I Dream of Tanks – War, Warhol, and Cartier’s Greatest Creation

L-R: Renault FT, Cartier Tank in Steel, Andy Warhol

Childhood Nightmares

The second dream I can remember having was a nightmare. I was 2- or 3-years-old. I see the back of my family’s house turn inside out, its walls unfolding as if I were peering through some horrifying cubist kaleidoscope. From within the roiling walls, tank tracks begin crawling toward me. There’s no tank, per se: just a small fleet of lone single tank tracks, brick red, persistently advancing toward me.

A portrait of Wilhelm Unde by Picasso (1910)

My sister tells me I often screamed at night as a little kid, and that sometimes my parents couldn’t wake me. In my late 30s, specialists at Sloan Kettering Hospital in NYC told me that the source of these nightmares is likely the three major surgeries I underwent when just 16-months-old during August 1971 (a group there had begun to study the psychological impact of surgery on the very young, and sought me out). I had testicular cancer that had spread to my lymph nodes. The surgeries were quite primitive by today’s standards. Being so young, the doctors only lightly anesthetized me with a highly hallucinogenic gas and then made their cuts. I underwent three of these surgeries in one month.

That I stored horrors in my tiny subconscious makes sense, but how tank tracks got into my 3-year-old mind remains a mystery. Like most boys, I played with Tonka bulldozers. Also, I sometimes watched the evening news while Mom cooked, so maybe I was seeing tanks in Vietnam War coverage? I really have no idea how those tank tracks got in there, but versions of that nightmare recur to this day, occasionally with those awful tank tracks methodically advancing toward me.

Cartier’s Tank

The modern Tank Louis in yellow gold.

Louis Cartier had been working toward a seamless integration of the lugs and case of a wristwatch for years before being struck by the similarity between his emerging watch design and the the Renault FT tanks of WWI. For a Frenchman at the time, the Renault FT was not only a marvel of modern machinery, but a symbol of victory, freedom, and democracy. Simultaneously, though, the Renault FT is a troubling, even horrifying, symbol. With its man-sized turret and unflinching armor, this machine was poised to shoot down people, not other tanks. It has absolutely nothing to do with a fancy gold wrist watch, even if Louis Cartier’s watch design happened to remind the famous jeweler of a Renault tank.

The Renault FT was poised to hit soldiers, not other tanks.

The tension between the sophisticated elegance of the Cartier Tank and the machines from which it derives its name created a powerful hook among Cartier’s elite clients. The Cartier Tank was beyond avant grade; it radically ushered in the wristwatch, eventually ousting the pocket watch; its rectilinear Art Deco case supplanted the sinuous jewelry of Belle Epoque; and the Cartier Tank became an enduring unisex symbol of urban sophistication, which it still is. Louis Cartier’s Tank was so ahead of trends that I’d argue it’s still in the lead over a century after its release.

The Cartier Tank, Unto Itself

Charlotte Rampling in the 1970s.

It wasn’t very long after its release in 1919 that The Tank Watch transcended its affiliations with the Renault FT tank. Evidence of that semantic divorce ranges from the French calling divas “une tank” (after the watch) to the fact that many people still have no idea that the watch was named after the war machine. It’s just The Tank – an object unto itself.

The Cartier Tank (in all of its variations) is likely the most classic, timeless, enduring, and powerful watch design of all time. It was arguably the first ground-up wristwatch ever created, and its gender neutrality still dazzles the mind 100 years later. The strength of the design itself – its sleekness, its minimalism, its elegance – does have me wondering how important the name ultimately was. And yet, it’s hard to imagine The Cartier Tank under any other moniker.

Interestingly, Marcel DuChamp’s famous art installation Fountain also appeared in 1919, the year Cartier released The Tank. Fountain is merely a urinal hung in an art gallery, a move that tells us that context is everything when it comes to understanding an object’s cultural and social significance. We might say the same thing about Louis Cartier chosing the name ‘Tank’ for his sophisticated wristwatch. When pulled into the world’s most elite jewelry store (not unlike an art gallery) the word ‘Tank’ takes on entirely different significance. So social contexts repeatedly changed over the decades, the significance of the Cartier Tank has also changed. It’s an incredibly durable and flexible symbol.

Warhol wearing a Cartier Tank and showing the preppy set how things are done.

Warhol, Not War – The 1970s, Disco, & The Cartier Tank

For many watch fans, Cartier’s Tank reminds us of someone famous, powerful, and/or rich who wore one. I think of Andy Warhol and his good friend Halston, both of whom famously donned Tanks during the 1970s and 80s in NYC’s elite club scene. Other famous people wore Tanks, of course: Duke Ellington, JFK…it’s an endless list. But mostly I think about Warhol and what it would have been like to hang with him all night at Studio 54.

Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans

As a painter, Warhol took DuChamp’s toilet idea and expanded on it quite wildly. Warhol chose famous people and common household goods as his subjects, and he brazenly showed these pop-art pieces in New York City’s elevated art world. Warhol was a master of re-contextualizing cultural symbols and, thus, transforming their significance, and Warhol’s Cartier Tanks were – like everything he touched – fair game for his semantic manipulations. On Warhol’s wrist, this rather formal, high-brow Art Deco timepiece had become cool, artsy, druggy, and somewhat ironic. Warhol talked about his Tanks a-historically as ultra-hip fashion accessories for him and his ultra-chic ilk.

