A Revolution Indeed, and Bathed in Smoke
If you are interested in images of industry, then you will enjoy “At the Heart of Progress: Coal, Iron, and Steam since 1750,” a miscellaneous group of 76 works from the John P. Eckblad Collection at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College. But if pictures of factories, steel mills, cooling towers, pipe bridges, shipyards, foundries, forges and coal mines leave you cold, then you will probably be less enthusiastic.
Mr. Eckblad, who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., and Paris, spent his childhood in the coal-mining hills of Western Pennsylvania and later worked for petrochemical companies in Europe. Because he was surrounded by industrial landscapes in his life and work, he developed an enduring affection for artistic scenes of industry and labor, which he has collected for almost four decades.
By and large, the artworks on view, part of a national touring show, have a greater social and historical value rather than an aesthetic one. The caliber of the artists represented is uneven and minor art forms predominate, especially prints and posters, with few drawings and paintings. There is also quite a bit of commercial and documentary imagery, some of which, like early poster advertisements for coal, cannot properly be considered art.
The show spans roughly three centuries, beginning in the 18th. The displays are arranged more or less chronologically, within the context of several themes, including mining, iron- and steel-making, the smokestack landscape, and images of labor and life. The material is mostly European, predominantly French and English, but there are also some American scenes of industry and labor, especially in the later sections, which include artwork from the past couple of decades.
The exhibition begins with a handful of engravings of Coalbrookdale, a town in western England that was a center of iron and steel production. Here in 1709 Abraham Darby introduced a new process of smelting iron using coke (coal that was refined by heating) instead of charcoal. One of the engravings, by George Perry and Thomas Smith, shows plumes of smoke rising from a dense cluster of factories populating a once bucolic rural landscape.
The Coalbrookdale engravings lead nicely into the next theme, mining. Among the displays are two mid-19th-century lithographs by Ignace François Bonhommé of the Blanzy region of eastern France, where rich coal deposits provided the foundation for the Chagot family mining empire. Bonhomme’s “Montceau-les-Mines” (1857) is a panoramic vision of the little town of Montceau-les-Mines, the center of the Chagot mining operations.
Coal, which made large-scale iron and steel production possible, was a key component of industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. Blanzy coal, for instance, supplied the famous iron and steel works of Le Creusot, the subject of a curious etching from the 1780s by an anonymous French artist. It shows a topographical view of the foundry and forges at Le Creusot, surrounded by elegant but imaginary natural scenery.
The next grouping includes pictures of the transportation of coal from where it was mined to where it is used, as well as factory scenes. Images range from giant factory complexes, like Roger Casse’s color lithograph “The Factory” (ca. 1930), depicting a large French colliery, to James McBey’s “Glassblowers, Murano” (1925), showing a small workshop of glassblowers in Venice.
Among the American pictures are two evocative prints, Louis Lozowick’s “Edison Plant” (1929) and James E. Allen’s “Teeming Ingots” (1935). Both convey the energy and idealism that characterized American society during the first few decades of the 20th century. And both celebrate the awesome power of industry, especially “Edison Plant,” in which the artist bathes a factory scene in a quasi-religious aura; white halos surround the smokestacks.
Life in a coal mine or factory was difficult, and a handful of striking images here convey the dangers and suffering of early industrial life. They include fairly archetypal images of oppressed laborers, but also show an awareness of environmental issues. “The Great Stack, Sheffield” (1909), an etching by Joseph Pennell, shows smoke from a forest of chimneys blending and covering the sky — a memorable image of industrial pollution poisoning the atmosphere.
Rounding out the exhibition is a section devoted to modern and contemporary pictures of industrial scenes. The highlight is Craig McPherson’s “Clairton” (1997), a dark, haunting print depicting fire at night at a mill in Pennsylvania that turns coal to coke, the same process that helped start the Industrial Revolution at Coalbrookdale. But much has changed in three centuries, and rather than being a symbol of progress, this plant looks like a dangerous relic from the past.