Can Europe Make It?

From keystroke to brushstroke: where’s the art in modern work?

Does the internet rob us of the pleasure of being together, acting together, making the future together?

Chris Myant
Chris Myant
19 January 2021, 2.29pm
Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, Débardeurs au bord de la Seine déchargeant des péniches, Stevedores on the bank of the Seine unloading barges.
Date unknown, Musée d'Orsay

What is the point of painting people who are working? The question is provoked by Claude Monet’s canvass of stevedores unloading coal at Clichy on the Seine. Déchargeur de charbon à Clichy is often held up as the first example of an Impressionist painting featuring work itself. In fact, it does nothing of the sort.

Déchargeurs is on show here at the French capital’s Musée d’Orsay, home to what must be the biggest range of Impressionist paintings anywhere. While many of them feature the consequences of people’s work – Monet’s series on the theme of hayricks for example – only a handful of them actually show people in the process of making things or doing “work”, putting on display the physical and mental effort involved.

In any case, the hayrick was an excuse to explore shifting tones across the day, not to highlight the skill with which these ricks were put together. Van Gogh’s mesmerising painting of a couple at rest in the shade of a rick they have just erected under the blaze of a summer sun, shows them recovering, not working. It’s there at Orsay too, though the colour in the reproduction is nowhere near the heat-filled tones of the original.

The Impressionists share that museum with Rosa Bonheur, a genius painter of the generation before. Go to her giant 1849 tableau Labourage nivernais: le sombrage, (Ploughing in Nièvre: The dressing), to be seen here. You almost watch, such is the realism, the strain of muscular labour. But the heroes at the centre of the piece are the oxen drawing the plough deep through the soil of a low hillside in the very centre of France. The human crew urging on this team of six animals are offered almost as afterthoughts.

The artist makes the focus of her work the bloodshot eye of one of the beasts, saliva dripping from its open nostrils and mouth. It is the only living thing really looking out at the spectator. Like an accusation, that eye is ordering you to think about the sweat and the strain without which there would have been no bread on the artist’s plate.

There is no such sense in Monet’s canvass. One rushed detail catches immediately. Had the artist ever tried to hump a hundred weight of coal on his shoulder up a single plank some ten metres long he would have known that the rhythmic bounce and sway of the wood imposes an attentive counter movement on the stevedore. Put three on the same gangplank, as his canvass does, and that concentrated effort becomes collective, the imperative reinforced by the almost random movement of the barge in the water.

Monet spent hours, years, experimenting to capture the subtle changes of light and colour in the scenes before him. Yet in Déchargeurs he paints some nine gangplanks straight and rigid as the dozen workers he features engage in a mere shadow of labour.

Normandy celebration

Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, Manifestation Populaire, Demonstration, 1903. | Musée d’Orsay

Only a reproduction is shown in the special exhibition Les Villes Ardentes, 1870-1914 Art, travail, révolte in Caen’s Musée des Beaux-Arts, a modern gallery in the heart of the Norman fortress that has dominated the centre of the city for just over a thousand years, since the William who became the Conqueror started to build it. It haunts this wonderful survey of the collision between Impressionism and France’s belated industrial revolution like no other image, given its role as that supposedly first Impressionist painting of industrial work.

The exhibition is part of a Normandy-wide celebration of Impressionism involving over 30 galleries, museums and art centres, the fourth time this has been organised since 2010. If it had not been for the epidemic, it would have been one of the great artistic events of the French national calendar in 2020. Covid-19 has stopped people seeing it, but the museum’s website has good coverage and the catalogue comes with both some solid essays and reproductions of just about everything in the exhibition.[i]

All of this is just one of the fruits of the continuing substantial public investment in culture in France, a public investment that makes Paris an unrivalled terrain for theatre, museums, galleries, or whatever else it may be in the “high” arts, and that gives this inheritance and contemporary creativity a presence in communities around the country.

Paul-Lois Delance, Grève à Saint-Ouen, Strike at Saint-Ouen, 1908, | Musée d’Orsay.


