In our class discussion on visual culture and modern life, we looked a how the Industrial Revolution caused an immense rise in pollution in newly formed cities and how artists found this dramatic change in the atmosphere inspiring. We discussed that Claude Monet, a French Impressionist, embraced the dirtiness of the populated streets into his artwork by depicting the effect that the fog had on the modern landscape of London. His Charing Cross Bridge series contained over 34 paintings of the same scene in a variety of ever-changing environmental conditions as he found the fluctuating experience of the landscape so captivating. This idea of the fleeting moment is characteristic of the Impressionist movement, as this was a new way of perceiving art as an explorative process rather than a final, polished piece.
Monet’s fascination with the polluted city environments caught me by surprise as we learned that he believed London would not be beautiful without the fog’s presence (Brown, 2017). This made me think about our societal views of pollution from industry today, such as moving away from fossil fuel usage and aiming to eradicate any production of harmful emissions.
Many contemporary artists have tackled the topic of environmental damage and criticise how damaging human activity is to the natural world. The American photographer Chris Jordan uses pieced-together images to comment on waste production’s impact on wildlife. He does this, in one example, by merging images of washed-up litter and found beach scraps together to depict a ragged-looking seagull with bits of plastic inside it – commenting on the threat rubbish has on species of birds (Pereira, 2016). Another artist who works within this realm of ‘art for change’ is Agnes Denes, an environmentalist conceptual artist working in the 1960s and 1970s. One of Denes’ projects, titled Rice/Tree/Burial, involved the planting of a rice field at the Niagara gorge by the Canadian border, wrapping metal chains around trees in this area, and burying poetry within a time capsule at the location too (Denes, 1983). The rice reflects the idea of new life, and the chained trees represent the interference with life processes. The location is significant as it was at the site where Niagara Falls would have originated from thousands of years ago, suggesting the project comments on the changing state of the environment over time.
Both Monet and Denes draw upon the location they are in to inspire their artworks. Monet’s artwork and his personal ideals lean towards promoting change to the natural atmosphere to get a certain aesthetic quality for art. Yet what Denes achieves is motivated by reflecting on what the environment used to be like in its untouched state before the impact of the industrial economy. Monet’s impressionist values of capturing the ‘fleeting moment’ aren’t seen in Denes’ works, as she associates with lasting installations that give back to the natural land.