The transformation of society that began with the invention of the steam engine has been aptly called the industrial revolution. The colossal impact of technology on the formerly rural, agrarian culture of the western world can scarcely be imagined today. For some, the increasingly widespread use of the machine elicited messianic hope.
This ecstatic view of technology is graphically revealed in the work of a number of modern artists. One of the prime examples of this view of technology and the machine as savior for the human race is Robert Delaunay’s “Homage to Bleriot,” painted in 1914.
In the late 1800’s, the machine was often heralded as the quintessential symbol of man’s continued progress. Obedient and strong, the machine was a slave that necessitated little moral apprehension. The machine was an expression not only of man’s rational nature, but also of his unlimited creative potential. In line with this thinking, Robert Delaunay’s “Homage to Bleriot ” is virtually a hymn of praise to the genius and confidence of modern man in his machines.
The painting is named after Louis Bleriot, a French aviator who was the first to fly the English Channel. Bleriot was Delaunay’s prototype of the modern man. Man was now creating his own world through the use of benevolent and powerful machines. Likewise, the conventions of painting and the arts would have to give way to a new order.
Traditional, naturalistic perspective was no longer appropriate. Instead, Delaunay and his fellow Cubists flattened and distorted space. In “Homage to Bleriot,” the representational images of flight (propellers, wheels, wings) project and recede based solely on the artist’s will. Delaunay’s combination of sharp edges and blended lines further indicates that air and matter are no longer clearly differentiated. This is no cause for concern, however, since man as the aviator is now the master of both.
Through the victorious capabilities of the aircraft, man is no longer tied to the ground and can soar freely. Even Delaunay’s image of the earthbound Eiffel Tower floats in amorphous space. The machine has given man a new sense of the infinite reaches of the universe available for exploration and conquest. Delaunay’s colorful and energetic shapes do not completely fill the canvas, but fade into a blue-purple on the upper horizon like a deep night sky beckoning humanity onward.
The new sense of speed and dynamism bestowed by machine transportation can be seen in Delaunay’s multiple perspectives and the shifting complexity of “Homage to Bleriot.” Shapes are superimposed upon one another in a bright and almost flickering succession. Delaunay’s prominent discs symbolize the raw energy now at man’s disposal. The repeated discs of varying sizes as well as the use of multiple focal points keep the viewer’s eye in almost constant motion. Life is no longer static, and the future heralded by the machine is full of constructive activity.
Even the human-like figures depicted just below the Eiffel Tower are twisting and turning. Man himself is in full swing. Surely he will solve all of the problems of society with the aid of his trusty technological servants! No longer reliant only on hope and prayer, man is now a new type of Creator.
Man’s inventions and their promise inspire an almost religious awe. Delaunay’s carefully placed shapes of geometric color are undoubtedly references to the stained glass windows proudly displayed for centuries in chapels and cathedrals to teach religious truth to the masses.
For Delaunay and other artistic heralds of the modern world, mankind’s salvation seems to lie not in the God-given bounty of agriculture and land, but in the wealth of industry sired by the machine. Other than Delaunay’s possible stylized references to the sky and the earth, “Homage to Bleriot” is almost devoid of natural objects.
Like other modernist movements including Futurism, the Cubists saw the power of the machine as a means to attain freedom from the social injustices of history. The good, obedient machine would serve all equally and democratically. Nobility and title would be meaningless. Following the lead of art focused on internal interactions rather than on a hierarchy of subject and background, class lines in politics would soon be abolished. In this progressive restructuring of the natural order, speed was of the essence. The industrial revolution would complete what was begun in the French and American political revolutions.
The energy and rapid pace of life bestowed by the machine is emphasized in “Homage to Bleriot” through the strong color scheme based on red, yellow, green, blue and black. The extensive and labored shading that had long been utilized in more naturalistic renderings has been replaced with pure, almost unmixed hues. Although Delaunay is working in the traditional media of oil on canvas, the browns, tans, grays, and muted greens of earlier landscapes are replaced by the colors of the imagination and of the mind.
These colors do not depict a peaceful meditation, however, but a deafening roar of motors. Delaunay’s brassy color scheme is like that of an optimistic, cheerful child whose fairy godmother has finally arrived. She is beautiful and powerful, clothed in steel and flying with the aid of a propeller glinting in the sun. Welcome to the modern world where the machine is the new savior.