Art In History Art Blog
One of the phenomena which seems to be unique to the modern period is what we can call "urban alienation": not the isolation of a hermit far from society, but the alienation of human beings surrounded by their kind. One might suppose that it is a condition that has always existed, only to be "discovered" with the advent of psychoanalysis and its related sciences. However, it is more likely that it is born of the conditions of modern existence, and may in fact have contributed significantly to the development of the psychological sciences by its pervasive presence.
It is certainly true that artists have not depicted anything resembling this alienation in Western art until the end of the 18th century, when we see the first intimations of it in the depiction of travelling players by Watteau. Until this time, and for a hundred years further, groups of figures in a painting are all participants in the action in some way; they all belong. Whether the subject is religious, mythological or genre, we invariably see a subset of the human race sharing their common destiny.
This "belongingness" breaks down decisively in the work of artists like Degas and Manet, particularly Manet. Degas seems to happen on the condition of alienation without forcing us to face it: Manet goes a further step to bring it deliberately to our attention..
In "The New Orleans Cotton Exchange", Degas produces one of the first of his radical "slice-of-life" compositions. The occupants of the frame seem to be whoever happened to be in that place at that moment. They are joined together by more than just location: they are a certain class of men, dressed in a similar "uniform". However, the similarity in dress, which does so much to organize the composition visually, only seems to emphasize the random character of their association. Psychologically, they have nothing to do with one another.
When Manet gives us a similar psychological disjunction, it is more pointed. In "The Railway Station", he seems to be boiling Degas_' discovery down to its basic elements. We have a mother and child--and surely this is an archetypal human psychological bond--who are juxtaposed in such a way as to dramatize their psychological isolation. They are "held together" by the gorgeous passages of blue and white that unite them visually, but psychologically they are in two different worlds, their thoughts miles apart. One can almost imagine that the bars of the iron fence come between them rather than pass behind them. Or better yet, that the strongest bars are the invisible bars between then, rather than the bars behind them.