Saturday, June 30, 2012

rain, steam, and speed

Vogue June 2012 Photo by Bruce Webber
J.M.W. Turner's Rain, Steam, and Speed
I once wrote a paper about J.M.W. Turner's painting "Rain, Steam, and Speed," which debuted at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1844, and this photograph of a 2012 Olympic sprinter by Bruce Weber reminded me of it.

Turner describes a scene found in the painting as he travelled by train:

The weather was very wild, and by-and-by a violent storm swept over the country, blotting out the sunshine and the blue sky, and hanging like a pall over the lansscape. The old gentleman seemed strangely excited by this, jumping up to open the window, craning his neck out, and finally calling to her to come and observe a curious effect of light. A train was coming in their direction, through the blackness, over one of Brunel's bridges, and the effect of the locomotive, lit by crimson flame, and seen through driving rain and whirling tempest, gave a peculiar impression of power, speed, and stress.

In a time when novelists like Charles Dickens wrote stories as commentary on the Industrial Revolution and its effects on society, few painters worked with it as a subject. Turner, although he produced very few industrially themed works, was captivated by the machines invented during this period and argued that they were "worthy subjects for his art."

The 'speed' element of Turner's painting captivated critics and the public alike in its showing. The dramatic colors of the train and tracks, in contrast to the more subtle colors of the storm it is traveling out of, demotes the train's power to overcome even nature as a result of its speed. If you look really closely at the painting, you can just make out the small figure of a hare, or rabbit. The artist George Leslie commented that it was the hare who was "running for its life in front of the locomotive" and was the true representation of speed as "no hare was likely to be outpaced by any locomotive of this period." Of course the rabbit could be representative of nature's power ... it still remained the aesthetic ideal, the power, of art at the time.

But what of Webber's photograph? Is it a copy? The more that I consider the painting, the more likely that I think it is. Of course the power is in the athlete ... it is not the train. Industrialization is represented in this photograph. You can see the silos in the background. Looks to be more of a train yard, than a move through the countryside. It's grittier. And if one was to consider color, the train is dirty, dull, old. And the athlete is chiseled, shiny, and bold ... the black and white choice magnifies the beauty of her muscles, her skin, her movement. It's almost too coincidental that a horse appears ... in that it could be the hare's replacement. Though the hare does not resemble the locomotive in the painting; in the photograph, the animal is the double of the athlete. It also is beautifully muscled, glimmering, and dark. But she on two legs is faster. Naturally, she is the Olympic athlete. I don't think that train is moving at all ... speed/time stops to watch her race by, and I suppose that is what happens during an Olympic year.

I had never heard of J.M.W. Turner before I wrote the paper, and I grew an appreciation for him. Recently I read an article in National Geographic on the Hebrides, islands off of the coast of northern Scotland. Apparently Mr. Turner would take his train up there and spend the summer in the northern light painting. I have planned a trip for this summer to visit that place. I want to see what inspired him to paint.

As for Webber's picture, well, I won't miss much of the Olympics before I travel. And I will be looking for this one, who raced a train and thoroughbred and won.

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