The relentless energy of the Industrial Revolution transformed the physical, economic, and socio-political landscape of Europe and the United States. The rapid changes precipitated by industrialization—mechanization, regimented labor, urbanization—coincided with a growing interest among Western artists in visually representing the rhythms and realities of everyday life. Presenting artists’ conflicted responses to industry, labor, and the urban environment from the middle of the nineteenth century to contemporary times, The Industrial Modern explores the tensions inherent in the “culture of progress.”
Boldly depicting scenes previously deemed unworthy of serious artistic representation, artists concerned with impact of industrial and modern life challenged the traditional boundaries separating fine art from the vernacular. Significantly, the far-reaching effects of industry prompted varied reactions from ordinary citizens and artists alike, ranging from enthusiasm over technological ingenuity to anxiety about the aggressive growth of the urban metropolis and the oppressive nature of capitalism. The Industrial Modern focuses on workers and strikers, factories and machines, skyscrapers and city centers, bridges and railroads, docks and shipyards: the shapes of steel, steam, concrete, and human labor.
Drawn from the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s permanent collection, The Industrial Modern features works by William Gropper, William Klein, Käthe Kollwitz, Ferdinand Léger, Louis Lozowick, Joseph Pennell, and Ben Shahn, among others. Each of these artists each takes a unique approach to the questions and challenges surrounding the nature of industrial labor, the dynamism of the urban metropolis, and the power of the machine.
In contrast to the urban focus of The Industrial Modern a concurrent MMoCA exhibition, Picturing Technology: Land and Machine (May 21–August 21, 2011), addresses how technological innovation transformed our relationship to landscape and agriculture in the rural environment. This exhibition poses the very broad question of whether our attachment to technology has aided or abetted Civilization.