Urban art through the ages

There are two great artists of LA: the British painter David Hockney and native son Ed Ruscha. While Hockney, as an outsider, saw Los Angeles as a utopia and captured its beautiful sunlight, Ruscha is a cooler analyst of its car culture and suburban sprawl. This unfolding photographic document, entitled Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), is as much urban studies as art. Ruscha maps the shape of life in LA, defined by traffic, lacking a centre, and strangely liberating in its inhumanity.
Copyright: Getty Research Institute/Ed Ruscha 

Camille Pissarro The Boulevard Montmartre at Night
With its blur and shimmer of lights against a dark empty sky above, the Boulevard Montmartre at Night by Camille Pissarro (1897) is a masterful portrait of the modern city. The repeated patterns of flickering carriage lights and street lamps convey the organised technological nature of the modern metropolis – when easy access to artificial light was very new. The people passing brightly-illuminated cafés inhabit a fast-moving society of light that defies the dark isolating expanses of nature.
Copyright: Print collector/Getty Images 

Jane Avril Dancing Toulouse Lautrec
For Toulouse-Lautrec, the city is a place of performance and glamour, but he always shows the tough reality of life for Montmartre’s dancers and prostitutes, even as he celebrates their talent. Jane Avril is one of his favourite subjects and he always captures, as in the painting Jane Avril Dancing (c.1892), the famous dancer’s less than joyous attitude. Here she dances wildly at the Moulin Rouge, her eyes elsewhere, even as her legs dazzle her male fans.
Copyright: Dea/g. Dagli Orti/De Agostini/Getty Images 

William Hogarth Rake's Progress Orgy
William Hogarth’s comedy of depravity is set in a real place, the Rose Tavern near London’s Covent Garden. In the 18th century this was famous as a meeting place of prostitutes and their clients. Hogarth’s rake in A Rake’s Progress Scene 3: The Orgy (1733) is a young man who blows a fortune on the delights of city life, above all gambling and whoring. Hogarth’s series of six pictures depicting his road to poverty and madness is a graphic portrayal of urban mayhem that reveals the underbelly of London, which in the 18th century was the world’s most go-getting commercial metropolis. Hogarth was the first great artist to be solely interested in the modern city – no pleasant country idylls for him.
Copyright: Courtesy of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London
Honore Daumier The Laundress
For painter and political satirist Honoré Daumier the city is not a place of glamour and wealth. What interests him is its everyday reality. The people he pays attention to are the poor and powerless. The Laundress (c.1863) is a picture of tedious underpaid work and a report on the poverty that throughout history has been the fate of millions of city dwellers. Daumier’s eye for the harsh streets of Paris could just as well be applied to mega-cities anywhere on the planet now.
Copyright: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence 

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