Bridges in Art
Bridges are found in art for many reasons, often reflecting the ideas of an age.
We wouldn't normally class Giotto as a painter of bridges, but his use of structures to frame parts of scenes, or to create scale, is masterly. Well, it's just an excuse to mention his wonderful pictures, such as the St Francis paintings in the church of San Francesco, Assisi. In the Dream of Innocent III, the saint appears to be defending a building against an earthquake. Unfortunately, the church of San Francesco was one of many buildings in Assisi which were damaged by an earthquake near the end of the 20th century.
Elegant arches appear in "The Annunciation" of 1437 by Fra Angelico, beautifully painted to portray the subtleties of light and shade.
"The Tempest" made by Giorgione in 1503, has a trestle bridge in the background, which does a good job of dividing the near background from the far background. In spite of strangeness of the picture, the bridge and the other objects are given a realistic treatment that actually contributes to the effect.
El Greco's "View of Toledo" doesn't even show the whole town. Advice on photography often refers to "the rule of thirds", which really means "Don't put the subject plumb in the middle". If you believe in things like that, you can see a fortified bridge and a church spire in perfect balance. You can also see how the road leads from bottom left to top right, providing a rotational symmetry that is far from static, to emphasise the turmoil of the dark storm. The symmetry is also enhanced by the plants in the foreground, which reflect the movement of the clouds. Like many a real storm, the darkness of this one serves to bring out an unnatural brightness in the landscape. This tremendous picture is full of movement.
In the 17th century "Claude le Lorrain" has a multi-arched bridge in the background of "The Finding of Moses" of around 1638. Since the entire scene, including the bridge, looks as if the artist might have been painting a local scene, and not some place in Egypt, we have to wonder whether the objects in the picture have symbolic significance, or whether they just fill out the background.
In the 18th century we find Giovanni Canaletto including numerous bridges in pictures of Venezia and London. Francesco Guardi depicts an interesting foot-bridge in "Canale di Cannaregio".
In the Britain of the 19th century, the industrial revolution was seen by some as a dramatic and a romantic era, and its larger structures often figured in pictures.
On the other hand, they could form a part of the background to idyllic or bucolic scenes, where they could be used to separate spaces or form a frame.
Whistler's "Nocturne in Black and Gold", showing a part of Battersea bridge over the river Thames by night, seems to have upset a number of people, though it is wonderfully atmospheric. Another atmospheric picture, also depicting fireworks and a bridge, is "Fireworks over a bridge" by Hiroshige, from One Hundred Famous Views in Edo (1856-1858). A large trestle bridge crosses the middle ground, combining with the far bank of the river to create the composition. Both pictures are linked below.
Although Hiroshige's humanity shines through all his pictures, he was happy to include almost any type of object in his pictures, including many bridges. This is almost inevitable, given the amount of water in Japan's lowlands. The treatment is varied; one picture (Man on horseback crossing a bridge) shows tired figures crossing a bridge in silhouette at the end of the day: another (A sudden shower over Ohashi and Atake) shows people caught out by heavy rain.
Hokusai may not have used bridges as often as Hiroshige, but he used them to good effect. No wonder that artists like these were the cause of a wave of "Japonisme" that swept through parts of Europe.
The classical Japanese gardens were works of art, often completely artificial, yet cunningly planned to evoke nature. Many include streams and lakes, providing opportunities to include bridges, often at just the right places to see the best views. Flat wooden bridges might include sudden changes of direction, or even of level, to hint at the "right" places to stop and view the scene. These bridges were truly a part of huge works of art, which were sometimes designed to include aspects of the distant landscape (shakkei).
Some park bridges in England, like the parks themselves, often follow a very different ideal. The bridges are sometimes known as "Palladian". A good example is found at Wilton House in Wiltshire; others are found at Prior Park and Stowe. The bridge in Blenheim Park, by Vanbrugh, is a proper arch with a 100 foot span, in a completely different tradition, more like a real utility bridge. Public parks like Pittville Park in Cheltenham often include pleasant foot-bridges, some in masonry, others in wood.
Mary Cassatt's "In the Omnibus" inlcudes a bridge across a wide river in the background. This picture shows three people - a mother, a baby, and the nurse who is the bridge between them. They are isolated, as if no other people exist. They are indifferent to their surroundings, which themselves are passive, and indeed the mother seems to be in a world of her own. Only the nurse, attentive to the child, shows any sign of activity.
As the 20th century merged into the 21st, Japan was still producing beautiful bridges, some spans being among the longest in the world. Japan is unusual in possessing some brightly coloured bridges. In France also, you can see imaginative use of coloured bridges.
