Impressionism in the Age of Industry II: Commentary

I have already posted my first impressions (yeah, I just went there) of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s new exhibition, Impressionism in the Age of Industry, specifically on the modern survival of one of the structures seen in a pair of the paintings (and, as it turns out, a third painting, which I’ll share in this post).  But the exhibition is far more than just those two paintings.  The combination of paintings along with photographs, prints, posters, a few pieces of sculpture, and even a couple of early motion pictures give this exhibition a historical context I have not seen in many other exhibits.  It’s about a moment in history, particularly in Paris and environs, and how those events influenced one of the most significant transformations in art during its entire history.  Impressionism is the first step down the path that will eventually lead to abstract expressionism and its related schools in the 20th century, with its concerns with the effects of light, the play of geometric shapes and colour, and its gradual drift away from photographic realism.

Before I comment more on the show, however, I have to particularly commend the exhibition catalog, which I purchased partially because I was unable to photograph one of my favourite paintings in the entire exhibit, Monet’s Le Pont de Bois.  (I believe it is the only work that cannot be photographed). I am so glad I did.  Through five chapters, the text lays out the themes covered in the exhibit, but in more detail. “Geographies of Impressionism in the Age of Industry: An Introduction” orients the exhibit in its time and space, covering the locales where the various works were painted and how they appeared during the late 19th century. “That Great Brouhaha: Picturing Sound in Nineteenth-Century France” adds in the influence of another sense: the sense of sound, and shows how the Impressionists suggested sound in their works. “White Collar Workers and Working Bodies in the Age of Industry” concerns the people seen in the works in the exhibit and how the portrayal of class and gender in art reflected the radical views of the artists. “Industry and Labour at the Impressionist Exhibitions” is specifically about how depictions of industry (including both factories and workers) were included in the series of exhibitions that defined the Impressionist movement. “Figuring Industry in the Photographic Archive” focuses on the development of photography during the period, and how artists in the relatively newer field of photography were pursuing some of the same themes as painters, printers, and sculptors.  Each chapter refers specifically to works in the exhibition, which are included in smaller format along with the text for easy reference.  The catalog then features all of the works in the exhibition in more or less the same order that they appear (the Monet painting of the Gare Saint-Lazare being one of the few exceptions) in large-sized photographs.   Reading the book made me want to go back and see the exhibition again in person, which I think makes it an unqualified success.

The exhibition starts with The New Paris, which sets the historical context:  the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, and the boom in building that resulted both from the need to reconstruct the city and from rapid industrialization.   Included in this is the construction of the Eiffel Tower, initially meant to be a temporary structure for the entrance of the 1889 World’s Fair.  It’s so iconic today that it’s often forgotten just how controversial the structure was when it was first constructed.   I am personally a huge fan of seeing the bones of buildings, whether at their birth or in their death throes, and this section did not disappoint.

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This section contains one of my favourite pieces of the entire exhibit, Tissot’s La Demoiselle de magasin.  The play of light and shadow between the intense brightness of the world outside and the dramatic half-light of the shop interior in this work is extraordinary.  As someone with an interest in historic clothing, the details of the ribbons on the table and the garments in the window of this shop are also fascinating to me, as is the expression on the shop girl’s face as she opens the door from shadow to light.

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The second section concerns the rise of railways, and includes the Caillebote Le Pont de l’Europe I discussed yesterday.   There is a second painting of the Pont de l’Europe, this one by Jean Béraud:

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Note the heavy ironwork of the bridge and the sense of space in the large public square.

Railway stations, railway yards, railway bridges, railway passengers, and one of the earliest extant motion pictures (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, by the Lumière Brothers, showing passengers embarking on a train, and which is shown to have directly influenced at least one painting) are also part of this section.  The paintings here, along with photographs and the film, really pull the viewer into experiencing the phenomenon of late 19th century rail travel.   The combination of what was at the time sparkling modernity with the grit and sounds of steam engines is very appealing. This quotation on the wall sums up the impression:

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Ports and Waterways is the third section.  From an architecture standpoint, these were some of my favourite works, showing the angular play of bridges set against the fluidity of water, along with both workers and leisure-seekers.  The Monet below is a terrific example, where the mirroring of the bridge under reconstruction in the water serves to frame the industrial river scene beyond.

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Monet, Le Pont de Bois, from the Exhibition catalog.

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Factories: The Landscape Transformed is the next section.  What I found fascinating here was the play of the monumental factory structures, often belching smoke, with the beauty of nature.

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The Labour Behind Leisure concentrates on depictions of the working classes in the cities, where Labour in the Countryside focuses on labour in the adjoining cities and villages. These paintings focus on people rather than buildings, although the second of them also includes works depicting orchards and other rural scenes.

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The final section, The Turn of the Century, focuses on the Eiffel Tower (seen earlier in the opening section as it was being constructed) and the increasingly urban nature of “modern” Paris.  It concludes with several quite famous paintings of Monet made during a visit to London in 1900.  Monet had actually turned away from painting urban or industrial scenes after the 1870s, retreating to his gardens, but in these paintings he once again portrayed a city, and in a style that clearly now presaged the coming rise of the abstract.

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I have included photos perhaps half of the works in the exhibition.  Many of the paintings are quite large, and very much worthwhile seeing up close. One of the fascinating things to me about impressionism is how the painters broke down light into its component colours.  When you see these paintings up close, you see this very clearly–colours you would not expect to see–but as you back up, the effect reassembles the colours back into a coherent whole.

There is a section in the middle of the exhibit that invites the viewer to consider the city of Toronto, currently in the midst of a building boom with cranes and angular steel frames arising everywhere, as artists may have viewed Paris as it transformed at the end of the 19th century.  It certainly did inspire me, and I took a few of my own impressionistic photos from the museum’s windows and on the way back to my car.

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