Wosk, Julie. Breaking Frame: Technology and the Visual Arts in the
Nineteenth Century. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1992.
Breaking Frame focuses on the broad social anxiety and excitement attendant
upon industrialization as these feelings were expressed in the visual arts.
In the early 19th century painters began to include the railway in their
landscapes, but generally in a distant and non-threatening fashion. Newspaper
artists and engravers, by contrast, saw humor and horror in technology,
and fore-fronted technophiles as pre-occupied fools, almost non-humans.
Americans, Wosk notes, tended to be more enthusiastic and less satiric
that the French or English in their public response to technology.
Wosk uses both paintings and newspapers to explore the dwarfing of
humans by machines (reminiscent of Chinese landscapes) so prevalent in
mid-century illustrations. She also chronicles the dismay of artists and
writers responding to the new decorative arts made possible by electroplating,
cast-iron sand-casting, die cutting, and other means of mechanically copying
artisans' work. Sheffield plate, ornamented stoves and artifacts ornamented
with grape leaves, flowers, animals and classical figures were subjected
to scorn by cultural critics. As it became possible for the average person
to afford more luxuries, some writers (American Horace Greeley) celebrated
the good influence to be had through public exposure to the arts, while
others (British John Ruskin) feared the swallowing up of good taste in
bad. To the contemporary eye the cast-iron artwork made by the Coalbrookdale
Factory offers scope for both responses: some of the pieces included by
Wosk are florid excrescences, but other items are lovely in their simplicity.
Wosk describes how classical references in machine design gradually
gave way to an emphasis on the marriage of form and function (Greek ideas,
not Greek things). For instance, as the nineteenth century opened, steam
engines were cast as a Greek columns to dignify and make "safe" their dangerous
strength. As the century moved on, engineers saw less need for ornamented
engines, preferring the spare, simple lines that demonstrated and depended
upon the power of good design alone. Wosk closes with a review of a puckish
post-modernist plaza, embodying the classical and modernist styles, and
moving beyond them to a new integrative, playful style very different from
the eclectic but fundamentally serious style of the Victorian era. Finally,
Wosk suggests that Americans and English saw themselves as powerful countries,
moving forward, using immense machines to do so, fearing and admiring themselves
as they went.