Terence Corcoran: The great artists saw the beauty in industrial progress — not ‘destruction’


I’m wandering through several rooms within the Art Gallery of Ontario admiring some of the great works of the impressionists. There are paintings by the giants of the late-19th-century art movement that swept Paris and the world: Van Gogh, Monet, Pissarro, Caillebotte, Manet. But there are no floating water lilies, no dazzling blue irises and no naked women and their fully dressed male companionsenjoyingdejeuner sur l’herbe.

The rooms at the Toronto gallery are filled with paintings by the famous impressionists that depict something entirely different. Bucolic and pastoral scenes are nowhere to be found, replaced by images that document the triumph of industry: factories, chimneys spewing smoke, coal barges, cranes, bridges, railway sidings, train stations, locomotives, and labourers hauling and pushing.

Despite their image as garden-loving layabouts and nature-adoring masters of dazzling colour and brush technique, the AGO exhibit, “Impressionism in the Age of Industry,” reveals the impressionist masters as enthusiastic admirers and promoters of industrial development in France, but especially Paris.

The theme of the exhibit is in stark contrast to the ominous content of “Anthropocene,” the AGO’s recent mounting of the industrial images of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky.

At the impressionist exhibit — which closes May 5th — a large-print quotation across the wall describes the rapture with which the impressionists and much of France viewed the powerful beauty of industrial development. They are the words of 19thcentury French writer and historian Benjamin Gastineau. “Before the creation of the railroad, nature did not throb, it was a sleeping beauty. The railroad animated everything, mobilized everything. The sky became an active infinity, nature an energized beauty.”

France’s rail network covered 3,200 kilometres in 1851. Two decades later, rail lines extended across 16,400 kilometres, helping to bring an industrial revolution to a country and a city that were disrupted by war and internal conflict through the century.

The power of rail, fired by coal, runs through the exhibit. One of the highlight paintings is an 1877 work by Claude Monet, “Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazarre,” which depicts a huffing steam engine idling in a station that’s bustling with activity. Off in the distance, smoke and steam rise from various points, indicators of industrial and urban progress.

Several other images show rail sidings and multi-track rows ofrail linesleading in and out of cities, over bridges and through the countryside. Writing in the exhibit’s spectacularcatalogue, Caroline Shields informs visitors that “Steam-powered engines were the first technology that enabled locomotion without the energy of a human or animal.”

Shields, who is the AGO’s assistant curator of European art, carefully avoids portraying the impressionists as unaware of possible downsides to industrial and urban upheaval. Struggling workers and impoverished rag pickers appear in the exhibit, with industrial factories on the horizon. Overall, however, Shields captures the obvious enthusiasm of the impressionists for the great burst of industrial activity. France’s impressionists “embraced the innovations of industry and technology.”

What makes the “Impressionism in the Age of Industry” exhibit so confounding is that it follows hot on the heels of its recent Burtynsky “Anthropocene” exhibit, which used the Canadian photographer’s images to portray industrial development as a destructive force greater than nature.

That exhibit closed four months ago this week, on January 6. A month later, the impressionist exhibit opened. Taken together, the two exhibits represent a clash of artistic and economic interpretation.

In Burtynsky’s “Anthropocene,” images of industrial development — railroad lines, factories, coal and copper mines, oil refineries, saw mills, oilsands — were deployed to support the idea that human activity is a menace that has plunged the Earth into a destructive tailspin unprecedented in a billion years of geological history.

The geology and economics behind the Anthropocene theory that humans are disastrously overpowering natural forces has beenquestionedby many scientists. Burtynsky’s images can also be interpreted in different ways, either as dramatic illustrations of man’s innovation and technological genius, or as evidence that humans are committing a “despoiling of the planet,” as Burtynsky put it.

Through his Anthropocene art, Burtynsky and his associates are using images of industrial activity to convey ominous and alarming views of human activity. It’s a view that’s in stark contrast with the impressionists’ art of the Industrial Age.

One of the impressionist paintings demonstrates the sharp difference in world views. When Vincent van Gogh wasn’t painting sunflowers and pastoral scenes, he turned to observing the growing industrial world taking shape around him in France. The painting, “Factories at Clichy,” has all the Van Gogh brush and colour techniques, except that its prime focus is an industrial smoke-belching factory.

Rather than portray the factory as a menace to society, Van Gogh turns the factory into an object of industrial beauty. In her introduction to the exhibit catalogue, Shields comments on the significance of the giant factory images:

“In Van Gogh’s painting, across the field, two small figures in the middle ground, their backs to us, behold this site. Dwarfed by the monumental smokestacks that tower above them, they offer a sense of scale. Whereas in the Romantic landscape paintings… small figures such as these might invite the viewer to consider the awesome power of God and nature, here they point to the power of industry.”

As the AGO show closes, it leaves behind a view of industry and the world that elevates human creativity and progress, which is a vast improvement over the apocalyptic “Anthropocene” exhibit.

• Email:[email protected]| Twitter:terencecorcoran

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