On 10 April 1815, the Tambora volcano in Indonesia erupted with colossal force. The largest volcanic eruption of the last 10,000 years sent, more than 36 cubic miles worth of shattered rock into the atmosphere. Average temperatures dropped worldwide, turning 1816 into the “year without a summer”.

Because polluted air scatters sunlight and makes it appear redder, the levels of ash and gas in the atmosphere also resulted in some spectacular sunsets – a phenomenon captured in paintings by JMW Turner. The effect was so significant that scientific researchers have been able to correlate the red-to-green pigment ratios in Turner’s paintings to data about the levels of volcanic matter in the air – and conversely to develop a methodology for using historic visual art to identify levels of pollution for places and times about which there is little data.

The Tambora eruption is an extreme example of a polluting event, but natural disasters were not the only thing affecting air quality in Turner’s world. Born in 1775, just before the introduction of the revolutionary Watt steam engine, over the course of his life Turner saw the rapid development of industrial technology, as well as political turmoil, war and the height of British expansionist colonialism. He died in 1851, living just long enough to see the Great Exhibition established as the ultimate symbol of Britain’s colonial and industrial power.

From his youth, Turner was fascinated by the new industries springing up all over Britain. He made tours of factories, filling sketchbooks with detailed drawings of waterwheel mechanisms and life on the workshop floor. More than industry itself, however, Turner was drawn to its effects.

Amy Concannon, curator of British art 1790-1850 at Tate Britain, says: “He was interested from an early age in the atmospheric effects produced by the byproducts of industrialisation. He was particularly drawn to flashes of light – how a lime kiln might glow in a dark landscape, for example. He carried that interest over into his attempts to draw out the sublime effect of smoke emissions from steamships and trains.”

Many of Turner’s most famous paintings of atmospheric conditions are on show in the new exhibition at Tate Britain, Turner’s Modern World, which features his famous 1844 painting Rain, Steam and Speed. Slated by Ruskin as merely Turner’s attempt “to show what he could do with an ugly subject,” it captures a steam engine rushing through heavy rain, its mechanical speed allegorically pitted against the tiny dab of a hare darting ahead down the tracks.

Industrial emissions take centre stage in The Thames Above Waterloo Bridge, in which the newly built bridge hangs ghostly among the sulphurous emanations of steamboats and factory chimneys. For contemporary viewers, knowledge of the damage wreaked by the coal industry might make the sight of so much smoke and steam uncomfortable. Turner’s paintings, however, generally appear to express awe at industry’s might – finding beauty in the symbols of modernity. It was something no other artist had done before.

Nevertheless, the Victorians were not blind to the potentially negative effects of air pollution on people’s lives. In 1829, a government inquiry was opened into airborne pollution and public health, and there were widespread concerns over a cholera epidemic in 1831-32, which many believed spread via “miasmas” that rose from dirty streets and rivers (possibly alluded to in the pale mists blanketing Turner’s image of London).

From the “flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes gone into mourning … for the death of the sun” that open Dickens’ Bleak House (published the year after Turner’s death) to the menacingly beautiful sunsets caused by toxic emissions in Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise, air pollution and its effects are surprisingly ubiquitous in literature and art.

Futurist battle ... Severini's depiction of a first world war military train.

In the 20th century, Turner’s admiration for the atmospheric beauty of air and light gave way to the harsher world view of the futurists, for whom smoke and steam were glorious symbols of industrial supremacy. Gino Severini’s 1915 painting Armored Train in Action, for instance, depicts the combined emissions of a steam train and a gun battery obliterating a green landscape, while Umberto Boccioni’s States of Mind I: The Farewells shows train, passengers and steam mingled in an vortical expression of pure motion.

The futurists’ shiny vision faded quickly after the horrors of the first world war and its mechanised modes of inflicting death. But, while art turned away from celebrating technology, industrialisation sprinted ahead, particularly after the second world war.

As the use of coal power and cars surged, air pollution quickly became a tangible problem. In 1952, more than 12,000 people died as a direct result of poisoned air during the Great Smog of London, eventually resulting in the Clean Air Act of 1956.

The 1950s and 60s also saw smog problems in many US cities, motivating architects and artists to consider radical solutions to a rapidly emerging public health crisis. The visionary designer Buckminster Fuller even proposed building an enormous geodesic dome over central Manhattan to minimise the effects of pollution and damage from storms and snow.

Now, however, there are different issues at stake. While urban smog is generally a thing of the past in western cities, tiny particulate emissions continue to affect residents’ health and contribute to the wider issue of climate breakdown.
For a new generation of ecologically aware artists and architects, then, there is a pressing need to make pollution visible.

Architect Nerea Cavillo’s projectIn the Air aims to make air-quality data more accessible, for example through films that show how levels of pollutants over a city fluctuate over the course of a day. Working with real-time data from monitoring stations, as well as information collected from DIY interfaces designed to be used by smartphone-wielding members of the public, In the Air offers a useful resource for urban planners and activists, as well as helping residents to understand the complex invisible components in the air they breathe.

Pollution monitor ... Andrea Polli's installation Particle Falls.

American artist Andrea Polli also works on finding ways to visualise air pollution for audiences who might otherwise find it hard to engage with the data. Particle Falls, a projected waterfall of light representing air quality, has been installed in various US cities. The work is controlled by a nephelometer, which uses a light beam to measure the concentration of fine particulate matter. High levels of pollutants cause a blue stream of pixels to be interrupted with warning flashes of yellow and red. Its real-time sensitivities mean that if a large diesel truck pulls up underneath it, the waterfall will turn into a raging inferno, drawing attention to the worst polluters and revealing how air quality changes from moment to moment.

Polli is working on a new site-specific installation for the California Air Resources Board, using low-energy LED lights to convey information about air pollutant levels.

Smoke screen ... orange sky over Oakland, California, in September.

As climate breakdown marches onwards, California is struggling with a series of some of the worst wildfires in its history. It is reported that particulate matter (PM2.5) levels during recent fires reached up to 453ug/m3(the WHO recommended safe limit is 10ug/m3). Images have emerged of Californian cities bathed in yellow light like the wastelands of Blade Runner 2049. Air pollution has been made shockingly visible once more, through the same particulate light filtration captured by Turner in his images painted at the dawn of the industrial revolution.

Turner’s Modern World draws out the many coherences between Turner’s time and our own – political upheaval; technological advances forcing people to find new modes of working; disease; kaleidoscopic shifts in Britain’s relationship with other nations. But we also now know the disastrous effects of the industrial and colonialist endeavours elevated to the sublime by Turner’s skilful brush – and we are living with the consequences.

o Turner’s Modern World is at Tate Britain, London, until 7 March.

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