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Industrial Impressions: Urban life in paint and [100-year old] multi-media

Updated: May 1, 2019

Thank you, Art Gallery of Ontario for staging an art show that's openly friendly to railway nerds like me. I was already partial to Impressionist paintings and yet had not expected a museum to pull together so many painted landscapes that are not gardens, lily-ed ponds or lovely fields.

Apparently I was very ready to see factories, city streets and railway yards through a soft lens -- the application of strong colours of the century-old painting style we group as Impressionism.

The AGO feature Impressionism in the Age of Industry: Monet, Pissarro and more ran from Feb. 16, ending May 5, 2019.

The exhibit had me at the entrance-way: the sounds of a train station usher the time-traveller back to Paris when the city was booming with construction and activity. Technological advance embodied in railways and factories may have been less compelling to paint as flowered ponds and treed meadows, but painters at the time were nonetheless compelled to paint what they saw around them.

Street scenes, riverbanksfull of busy docks, or well-stocked shops; all fell under the gaze -- and brush -- of Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Van Gogh, Cassatt and Seurat. So did new constructions; the Eiffel Tower and World's Fair exhibit halls were documented incredibly well by photographers and the just-birthing techniques of moving images.

I found the collection of multiple media forms into one exhibit somewhat difficult to work with -- but when I stood watching an early Edison film, taken from the moving elevator of the Eiffel Tower, the extreme graininess seemed wonderfully similar to the pattern of distinct brushstrokes from paintings of that same era.

Our culture may now idolize Parisian streetscapes, and yet the exhibit indicates these architectural vistas required the destruction of old neighbourhoods and their crooked buildings and alleys. Scenes of early Métro construction [with geek-friendly accompanying maps and guide books from a century ago] emphasize the sense of change and disruption.

This offering at the AGO is made in the midst of a building boom in Toronto; one where the condo-ization of our streets rarely prompts a romantic allure -- but is nonetheless a significant time-point. Perhaps the depth of this presentation helps we modern city-dwellers spare some objective, contemplative attention to the rapid changes in our lives, leaving aside for a moment the usual complaints about bland glass towers and intense traffic.

The exhibit may also allow a sympathy for citizens, separated from us by a hundred years, to connect with their struggles of moving around an urban and industrial environment that might have overwhelmed them with serious pollution and rapid technological disruptions.

-- --

[This is Citizen Ed #6.]

Citizen Ed is a moniker I won for earnestly picking up trash, calling 311, etc.

Issues #1 to 5 can currently be picked up at Gallery Arcturus in Toronto.


Monet in London.

Capturing the smog that daily lit up -- and choked -- the city, starting in the early morning.

Several of these works line the wall at the end of the exhibit Impressionism in the Age of Industry: Monet, Pissarro and more

Want to see how smog was depicted in Toronto? See the early Lawren Harris work, "Houses, Gerrard Street, Toronto" at the McMichael Collection.


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