Duncan Hannah’s Cars

By Jack Stanley

Jun 21, 2024

Duncan Hannah’s Cars

A couple of years before he died, Duncan Hannah described his approach to painting in an interview. “I wanted to tell stories in my pictures,” he said. “I wanted to create worlds that people could escape into.” Hannah went on to draw a parallel with Alfred Hitchcock movies and their establishing shots, “picture-postcard perfect, except it’s not.” This was exactly what Hannah was trying to do, to “put menace in a landscape,” to “paint something really beautiful that’s got a subtext of sorrow.”

Looking at Hannah’s pictures, from portraits and nudes to his pictures of cars and “invented magazines,” you can see what he means. Everyday pictures with something a little off, a gap into which the viewer can project their own thoughts, their own fears. In that same interview, Hannah spoke about his work The Waiting. Making the work, he was desperate to represent his experience of seeing a ghost, trying different approaches before painting simply an empty hotel room. “If you can fuck with people’s subconscious somehow, in a seemingly innocuous picture, that would really be something,” he remembered, almost 40 years later. “How do you make something that is seemingly a cliché but has this undercurrent that the viewer will experience but not know why? Painting’s got that power, but it’s nothing you can formalise.”

Hannah’s work achieved this through his classic and sometimes prosaic style, something he described as “very traditional” compared to modern painting. His pictures include “nostalgic landscapes and portraits inspired by classic films and adventure novels.” A recurring motif through many of his pictures are cars. Through the humble car, Hannah was able to project this uncertainty onto sleepy suburban streets, empty town squares and coastal roads. In one sense, these were straight down the middle pictures, paintings of cars in the places Hannah had seen them. In another sense, though, there is something unsettling. Almost all of the cars are empty, and an empty car on an otherwise empty street already feels a bit different, a bit off. As Hannah himself said of his work, “you can’t figure out what’s wrong; but there is something.”

While Hannah wanted to unsettle with his pictures, in other senses his paintings are stylistically classic. In the past, the Paris Review described him as “painter of earnest portraits,” a man who couldn’t be more different than the abstractions of his ‘70s and ‘80s contemporaries. While his friends were pursuing innovative and experimental techniques, Hannah was painting pictures of Penguin Classics novels. In this way, as in so many others, he was a man out of step with his New York milieu. Hannah was an artist out of time – a traditionalist in the age of the avant garde, a self-confessed dandy in the beating heart of punk. His diaries, published later as 20th Century Boys, show it all the more clearly. He frankly details his dealings with Dalí, falls out with Lou Reed and sees through Andy Warhol. He even criticises CBGBs, the sacred cow of New York’s downtown scene. 

In his pictures of cars, Hannah separates himself from New York by often looking to Europe. Many of his influences belied his American roots, but his subject matter often felt more continental. In these images, there is one model that comes up again and again. Across the body of work, the Citroen DS is depicted parked in front of a lighthouse, driving along the coast, and speeding along country lanes. While Hannah was a quintessential New York figure, the DS was a European icon; a car so French that it was driven by Charles de Gaulle.

The DS itself was only made for two decades – from the mid ‘50s until the 1970s – and became an international icon for its futuristic design. The French philosopher Roland Barthes became obsessed with the car, writing in Mythologies that it had “fallen from the sky.” Looking at Hannah’s pictures of the DS now, almost 50 years since production ended, is like looking at an alternative vision of the future. A car that fell from space but was scrapped by 1975; an unrealised idea of what could have been. 

In this way, the car pictures are filled with nostalgia. In part, this is how Hannah unsettles the viewer, through the “gauzy atmosphere … in some distant, dreamlike past.” On the face of it, there is nothing about the pictures that is inherently off, but the depiction of a half-remembered past that never happened – and a future that never will – is what creates the disconnect. In Hannah’s other pictures of cars, the same distance reappears. There’s a blue Lancia Spider, parked behind a locked gate; a driverless E-Type against a perfect summer’s day; a Karmann Ghia turning into a tree lined French boulevard.

The nostalgia, the cars, the pictures of novels are all part of the same approach. Hannah wasn’t just painting pictures of things around him; he was trying to capture the world as he saw it. This is what gave the pictures their atmosphere, their uncanny valley vision of the things that surround us. While the subject matter changes across all of Hannah’s work, the atmosphere remains. “I’m trying to spell out a world I carry in my head,” he said in the early ‘80s. “From memories, from wishes, from reading, from movies, from a lot of the world that’s vanishing.”

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