Unfortunately, it does not work for everyone. Much of the public, all of whom contribute the revenues that the French state uses to keep this culture alive, do not feel included and do not join in sharing it. To see diversity filtered out of a mass of people in France, go for instance to one of the heavily-subsidised, publicly-owned theatres in a Parisian suburb. The families in the streets and tower blocks around have their distant origins in North or Sub-Saharan Africa, but the audience in the theatre is white.

Slinging a gangplank across this divide is no easy matter.

Some of the Impressionists’ work is known and recognised by millions. The show includes some of the many paintings of women ironing by Edgar Degas. There is a voyeurism in this theme, one he kept returning to, as there is in his ballet dancers. The catalogue quotes some of his letters that rather make this clear. And, as with Monet and the Déchargeurs, his reason for painting them had nothing to do with a desire to take their side in the world of work and exploitation in the wake of the Commune. “Social questions always left Degas completely cold,” one friend of the artist is quoted as saying.

“Social questions always left Degas completely cold,” one friend of the artist is quoted as saying.

Auguste Aridas, Les Retoucheuses de porcelaine, The porcelaine painters, 1903. | Musées d’Angers

To show respect for a worker when you paint them, as Gustave Courbet, later a Communard, did in his 1851 painting The Stonebreakers was to become, as his critics said at the time, “political”.

For the hoped-for bourgeois customers of their works, the rural poor were the acceptable “noble savage” but the industrial worker was a reminder of the dangerous mob, the seething undercurrent of society they hardly wanted to feature on a living room wall.

Ernest-Georges Bergès, Visite à l’usine après une soirée chez le directeur, Visit to the factory after an evening with the Director, 1901.. | Musée de l’Art Moderne Saint-Etienne

When artists did choose to show human work as it is, they were seen as transforming work into a “heroic” activity. The way in which the material world is transformed by human effort and skill against the odds has become the target for more than a few sneers at the hands of critics and historians who have never heaved a hundredweight bag of cement, joined a gang unloading in a matter of minutes 10,000 burning hot bricks brought to a site direct from the ovens or pick-axed a trench through stony ground for a hundred yards, ironed three dozen shirts an hour or dragged heavy bins of wool as Ferdinand Gueldry painted in 1913 (you can see it on the exhibition website).

Pierre Combet-Descombes, Les Hauts Fourneaux de Chasse, The blast furnaces at Chasse, 1911. | Musée municipal Paul Dini

None of this is heroism in the sense of something out of the ordinary. It is just now not only socially invisible as in the days of the Impressionists. In far less than the time of a generation, Western Europe has been largely denuded of those places where women and men like those featured in the Caen exhibition were gathered, often in their thousands, to engage in digging, making, doing, controlling with their muscles and their minds the transformation of something material into something that could become merchandise.

Victor Marec, Les Fondeurs retirant le creuset du four, Foundry workers taking the crucible from the furnace, 1901, | Musée Crozatier Le Puy-en-Velay

Collective work

There is a fragment of film from 1980 in the BBC archives available here. You can laugh at the absurd sexism of the men interviewed on the theme of “Can a man iron a shirt?” More important for this current theme, is a casual remark by two retired workers, Mary-Rose and Lizzy, who had been employed all their working lives from the age of 14 in the factories that made Derry the twentieth century champion of men’s shirt-making. Then, it was the women who were in the factories and the men who were at home, unemployed and lazing.

“We all worked together and there were about 500 in the one room, so we had a very nice time. It was very hard work and we worked two nights until 10 O’Clock. We had all of the housework to do, all of the cooking and the cleaning. I never seen any of them (the men) doing it yet.”

It is a pity that the BBC archives were not in a position to add in some film of the workshop itself. Such filmed records are not that common and in the countries where the industrial revolution started the experience of that kind of collective work is getting rarer.

