Art, Science and Engineering: The Citroen Traction Avant from 1934


Citroen - Ros Elkin

At mid-September Easel Art Space Newcastle hung Ros Elkin’s exhibition Impromptu to be online for viewing now and when State Covid regulations allow, in the gallery itself. To visit online go to Easel-Art-Space.com/Ros Elkin. There is considerable range: lyrical abstracts, delicate ink-on-paper, landscape oils/acrylics on canvas, small utility ceramics, and the industrial artefact study, Citroen. Acrylic on canvas, 160 X 120 cms, finished edge to edge, ready to hang, it is an absorbing work.


Ros’s Citroen is a depiction touching upon transport industrial archaeology. The subject of this painting is the historic, advanced vehicle, a French front-wheel drive (rear-wheel drive optional) Citroen Traction Normale or more compact Legere (manufactured from 1934 to 1957 inclusive).


It is apparently abandoned, leaves lying across the plenum, duco the original mandatory black. The passenger cabin has been plundered for its leather covered seats. Reflections on unpolished glass, unlubricated authentic protruding hinges on the rear-opening ‘suicide’ driver door (Europe) or front passenger door (UK), and the physical condition of the particularly awe-inspiring 1930s pressed-steel body confirm decay. In collector parlance, this is the very image of a ‘barn find’ Citroen. Restoration, if possible, essential.


However Ros Elkin’s automotive detail study is simultaneously exciting and moving. This is a car from the brilliant era of new technology development, elegant but reputedly affordable, Depression-affected years. In this widely popular saloon or other variant, cities, families and rural France were on the move. The car became globally admired. The marque is immediately identifiable by that gentle upward curve of half-open onside (Europe) or nearside (UK) door and those famous windows; the revolutionary pressed-steel roof of the crash-resistant monocoque body, and in finest detail Ros’s rendering of the classic door handle in chrome, decorative chromed strip, interior door handle near the window-winder. And the screw-heads of the door lock assembly. Shapes and substance. Brush-work in definite steel blues and white, nonetheless enigmatic.


For here is sentimental regret for a discarded artifact in its entirety, mixed with regard for its endurance. An eighty-year-old door inviting make-believe play by children in 2021; someone left the windows wound up when the Citroen reached its final stop. The visual power of Ros Elkin’s Citroen reveals its layers: industry, artistry, science, engineering, experimental innovation, energy, success, final stop. So many people, so many stories, such a history that caused the automobile, the art, the door and the engineering to unite. This painting by Ros Elkin captures elements of a machine that was a triumph of its own time, a reminder metaphor for our own.


Why does the observer in Australia as much as in Europe and the UK recognise at once this famous model and marque? It is not solely acknowledgement of the role of the automobile, not just a ‘love’ of ‘the car’.

Citroen’s sales led in Europe from about 1921 onwards. In Australia the first contract for import of the cars was signed in 1923. One of the first imports, a dainty-looking 5CV Tourer was in 1925 the first automobile to drive around Australia (https://www.nma.gov.au/explore/collection/highlights/citroen-tourer). It seems likely that all models made their way, as they do now, to Australia.


Recognition for the Traction Avant though was through TV. From 1960 to 1963, British actor the late Rupert Davies became a weekly fixture in many Australian homes through his British version of model, unflappable Englishman interpretation of Inspector Jules Maigret (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0159178/) of the Paris Brigade Criminelle. Television started in Australia from September 1956, and the TV Maigret was a popular black-and-white early 1960s 52 episode drama series. It had many of the production values of those post-war, early TV years. The blend of French and British styles was never questioned, the French ‘accents’ never challenged. Paris was safe while Maigret was on the Force.

Core recognition images of the series were Maigret’s pipe and tobacco, his felt hat and trench coat, his tough bourgeois gentleman French Inspector demeanour – and that light and fast black duco police car, the famous Citroen Traction Normale 15/6H. As commentators at the time wrote, Maigret ‘swept up to the scene of murders in the very, standard black Traction 15/6’. It was said of the car that, because of its artistic ‘aerodynamic’ design, it seemed to be moving even when stationary. It was a proper car for the ‘Flying Squad’ of Paris.

Maigret was created as a character in Belgian author Jules Simenon’s (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Georges-Simenon) oeuvre. Between 1930 and 1972 he wrote 75 novels and 28 short stories featuring Commissaire Maigret. In the early 1960s the BBC produced this first TV production filmed and located in 1940s to 1950s Paris. The series was quirky, taking Maigret into dark dangerous recesses of the Paris and French underworld, the starting and finishing point each day his comfortable bourgeois home, his steady supportive family life. Despite all the complexities and doubts, no matter the threats, he always got a ‘result’. The final episode Maigret’s Little Joke has Maigret wounded and starting to retire. It was all very confident post-war. When filming finished, Rupert Davies purchased the leased Citroen Traction Avant 15/6 which had featured throughout the series, drove it home. It then remained in his family for many years.


That car was in fact one of the soothing, dependable characters in the TV show, as it had been in French life from 1934 until 1957 including being the ‘preferred transport’ for the Resistance 1940 to 1945. This is indeed an automobile with a famous, international reputation and history. Traction Avants were favoured for their popularity – 750,000 units were produced – and therefore anonymity by the Resistance, and as occupation gave way to Liberation they turned up all over France with FFI inscribed proudly on their doors. (Wikipedia).


The history and intelligent entrepreneurial source of the car, from 1906 when Andre Citroen first graduated in engineering and applied the double helical gears from which the double chevron of the automobile brand was derived, is part of the central industrial story of the time, enthusiastically bequeathing us our own mobile time. As the Citroen company’s business record typifies over more than a century, nothing is achieved without risk, problems and solutions. The Citroen Avant September 2021, painted in close-up section by Ros Elkin, exemplifies the point.

This exhibition however, in particular this Citroen art-work of such immediate ‘presence’ also highlights the motivation for Easel Art Space at The Station Newcastle having been established in this historically ugly era of Covid 19. Underlying the organisation, website, workshops, gallery and global outreach is that rightly believed, rightly asserted unity of the arts, science, engineering and entrepreneurial drive. Nothing happens unless it is made to happen; nothing occurs without both imagination and capacities actually to achieve the goal. Any goal.

Citroen by Ros Elkins conveys it all, in structure and colour. The Citroen Avant in all its versions was made because Andre Citroen stood aside his principal designer who reportedly seemed unable to achieve the goal. He then employed Andre Lefebvre, a young automotive engineer to make the car work; he employed Flaminio Bertoni from Italy, a sculptor, to design the car; he insisted the car benefit from the known advanced sciences of the day; he set a very tight timetable. His working team then produced the Avant which had a directly positive impact on France and its way of life, its social economy from 1934 until 1957, laying the groundwork also for the forward-thinking design and production principles that followed in Citroen’s widely influential automotive development.


The lessons for 2021 and beyond, in the interaction and unity of the arts with science with engineering and the courage to bring all to advantageous business, problem and solutions acknowledged, community advancement and sturdiness assisted, are immediately to hand. In Ros Elkin’s Impromptu 2021 the hints, beautifully and also strongly of hand and wrist, shine brightly.


Peter Cornish

September 2021.

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