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Turner, Rain, steam, and speed – the great western railway

Video transcript

we're looking at Turner's great painting rain steam and speed the Great Western Railway which dates from 1844 a time when the railway was really criss crossing the British landscape right it was really brand new way of traveling and connecting cities and people to each other I would really change not only the landscape but change society incredibly dramatically is probably the most potent symbol of industrialization Turner really captures that feeling of the speed of the train coming toward us the rain pounding at the train and the bridge as it moves toward us I mean I can almost feel the wetness of this day and hear the sound of the Train well the carriages were open and so people really would have felt that think about what the speed of a train meant I mean of course the trains then in 1844 didn't move at the speed the trains move now but think about the speed with which people had travelled through history up to this point you know people had either walk or they had taken a horse and if you were lucky took a carriage with multiple horses and could go a little bit faster but a little bit faster so that means you might have gone 15 miles an hour and for the first time people are being able to be transported mechanical yeah I think it's hard for us to recognize the radicalness of the railway and the kind of impact it must have had in the landscape I mean part of this is a kind of nostalgia for what what's lost right the notion of the violence of this hulking iron monster ripping through the landscape and it must have been surrounded by agricultural fields perhaps the way that Turner shows us a farmer on the right edge there I think you looked at at the landscape of this period and you saw those contrasts between old rural England and the new industrial England that's absolutely right I mean on the left you see that in the bridge as well and the extreme left you see an old stone bridge here on the right you have a modern industrial brick bridge meant to carry this railway but you know so much of this is about the subject but it's also about obviously the way Turner painted it the atmospheric effects that we assess Turner this kind of gold and blue and brown coloring and this thick impasto of paint that we can tell has been applied with a palette knife that's particularly thick toward the sort of center and centerline of the painting and in the upper-right it's so abstract that much of the painting is actually unreadable as in in terms of anything specific it is you set out atmospheric and its atmospheric almost in an operatic way three-quarters of this painting is nothing but the variations of color and tone of the sky of the atmosphere of the brain and the way in which in a sense the rain creates a kind of unity and dissolves any kind of hard form and be kind of specific reading of form the only one really that comes through with any real clarity is the black iron of that chimney of that train that's true and it's only the chimney the rest of the train itself kind of dissolves into paint as well that idea of the confrontation between the industrial power of man and nature is probably most sort of oddly juxtaposed by the train steaming towards a small rabbit in the lower right hand corner that seems to be hopping away as quickly as possible a rabbit of course a symbol of speed itself I'm reminded that it's the power of hate that communicates to us more than the subject that it's really about the textures and the colors and the globs of paint and the dissolution of form here that communicate this idea of rain and atmosphere and speed and sound it would have been a very different painting had been painted differently this painting is ostensibly about industrialization and about this powerful new thing this train but the painting really is about the act of painting itself it is about the portrayal of this much more complex and much more subtle relationship between nature and man because of Turner's ability to handle tone and form with a kind of abstraction that is incredibly brave for this early really is I mean it's supposed to you know the abstraction of the 20th century in many ways