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Progress and Nostalgia

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Industrialization and Ambivalence in 19th Century Art

Nineteenth century attitudes toward the juggernaut of industrial and technological progress, as reflected in the arts, is a vast subject, not to be exhausted in a single volume, let alone a few paragraphs.  But even a taste of it can be instructive, since it reveals attitudes that still dominate our thinking today.  The belief in progress, and in the ultimate benefits for mankind of technology, was like a heady wine, an intoxication.  At the same time, the brutal degradation of life in the mills and in the cities was difficult to ignore, and what was lost was as much a religion as what was to be gained.  For every utopian vision anchored in the future there was another anchored in the past.

This ambivalence is clearly reflected in the arts of the time, nowhere more than in the paintings of Turner.  In works like “Rain, Steam and Speed”, or in his sketches of blast furnaces, it is clear that he can feel the power and excitement unleashed by the new technlology.  However, in another of his best known works it is the nostalgia for a disappearing past that dominates.  The full title, “The Fighting Temeraire, Nelson’s Flagship, being Towed to her Last Resting Place to be Broken Up”, tells you programmatically what is clear from attending to the work itself.

The stately ship, ghostly and insubstantial as if already a memory, is set against a blazing sunset, the dying embers of a “day”—the day of the sailing ship–in which England gloried for four hundred years.  In contrast to this is the tug, a sooty black beetle belching smoke, marring the scene with a coating of grime like that which covered all of London.  The contrast between a magical past and a filthy future could not be more dramatic.

The Monet “Ste. Lazare” is neither a eulogy of the new technological age, nor a rejection of it.  As befits his impressionist credo, Monet is less into making judgments than into exploring how the steam from the boilers contributes to the dissolution of form and the consequent triumph of light and atmosphere.  But I don’t think it is an accident that he chose the station for a series of works, just as he chose Rouen Cathedral.  The train station, with its majestic space and its naked utilitarianism, was (until the advent of the skyscraper) the cathedral of the age, the heir to the mantle of Rouen.  And Monet does nothing to transform the sooty black and grey of the industrial city into anything other than what it is. If you like, Monet’s nostalgia comes in his other works, in the scenes of nature still to be found outside the cities.  It is only with urbanization, starting in the Renaissance in Italy and the North, that landscape for its own sake becomes a subject of art.  Impressionist art,


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