Socialist Worker

Art In The Age of Steam

Dan Swain explores a new exhibition that showcases art influenced by the development of the steam railway network

Issue No. 2100

A French Nord Express  rail poster

A French Nord Express rail poster

Art in The Age of Steam is an exhibition at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool that shows the various ways in which steam train travel has captured the imagination of artists, from its early days in the 19th century through to its decline in the 1960s.

The exhibition skilfully demonstrates how representations of and attitudes towards steam trains changed considerably across different periods.

The train is a symbol of modernity and progress, something that represents movement towards a new industrial age. But different artists have differing reactions to this symbol.

Earlier paintings tend to depict steam trains as intruders on broader landscapes. Often the trains contrast negatively with images of nature, demonstrating a romantic conservatism and concern about preserving a vanishing “traditional” life.

These paintings typically show images of animals fleeing the trains, or other scenes of rural life being interrupted.

In contrast, later paintings tend to celebrate the steam train as a sign of progress and development.

Posters from France and Russia in the 1930s show the ways in which the train was bound up with positive ideas of movement towards a more efficient and better future.

Yet this effectively comes full circle in the 1960s, with the move to diesel locomotives sparking off a new romantic nostalgia for the steam train.

For Victorian artists in the mid-19th century the steam train was often used as a route into presenting stark differences of social class.

The fact that trains brought the richest and the poorest together in the same vehicles and the same stations gave a perfect opportunity for artists to portray some of the severe inequalities thrown up by capitalism.

Station scenes were common, often presenting cross sections of society waitingto board trains. The most famous of these is William Powell Frith’s 1862 painting The Railway Station, which was mimicked by many other artists. Frith includes some striking contrasts between the first and second class carriages which are clearly designed as social commentary.

The exhibition also includes Another Marguerite, a particularly powerful 1892 piece by the Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida. It depicts a poor young woman being taken to her execution in a prison car.

These human stories are notably absent from the later works of art, which are more focused on the trains themselves and their environments.

The show includes a large number of Impressionist works that try to capture the sense of frantic motion and activity associated with trains.

In these works the train shifts from being the site of human dramas to being a symbol in its own right.

Trains were becoming an increasingly major part of modern city life, and soon came to represent the alienation associated with urban living. These various unconscious associations of railway travel are explored in various surrealist works.

This exhibition is well worth taking a look at. It offers an interesting combination of various artistic styles, and follows a theme that was a prominent part of our lives for over a century.

Art In The Age of Steam is on at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool until 10 August. Admission is free. Go to »

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Tue 6 May 2008, 18:23 BST
Issue No. 2100
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