In Robert Harbison’s Eccentric Spaces book, the author spends considerable time addressing the impersonal nature of technology and the Age of the Machine. In chapter 3, Harbison waxes eloquently about technology concealing “a powerful dream, the dream of not being like anything, of being nothing created”. Harbison pivots quickly to compare two paintings of London and Paris train stations within the context of the Industrial Revolution and the passengers/commuters allure as they confront the new spectacle of cast iron superstructure towering overhead with glass ceiling bathing the vast interiors with the natural light of day.
The first painting is by William Powell Frith’s Paddington Station, 1862. Harbison states that Frith “attends to passengers…he crowds the canvas with separate bits…the whole journey of life conceived as a pageant, an elevating spectacle…” The second painting Harbison uses in his investigation of the technology and machine of the mid-19th century is Monet’s Gare Saint-Lazare, 1877…a series of images Monet records/document the comings and goings of passengers/commuters from the Normandy region northwest of Paris. Saint-Lazare first opened in 1837 and is the second-largest station in Paris, after the Gare du Nord. Regarding Monet’s handling of the Gare Saint-Lazare, Harbison emphasizes the artist’s penchant “to outlines, to the architecture of the experience…scenes that are above eye level, in the magical smoke suspended in its arbitrariness forever, part of an atmosphere that gets more opaline and palpable as we approach the soft angle of the roof, a refined experience of densities.” Harbison concludes that Frith “humanizes the scene by pretending that social life can continue there as in a drawing-room, Monet to cull off the building as an image of the capacious tranquil mind…”
What are your thoughts on Harbison’s notion that technology during the latter part of the 19th century was impregnated with “the idea of the faceless Imperson…a dehumanization”?