough, with an appealing lightness. Some of Caro’s works seem almost like an abstract interpretation of a Ferrari.


The shaped canvases by the Italian artists Agostino Bonalumi, Turi Simeti and Enrico Castellani are also based on exploration of aerodynamic shapes that have a lot in common with car design.


If we didn’t know that they were works of art, some pieces by these artists could make us think of pieces of bodywork, spoilers, bonnets and so on. The famous cuts in the canvas by Lucio Fontana, that most radical of contemporary artists, look like openings in a radiator grille.

Two creations by British fashion designer Gareth Pugh at the 2012 Paris Fashion Week Photo: Getty Images

The fundamental difference between these works and a car is that, while in automotive design everything has to fulfil a function, with an artwork the opposite is true. Nothing serves any purpose except to make our hearts beat faster, which is not what happens when we see a Ferrari flash past or hear its engine roar.


Going back to the colour red – women, of course, also use it on their lips. Puglian artist Pino Pascali was well aware of this when, in 1965, he produced his work Primo Piano Labbra, a moulded canvas in which the lips appear to fly up into the sky. This is a concept familiar to the British fashion designer Gareth Pugh, when he uses a red dress to turn one of his models into both a sculpture and an object of desire, precisely what a Ferrari symbolises.

Jeff Koons' Hanging Heart, one of five varieties created between 1994 and 2006  
Photo: Getty Images

However, it’s not just the physical nature of form combined with colour that arouses our emotions. A Mark Rothko canvas, seemingly as elusive as a cloud of vapour, a neon by Dan Flavin, which transforms architecture into a dream, or a stack by Donald Judd, which cuts through space like an endless staircase, show how red has the ability to create in our minds an endless, symbolic and highly personal space.


We conclude, inevitably, with the most famous heart in the history of contemporary art, the one suspended in the void by the American artist Jeff Koons. A heart that sums up everything we’ve said so far and in which, like the bodywork of a car, we can see our reflection.


This gives us the illusion of being a part of it, of being a detail, an essential accessory, not just to an object, but to an idea, a creation and a fantasy.