Karin Sagner, Matthias Ulrich, Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani and Max Hollein (eds), [The conquest of the road. From Monet to Grosz]/Die Eroberung der Strasse. Von Monet bis Grosz.
When historians call a book 'lavishly illustrated' they usually refer to a publication whose textual arguments are visually augmented with pictures and photographs. For art historians, visual evidence is not an ornament but the main focus of their work. In this vein, this catalogue for a 2006 exhibition at an art museum in Frankfurt on Main is a typical art-historical volume; however, it has much to offer historians of mobility and the city. The topic of the exhibition was urban streets in Paris and Berlin from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1930s. Paintings, drawings, lithographs, photographs as well as maps document changing artistic perceptions of streets in what were, arguably, continental Europe's most important cities. The (mostly reliable) translation of all the essays and captions into a nonContinental language, English, increases the readership of the book.
In Paris, the Impressionists' urge to paint outdoors drew them to the streets outside their studios, which were fundamentally reshaped during the nineteenth century. Readers of this journal do not need to be reminded of the Haussmannisation of Paris, and Germanists will be familiar with the work of Haussmann's counterpart in Berlin, James Hobrecht. The arthistorical point is not only that the new, wide, straight boulevards and avenues with their mixture of social classes and different modes of transport provided new motifs and indeed a new genre for artists, but also that they offered an entirely new view of the city, of urbanity, and thus of modernity. Artists were only too eager to exploit these potentials for what were, quite literally, new viewpoints. In one of the catalogue's essays the art historian Karin Sagner argues that city space after Haussmann was no longer determined by buildings but by streets and boulevards. The hundreds of reproductions in the catalogue testify to the changing artistic techniques and valorisations of street scenes; they range from a delightful bird's-eye view of a spring day on the boulevard Montmartre by Camille Pissarro to the harsh indictments of social cleavage and cheap street prostitution in 1920s Berlin by George Grosz.
While this reviewer is insufficiently qualified to assess the art-historical interpretations in the catalogue, it is worth noting that the artworks assembled and interpreted here offer strong pieces of evidence regarding the shape and meaning of urban transport spaces. Owing to their sheer width the new urban streets were significant social spaces, which before the spread of the automobile were shared by pedestrians, carriages, omnibuses and all other kinds of transport. To be sure, the middle-class background of the artists and their clientele often meant that residents marginalised by the new streets also became peripheral or invisible in the artwork, especially in the French case. Still, the new urbanity of these boulevards did not preclude the artists from paying attention to different modes of usage, to dress, gait, and other indicators of class and status. Very instructive are paintings of construction sites which show the dimensions of spatial change. One can easily imagine using these fragments of pictorial evidence in class, for lectures and discussions on urbanisation and urban technologies.
Most of the essays remain confined to art-historical analysis, without taking into account recent historical literature on urbanisation and urban mobility. As a result, technological systems are not made by human actors in these narratives but simply appear, are inevitable or necessary. Artists, then, are left only with reacting to them rather than with being actively involved in coconstructing their meaning, as many historians today would argue. As a whole the volume does not attain the analytical depth of Robert Wohl's works on aviation and art; indeed, one would wish that some of the authors had engaged with his arguments.
Still, because of the range of artworks represented here, the prominence of the two cities, and the obvious significance of the topic, the volume will be a welcome addition to any major library dealing with cities or mobility. Readers of this journal who teach classes on cities or urban mobility will undoubtedly benefit from using the catalogue for their lectures and discussions.
Thomas Zeller, University of Maryland, College Park
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|Publication:||The Journal of Transport History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2008|
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