The Ackland Art Museum’s current exhibition At the Heart of Progress: Coal, Iron, and Steam since 1750 – Industrial Imagery from the John P. Eckblad Collection is a worthwhile venture into the dark world of progress. The artwork vacillates between hard, industrial imagery and intimate views of man’s relation to the hard work of a new world. Though often downtrodden, the images of men mining coal, constructing steel scaffolding, and observing the changed land from afar varies greatly in artistic approach. Laboureur’s The Factories (1902) shows a man on a hillside observing an immense steel mill; the man serves as a bridge between the pastoral and mechanized, between what was and what will be. Interestingly, Laboureur’s etching becomes brighter as he moves from hillside to mill.
Many of the pieces in this collection are detailed lithographs, which show the intersection of industry and small farm communities; steam, smog, and smoke in these dense drawings are as sooty in color as coal itself.
Progressing into the 20th Century, a drawing such as Detwiller’s The Spur (1924) shows the influence of more modern artistic techniques. In fact, this is one of the true gems of such a wide-ranging show: visitors can see not only the progression of industry, but perhaps more importantly, the progression of how we view this progress as seen from the skilled lens of the artist’s eye.
The At the Heart of Progress: Coal, Iron and Steam Since 1750 exhibit shifts from viewing factories as “other,” and “outsider,” to focusing on the actual men working in mines and factories. After experiencing war and struggle, people began to change the way they saw industry. It became a symbol of hope, progress and family survival, as seen in Henri Baptiste Lebasque’s Peace Loan (1918). In this color lithograph, there is a progression from intimate to industrial. In the foreground there is a mother nursing a child, while in the background we see factories with smoke filling the air and men rebuilding—symbolic of prosperity and stability.
Industrialization became a catalyst, and the men who worked as miners and blacksmiths were heros. “In the aftermath of the catastrophic war,” John P. Eckblad writes, “mixtures of traditional and contemporary labor could have a deliberate purpose: reassuring the viewer that ordinary life had survived.”
On a similar wavelength is Cesar Klein’s The One Who Does not Work is his Children’s Gravedigger (1919). In a time of rebuilding in Germany, Klein used his art to deliver a message to families and workers. A group of men huddled together, smokeless chimneys and three malnourished children standing in front of a coffin depict all things wrong in Germany after the war. Industrialization was their means to become a strong nation again. Workers who were on strike, or chose not to work, hurt their families and their country. This call upon men to stand up for their families and country reestablished the heroism that cultivated from the Industrial Revolution.
I found these two pieces interesting and telling of life in this period. Industrialization was initally seen as an intruder, something that had to be woven together, traditional ways of life with the new (Weavers, 1892). As time went on, however, it was seen as a helping hand, a way to feed your family and be respected.
Get your very own guide to the show, now available from UNC Press: AT THE HEART OF PROGRESS: COAL, IRON, AND STEAM SINCE 1750