Rain, Steam, and Speed

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J.M.W. Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844
BY ANIRUDH VADLAMANI

Imagine you were dropped onto a flat plain. There is a large gorge, and in it is a river that sits around twenty to thirty feet below you. Falling in would need immediate death. However, among many things concerning the beauty of the scenery, among them is clarity. You see the land on the other side of the gorge very clearly. Fast forward forty years. The two separate land masses are joined by a massive bridge with tracks extending both ways beyond the eye can see. The once clear air is filled with smog. All that is visible now is the dark outline of the bridge and the hard, defined lines of the new train, emerging from the darkness.

Standing at three feet by four feet, the water color portrait was one in a series of landscapes. Each of the series was set in a different location in nature and contains some allusion to the Industrial Revolution, a technological boom which saw an increase in ease of living. For Turner in particular, he used the new means of travel as still-lifes in these portraits. In this painting in particular, all the viewer can see upon first glance is the train and the smog excreted from the train. Upon further viewership, one can see the land mass beyond the bridge as well as the beautiful blue water and sky which lies below it and above it.

Turner's friends, or who he thought were his friends, called this series of paintings "yellow fever" because of his almost obsession with the color yellow. The color, as expressed by the smog in this particular one, dominates this series of paintings. The more and more you look at it, the more obscure everything becomes. Another major theme of this series was the industrial revolution. Turner was excited by the influx of new technology. In this painting in particular, Turner places a heavy emphasis on his fascination with the new technology, as it blurs and smears the surroundings. It also focuses only on the bright hue of the river readily visible alongside the train.

While I could simply say "What the Hammer" and say that this particular painting was an open letter of appreciation for locomotion (depicting one of the first forms of facilitated transportation), I will go a step further. I say, "What the anvil? what dread grasp,/Dare its deadly terrors clasp!" In my opinion, this painting is not an ode to the train, it is a warning. While today, nobody is surprised to hear that emissions from coal erodes the ozone, there was no scientific evidence of the consequence back in 1840. Turner foresaw the consequence of such an ease in movement. While he didn't know quite know what that consequence was, he knew it existed.







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