Where do people in France or Britain today work 500 in one room? In call centres? In the few remaining large engineering shops? In the meat-packing plants? Or perhaps at Amazon’s vast warehouses?

Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, Ouvriers sortant de l’usine, Workers leaving the factory, 1903. | Bibliothèque nationale de France.

As a student at Oxford, when visiting the rather decrepit offices of the local Communist Party in Cowley Road, one had to be careful not to be in the way of the wall of men filling the road as they cycled hard, homewards, from the Morris car plant at the end of a shift. There was a relationship between those two things, that office and those men, however weak, however poorly interpreted it may have been, a link that has now largely gone. In 1962, Morris employed as many as 20,000 in Cowley, all but a handful in a trade union. Before the Covid lockdown, the successor BMW Mini plant employed just under 4,000.

Like many a workplace you can go and visit the Cowley plant. A taste of what you may see is attached to the press release BMW issued when VisitEngland gave it an award in 2018 for being one of those places that “go the extra mile to provide a high quality day out”. Scroll to the bottom of the release here and there are three short videos.

In the first, we see the vast body shop, all the work done by robots. You can spot just ten human beings. In the second and third, there are more at work, but you sense quickly that the actions they are performing can be done by robots and that they will be so done as soon as the company finds a way of doing it that saves money. The workers have become temporary substitutes for machines rather than the other way around.

Just before Covid-19 got to grips with us, a vast hall in the Communist municipality of Gennevilliers, a suburb to the west of Paris, hosted an exhibition of works of art held in the legion of town halls, galleries, archives and museums of the suburbs round the capital. Tresors de Banlieues, Treasures of the Suburbs, offered something of the same historical perspective as the show in Caen: the arrival of industry, smoke and chimneys in a rural scene but it also took us forward to more contemporary times of the struggles of those at work.[ii] Sadly, the only film of people at work was of women workers in a French munitions factory during World War One.

The celebrations like these of the French working class, have more and more a celebration of what was, rather than what is. That is not because this class is fading away – it now contains a higher proportion of French people than ever before. But the form of work and its obviously collective presence in physical activity has changed.

Maximilien Luce, Constructions - Quai de Passy, 1907. | Musée de l’Hôtel-Dieu Mantes-la-Jolie.

Distance working

Novelist and historian Bernard Chambaz, born into a Communist family in Boulogne-Billancourt where Renault employed thousands in one of Europe’s largest car plants, has just published a selection of photographs from the collections of the Gamma/Rapho agency to illustrate the theme of “workers”.[i] He has even managed to include one of a masked worker in an engineering factory north of Paris, one of those whose work has continued despite the Covid epidemic.

But he approaches the whole presentation with the meaning of the French word ouvrier at the forefront of his thoughts. That is someone who engages in manual work. In the English language the words “work” and “labour” are more ambiguous, slipping across from “by hand” to “by brain” with ease. They need to, for that is the work of the future.

Louis Adolphe Tissier, Le Chômage, On the dole, 1886. | Musées d’Angers.

Accelerated by the imperative of the failure to halt the epidemic, swathes of the French workforce have gone over to what in French is termed télétravail, distance working. Ministers have consistently promoted this as one of the ways of reducing transmission of the virus. Towards the end of 2020, a majority of the French trade union confederation concluded a national agreement with the employers organisations covering how this might be managed.

The main federation on the left, the CGT, refused to back the deal. Indeed the agreement reflects the new regime for employment practices in the country where national deals offer only a very loose framework within which companies can then negotiate, rather than the strict standards agreed for the country or the sector as a whole in the past. For the CGT, the deal now leaves the individual on télétravail very much on their own. Not “a worker” who is part of a collective, but a “middle class professional”.

The opening pages of his critical analysis of capitalist production, Das Kapital, are ones where Karl Marx explores the meaning of the basic element of “a society based on the production of commodities”, the commodity itself. Despite the way in which he constantly pushes us to look behind the apparently physical nature of a commodity, it is hard not to constantly fall into the trap of always seeing it as something manifestly material, an object hammered, cut, pulled, scraped, sewed – all those operations of “work” portrayed in the Caen exhibition.