It is under Warhol’s re-contextualization that the Cartier Tank became, for me, the coolest watch one could possibly own. Yet I struggled to see how I could pull off a Tank were I to put it on, and for decades I’ve merely admired Tanks from a distance. But that distance is growing smaller these days.

Traces of Tankness & Doses of Darkness

Despite my postmodernist arguments above, I’ll risk contradiction here and posit that symbolic traces of tankness still linger around these rectangular watches. It’s a long while since Renault FTs rolled through Paris in victory parades, but the word ‘tank’ hasn’t gone anywhere, the abstract shape of a tank is still there, and I contend that a trace of the association with actual war machines is – however faintly – still present. This lingering tankness is like a semantic ghost that haunts The Cartier Tank. The juxtaposition of brutal war machines with fine jewelry – that killer hook – is right there for anyone to discover and explore. As of late, I’m completely hooked.

Warhol and Halston also brought a dose of darkness to the Cartier Tank. Those clubs where Tanks adorned the wrists of coked-up dancers were full of drugs and debauchery on unprecedented levels. Even a cursory read of Warhol’s famous diary shows us the potent dark side of their scene, and for me Warhol’s descriptions of the nightly hedonism has always been a big part of the Cartier Tank’s attraction. In the 1970s and into the 80s, the Tank had become an horological symbol of sub-cultural transgression.

It seems that I am also powerless to disassociate the Cartier Tank from the psychedelic nightmare’s of my early childhood. Surprisingly, however, that haunting has become a key ingredient in my adoration of these watches, because the haunting adds a weight and darkness to what would otherwise be – precisely because I associate it with Warhol and Halston – too fey and feminine a watch for yours truly, a died-in-the-wool tool-watch dude. But I’ve idolized these incredible men – even imitated them quite extensively (especially as a teenager) – but I’ve also rejected Warhol and Halston to some degree as I’ve sorted out my own unique and, admittedly, complicated masculinity.

Masculinity & Machinehood

In the era of shirt-n-skins gym classes and collective schoolboy showers (please tell me that’s in the past), there was no hiding my rather enormous scars. So word was out about my altered manhood when I was quite young, and I became the target of endless bullying. As little kids, the bullies called me a girl, and as we got older they settled into “fag.” In response – and this is a classic reappropriation move for the disenfranchised – by age 12 or so I took on what can only be called a “faggy” persona. The New Wave looks of the 1980s provided an easy vehicle to express that form of masculinity, and it was Warhol’s look and persona that worked best for me. By high school, pretty much everyone called me and the other New Wavers “art fags.”

Detachment as survival strategy. Warhol’s blank stare seems to say “I don’t care what you think.”

Being an “art fag” was liberating, however. Empowering, even. I found in Warhol and his ilk a kind of masculinity that I could relate to: sexy without being sexual, stylish, and – above all else – cool, detached, and in control. I took comfort in the power Warhol exhibited, despite his being gay and physically slight. Warhol was quite a role model, one who drove my father absolutely nuts while eliciting empathy, if not approval, from my mother.

The Cartier Tank can be read as an expression of steely cool not unlike Warhol’s blank stare.

I especially understood Warhol’s impulse toward the blank stare, which I still read as an act of steely defiance against the gaze of those who would judge him (others would argue he was imitating fashion models, and so on…). I don’t think I ever mastered the blank stare – certainly not on Warhol’s level – but I certainly tried for years.

“The reason why I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine…” – Andy Warhol, 1963

Warhol was aiming to be machine-like in his art-making – detached, working from photographs, creating multiple prints from the same screens, and he was decidedly unconcerned with self-expression (an extreme break from the machismo-fueled abstract expressionists before him). Warhol’s studio was called The Factory, and he often employed other people to execute his paintings. Whether he was facing a camera, making a print, or editing Interview magazine, Warhol’s blankness was deeply appealing to me.

As a teenage guitarist, I imitated Warhol’s blanked-out artistic approach. I developed a shape-based approach to the fretboard and would robotically repeat discordant odd-time patterns until I could see people grow uncomfortable. My repeating guitar patterns were like sonic Warhols, mechanically executed figures as devoid of self-expressiveness as I could make them. It was the musical version of the blank stare, and I became marginally known for it in the bizarre hardcore scene of the late 1980s.

I see a link between Warhol’s ultra-detached persona, his machine-like art-making, and The Cartier Tank – and I really dig what I see. The Renault FT presents one of the most frightening steel visages I can bring to mind, and echos of that steely machine seem to resound through Warhol’s killer blank stare, as well as through his art. Or course, and importantly, the watch itself is a relentlessly machine.

One can’t ignore the simple, expressionless lines of the Cartier Tank, either. The Tank’s case exemplifies the radical move away from the upbeat prosperity of the Belle Epoque into the grimness of WWI and the broad mechanization of the early 20th Century. No matter how beautiful and elegant this watch may appear to us, no matter how its significance shifts along with historical and cultural contexts, its formal, machine-like nature – its tankness – is always there, blankly staring back at us.