Trains don’t seem to offer us much any more. The plane is our vessel of choice for the bigger getaway, and it holds the edge, too – despite the continuing efforts of Ryanair – when it comes to a sense of the miraculous. Up in the sky, looking out at earth’s horizon, it is as clear as it ever was that what we are doing ought to be impossible. The transport we are most in love with, though, is, of course, the car, because it cuts us off from the rest of the world and allows us to zoom about among our fellows in a mechanised bubble. Like the iPod, the internet and the anonymous letter, the car is essentially a solitary pleasure. It allows us to retire to our own kingdom and express ourselves from a position of glassed-in safety. That’s why quiet people become beasts of the road inside their cars, and why dull-looking newsagent types are the keenest kerb-crawlers.
So, the poor old train has lost most of its selling points. In journey times, it competes with the plane only on the grimmest commuter distances. Boats cling to a finer air of rarity. And trains no longer allow you to indulge successfully in any tempting intimacy with strangers, because of the modern preference for the open-plan compartment, so they’ve lost their magic. Which is why an exhibition in Liverpool, Art in the Age of Steam, is such a sad pleasure. In various ways, it reminds us of the lost potency of the train.
The thing about trains is that they were the first unmistakably modern contraptions to escape from the city. Early trains were devilish things – clanking, boiling, hissing, rattling, whistling – thundering across the landscape and frightening nature with their scary belches and horrible stinks. So, the show begins on a note of genuine trepidation. David Cox, a tremulous rural watercolourist at the best of times, watches a night train roaring across Yorkshire in 1849, showering sparks and spewing smoke, and he sees a mechanical Satan threatening the safety of his beloved England. Judging by the enormous gloom of the sky, and the crazy fear of the horses galloping across the foreground, the end of the world is nigh, rather than the 4.15.
There was much about the first trains that was diabolical. Not just the fire and brimstone of the engines, but those pitch-black tunnels into which they disappeared. What the hell was down there? Even the way trains wound their way through the landscape was snakey. Adolph Menzel watched one puffing out of Berlin in 1847 and noticed how its relentless smoking had stained the surrounding countryside the colour of excrement, and how the brutal thrust of its progress through nature had about it the air of a rape. Trains took a lot of getting used to. Only when artists began switching their attention from the outside of the train to the inside – looking at what went on among the passengers – did they get properly interested in puffers.
Frith’s famous view of the crowd at Paddington station is a prime example of the genre, a multi-part soap opera unfolding across the largest platform in the world, as a frantic scrum of the train-travelling classes – including the thief whom the police have handcuffed on the right – prepares to board a 4-2-2 broad-gauge engine of the Iron Duke class. (If that kind of information presses your horn, then there is plenty here for you.) A much greater painting, though, than Frith’s railway station is Honoré Daumier’s Third-Class Carriage, a gloomy peep inside the cheapest wagon, where three generations of the poor – a grandmother, her daughter and a baby – sit on the hardest seats and wait. Train travel has become a metaphor for human suffering.
The show devotes most of its attention to the 19th century, when the train’s history was at its most pioneering.
We begin in Britain, but soon branch out to Europe, America and as far afield as Japan, where British engineers completed the first railway line in 1872, between Tokyo and Yokohama. Most people, however, will be drawn to this show to see what the impressionists made of the train. After all, trains began popping up all over the French landscape at roughly the same time as impressionists did.
The greatest painting in the show is unquestionably Manet’s view of a small girl and her nanny looking down through some railings onto the Gare St-Lazare. The woman in the picture is Victorine Meurent, the same model who posed for Manet’s scandalously naked Olympia, as well as the brazen nude in Déjeuner sur l’herbe, so we can be sure this is one of those important Manet paintings that seeks to encapsulate the plight of the modern woman. In this instance, the railings of the railway bridge have become the bars of a cage. The railway beyond them represents escape, freedom, choice – but the little girl and her nanny are trapped on the wrong side of the platform.
As the train’s symbolism keeps changing, so art’s interest in it adapts accordingly. What should be the highlight of the show, Monet’s momentous battle with the different shades of smoke inside St-Lazare station, turns out to be disappointing. He painted several versions of the subject, but only the least exciting one has arrived here. Van Gogh is represented by a drawing. And, back at the start of the journey, we are welcomed aboard by a video about Turner’s crucial Rain, Steam and Speed, rather than the painting itself. The sweet old Walker, I fear, lacks the clout to ensure the best loans.
Perversely, just as the train’s role in art increases in importance, the show itself decreases in stature. The section dealing with the train’s identity as a futuristic icon of progress and speed is particularly disappointing. The organisers were unable to borrow Boccioni’s futurist master-work from MoMA, the huge triptych set in a railway station called States of Mind. And even the mad love affair with the train of the postrevolutionary Russians is poorly evoked. For the surrealists, trains became handy locations for distressingly predictable sexual fantasies, usually involving a dramatic plunge into a tunnel. Yet De Chirico, the master of sexually charged railway innuendo, is another who is weakly represented. And the two huge Delvaux paintings of naked girls in ridiculous railway situations are no substitute for a good trainy Magritte.
This potentially fascinating account is just about to peter out dismally when the Americans arrive to save the day. In the show’s final image, that great photographer of steam trains, O Winston Link, takes us to a drive-in movie in the 1950s as a speeding smoker thunders past the fence. The great express is so close, you can almost touch it. Everyone at the cinema must surely have heard it. But the couples in the cars are too busy watching a movie about a plane to notice it. In a show packed with railway metaphors, this surely, is the saddest.