At one point, though, Marx discusses how Robinson Crusoe seeks to satisfy the “few wants he has” on his isolated island through “a little useful work of various sorts, such as making tools and furniture, taming goats …”[iv]

The properties of a commodity mean that it “satisfies human wants of some sort or another … whether they spring from the stomach or from fancy … whether directly as a means of subsistence or indirectly as a means of production”. The goat that has the property of being tamed by someone just sitting close and stroking it, has as much the right to be seen as a “commodity” produced by human labour as has the lump of white-hot metal bashed into shape in one of France’s remaining steelworks, an item of clothing turned out in the vast factories of China, or the new wind turbine sketched on a computer somewhere in the world.

Who in the past would have seen the landlord’s goat-trainer cuddling a kid as a “hero” of the working class? Today’s keyboard worker isolated in their home also hardly rises to that role. Worse, the epidemic reinforces the solitariness of their experience, divorcing them from the human world even as the internet integrates them into the world of production.

Marie Petiet

Yes, the internet gives a new power to the far right, to business networks to soak up our private lives and to state surveillance, but the greatest danger is that it substitutes the appearance of connectivity for the reality. It transforms the relationship between living, vibrant beings into a virtual shadow of human social existence, that physical and emotional togetherness and mutual dependence, without which a human capacity to survive, to imagine, to construct, to work creatively are all starved of their essential driving force, the pleasure of being together, of acting together, of making the future together.

Turning a corner in the Caen exhibition, one fell upon what was for me the real discovery of the whole show: Marie Petiet’s Les Repasseuses, The Ironing women. From 1882, it groups seven young women chatting, working and exchanging around an ironing table, probably all painted from the same model.

Marie Petiet was no more a social critic than Degas but her artistry pulls you in. Those doing the ironing, a basic, manual task, are presented as equals with each other, with her as the artist and with you as the spectator. Once this exhibition is broken up, if you want to see it you will need to go the small museum that hosts her work. Musée de peinture Petiet was established in her home town of Limoux when the family assigned ownership of their house and paintings to the commune in 1880.

Those doing the ironing, a basic, manual task, are presented as equals with each other, with her as the artist and with you as the spectator.

It is not the only inheritance this town of just 10,000 inhabitants guards as public property. Go down just south of Carcassonne and toward the Pyrenees and, once Covid-19 has been done and dusted, you can also enjoy Limoux’ Musée du Piano. It was established by the commune in a former church in 2002. If you are lucky, you will fall on one of the days when there is a concert in this unique public museum preserving the work of the artisans who made these beautiful instruments.

If you do get the chance to listen to one of these historic pianos, you may join in longing for a Marie Petiet to paint a group of us working télétravail sending bills out to customers, designing a new microchip or conducting research for a vaccine while chatting on screen over one of the ever-growing number of applications trying to make the best of a world where direct human contact is now at a premium.

Credits: With thanks to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen for permission to reproduce some of the works displayed in its exhibition Les Villes Ardentes.

Notes and references

[i] Les villes ardentes : 1870-1914 Art, travail, révolte, edited by Emmanuelle Delapierre and Bertrand Tillier, Musée Beaux Arts Caen and Snoeck, 2020.

[ii] The complete and well annotated catalogue is Tresors de Banlieues, Bruno Delarue, Editions Terre en Vue, 2019.

[iii] Une histoire vivante des ouvriers de 1900 à nos jours, Bernard Chambaz, Seuil, Paris, 2020.

[iv] I take the quote from page 48 of the Moore and Aveling translation published in 1887. It was produced under the editorial control of Frederick Engels with the help of Eleanor Marx. To all of them taming goats would have been a natural thing to think of. If you do not tame a doe goat you will never be able to milk her. The further we who live urban lives move away from the natural world the less we know of the important commodity of a tamed goat, let alone think of its potential value.

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