In the 20th century, when so many art "movements" and individual styles sprang up, the number of ways of depicting structures is legion. On the one hand we have "The Builders" of 1950, by Leger, we see a part of a steel-framed building in bold colours and strong outlines. On the other hand, in a picture by Paul Klee, we see a number of arches which seem to have become bored with their jobs, and are wandering about all over the place. Perhaps they are not unrelated to people doing identical, monotonous, and repetitive jobs.
In "Barges on the Thames" of 1906, three bridges gave André Dérain the chance to put in some strong shapes and to provide a sense of depth.
Oskar Kokoschka's picture of Karluv Most, Praha is a well known picture in which a bridge is actually the main subject. He also made several pictures of London's Tower bridge.
Ben Nicholson did not include many actual bridges in his pictures, but his fascination with architectural forms led to many pictures of buildings with arches, from Rievaulx Abbey in the north, to Siena in the south. Objects as small as humble jugs excited his interest just as much, and he delighted in drawing their forms.
For some late 20th century and early 21st century pictures by Anney Bonney click here and click on Shaded Bandwidth pictures. The download files are large. Shaded Bandwidths is a new work which is related to Brooklyn bridge. Liz Phillips is creating an interactive installation with sound and movement.
As we can see in other parts of the Brantacan website, bridges can be art in themselves, not necessarily because a designer has added "artistic" bits, which don't always work, but because truth to the forces and materials, and indeed to economic forces, while keeping in mind the needs of people, can produce work which can excite the eye and the mind.
Nature, art and science are all creative, but in different ways. Try clicking here to see a picture by Vermeer. If you round a corner in a gallery, and find yourself in front of something like that, you may find, just as when you see something like the Clifton Suspension Bridge, that you eventually wonder - "How did they do that?" There is no point in pretending that the three types of creativity are similar, but it's certainly true that many artists have been sufficiently inspired by works of engineering and architecture to make them the subject of pictures.
At the same time, we should remember that engineering and science are far more than simply plugging numbers into boring formulae. Just try creating a decent radio antenna using only a knowledge of Maxwell's equations. Or building a bridge using only a book of tables and formulae. It's just as difficult as writing a novel using only a dictionary. But don't imagine that you can add a bit of "art" or "decoration" to make your structure original. It won't.
Let's end this panel with an arch structure which is beautifully simple, unassuming, and unpretentious, and fitted to its purpose. It is the Ecole Meyrin Vaudagne near Geneva.
Alphabetical list by artists
Buson - Willows on a riverbank after rain
Canaletto - Capriccio - a Colonnade opening on to the courtyard of a palace
Canaletto - Entrance to the arsenal
Canaletto - Grand Canal : Rialto
Canaletto - London : Westminster bridge from the north on Lord Mayor's Day
Canaletto - Old Walton Bridge - Weird triple arch-truss
Canaletto - Piazza San Marco seen from the north west corner
Canaletto - SS Giovanni e Paulo and the Scuola di San Marco
Cotman - Greta bridge - British Museum
Dérain - Barges on the Thames
Interesting arch - truss bridges in the background
Hiroshige - Book - Juzo and Smith - Prestel - ISBN 3-7913-1860-8 Fig 2 Plates 9 10 11 14 15 24 37 53 69 70 88 94 95 96 97 99 100 101 103 104 109 115 116 123 124 125 134 140 141
Hiroshige - Beauties beside the Sumida river - Ryogoku bridge - V and A
Hokusai - Book - Matthi Forrer - Prestel - ISBN 3-7913-1131-X - Plates 15 24 26 29 33 34 35 36 37 38 53 73 78 91 108 113 116 117 132
Monet - Argenteuil, the bridge under repair
Pissarro - Bridge at Charing Cross
Turner - Rail, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway
Turner - Watercolours of Venice
Willow pattern - the bridge is not in the Chinese original
The Mazarin Chest - V and A Toshiba gallery
The Van Diemen Box - V and A Toshiba gallery
Hirokage - Typhoon on Atarashi bridge - V and A Toshiba gallery
Alphabetical list by bridges
Greta bridge - John Sell Cotman - British Museum
Bridges in Stamps
Sonic sculpture - Singing bridges
Thomas Hardy - The Sacrilege - From Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries (a very small bridge)
Thomas Hardy - On Sturminster Foot-Bridge - From Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses
Thomas Hardy - The Harbour Bridge - From Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles
Henry Longfellow - The Bridge
The bridge in cinema - well worth reading
A bridge too far
Under the bridge
Girl on the bridge / La fille sur le pont
Lulu on the bridge
Over the Brooklyn bridge
The bridge over the river Kwai
Traffic on a London bridge - 1895 - 27 seconds
The bridges of Madison County
Occurrence at Owl Creek bridge
The bridge at Remagen
Tsing Ma bridge