This is a guest post by the lovely and talented Ravven. The first image to the right there is one of hers, I absolutely love her and I was delighted when she sent this post over! Please do check out her DeviantArt profile.
Steampunk art has grown and expanded as a genre from the original concept of steam-powered tech in an alternative Victorian-era world. Although bustles and tophats combined with steam-powered machines remain at the traditional core, steampunk can encompass everything from Jules Verne to movies such as Wild Wild West and the more surreal City of Lost Children. What ties together such different examples is (in part) the magic of the visual aesthetic: romanticised history, glorious anachronistic technology, and an ethos of creativity and visionary spirit.
I do a lot of fantasy and steampunk themed art, and prior to sitting down to write this I went through my deviantART steampunk favourites. These examples of what I personally think are some of the best artwork from that community. There are alternate-world Victorian-era images alongside steampunk versions of Alice in Wonderland and Thumbelina, Art Nouveau steampunk and unashamedly sci fi works that still have a copper-and-steam humanity to them. This, for me, is the heart of steampunk: science, history, technology, inspiration, exploration.
So what is it about this artwork that says “This is steampunk”?
In past eras, the world was not completely mapped down to the last Amazonian tribal village. Affluent Victorians could (and did) decide to mount archaeological expeditions to discover pharaohs and lost cities. They ventured into darkest Africa and the mysteries of the Far East. It was a world of new discoveries and magic…which is largely gone. Wherever we might go, no matter how exotic the locale, someone has been there before. There are travel guides. Somebody’s mum and dad have been there and have the holiday snaps to prove it…the world has lost its mystery.
Steampunk brings us back to that era of discovery and possibility, melding it with alternate-world technology and magic. (And what better illustrates Clarke’s third law better than steampunk?)
The Girl Genius archetype (inventor, explorer, pilot) is part of what I love so much about steampunk. This may sound a bit odd, but for me Claudia from Warehouse 13 is a perfect steampunk character. She’s sassy, smart, fearless and possessed of a mad passion for tinkering. She has an eclectic fashion sense, and although I’ve never seen her in long skirts, I can definitely picture her in brass goggles.
In the Victorian era females were obviously not encouraged to have careers that involved danger, dirt, travel to far-off locales without a suitable chaperone, or showing an unladylike amount of flesh. The plucky steampunk Girl Inventor is the antithesis of meekness – she designs and builds wild-ass, amazing contraptions and sails off in them to discover new lands. She goes to war, trusty steam robot at her side, and she knows that the world is as full of magic as it is cream cakes and tea.
Steampunk art is also about loneliness. Technology, both in that alternate timeline and our own, separates us from other people at the same time that it allows us to communicate and share. We use machines to measure and interact with the world around us, and as a result we become more separate. Perhaps steampunk is a way of humanising technology, bringing romance back to science, and illustrating the melancholy of technological futures. For me, anyway, I think that is part of the reason that (for instance) I lust after the historical veneer of Datamancer‘s creations – if that makes any sense. Steampunk science still has a soul.
Dodgy philosophy aside, this is what steampunk visual art means to me. A love of, and respect for, our history. A yearning for alternate worlds that are still high tech, but in a more human fashion. Romance and magic. And don’t forget new worlds to explore…I think there is an intrepid Girl Explorer in each of us, yearning for new horizons.