May 27, 2008

'Art in the Age of Steam' at the Walker Art Gallery

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This fascinating exhibition at Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery focuses on artistic responses to the development of steam trains, bringing together a wide range of art works that reveal the huge impact railways had on the landscape and personal consciousness. I've recently been collecting and studying references to the railways in Victorian novels, so the exhibition provided a useful accompaniment to this work. Many paintings captured similar themes to those expressed by novelists- fear and anxiety, excitement, a change in spatial perception and experience. The most recurrent theme was the encroachment of modernity on an older way of life; Richard Altick writes that "the very definition of modernity in early Victorian fiction might be said to have hinged on the railway", and the exhibition suggested that this statement also rings true for Victorian artists, for whom the railway symbolised "modernity". The early paintings of railways, in the exhibition's section on "The Formative Years in Europe" frequently depicted the railway in relation to the natural world, capturing the conflicting notions of promise and destruction that were bound up with the onset of modernity. Turner's "Rain, Steam, and Speed" (1844) is one of the most well-known of such paintings:

"Rain, Steam, and Speed", Turner

The exhibition brought together quite a range of paintings, from early responses through to early 20th century explorations in which the railway was often depicted in the context of the city and trains sometimes became the sole focus of paintings, a development from the tentative nature of nineteenth-century works that were unsure of the machine's suitability for artistic representation. Ivo Pannaggi's "Speeding Train" (1922) was one of the most interesting of these later explorations:

"Speeding Train", Ivo Pagganni

The exhibition also included prints and photographs that depicted the structural precision of machinery and bridges, as well as paintings that looked at the spaces associated with railways, such as the interior of compartments and stations, two new spaces that provided great interest to artists and novelists alike; in novels, carriages provide the opportunity for sexual encounters and instances of social comedy, whilst stations are spatially interesting in their negotiation of town and country, departure and arrival, as well as providing the social experience of a place in which all sorts of people are brought into close proximity. William Powell Frith's huge canvas "The Railway Station" (1862) demonstrates this in great detail:

"The Railway Station", Frith

Sections on America, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, and States of Mind also featured in the exhibition. The collection offers a wonderful, insightful, look into the impact that railways have had on people, place, and art, through a rich variety of works of art from different periods of the "age of steam". I'd highly recommend a visit, although it's worth mentioning that the exhibition's website also offers an informative overview of the collection.

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