Art In The Age Of Steam At The Walker Art Gallery Liverpool

By Marian Cleary | 18 April 2008
A print of two very early steam trains pulling full carriages

Picture: S G Hughes, Travelling on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway © The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, Telford

Exhibition preview - Art in the Age of Steam at The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool from April 18 - August 10 2008

This Anglo-American exhibition, Art in the Age of Steam, brings together works defined not by their prosaic documentation of the steam train but through quality and function in exploring its power.

Once appalling to the artistic sentiment, the train went on to thrill and during the 130 years of the age of steam, the steam train was depicted travelling through social settings and imaginary worlds.

A black and white photograph of a man and woman cuddling at a drive-in movie whilst a steam train passes and an aeroplane fills the screen

O Winston Link, Hot Shot Eastbound, Laeger, West Virginia © The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

Co-curated by The Walker’s former keeper of galleries, Julian Treuherz, along with Ian Kennedy from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (the American partner institution in this transatlantic venture), the assembled works from UK galleries and institutions and international loans are displayed chronologically yet are discretely themed.

The result is an exhibition that allows the visitor to not only appreciate the art historically but through changing perceptions and preoccupations.

Of initial note however is the way artists failed to embrace this innovation. While trains transformed the landscape of the 1830s, the artist’s transforming eye was averted from the 'ugly machines'.

Instead, prints and photography, themselves innovative children in this first decade of steam, excitedly documented trains and railway infrastructure. Later photographic images, such as Hotshot Eastbound show how maturing photographic vision continued its relationship with the train.

An oil painting of a busy railway station in the nineteenth century

Picture: William Powell Frith, The Railway Station © Royal Holloway College, University of London

As the train became less about transporting raw materials and products for industry and more about people on journeys, so artists began to engage with the human drama of railway travel.

Whether in carriages or on platforms, the passengers were mixed up in a Dickensian soup of class and concerns as seen in Frith’s 1862 painting The Railway Station. Alternatively, artists such as Augustus Egg observed and delved beneath the novel experience and showed how familiar human behaviour can be absorbed into new landscapes and new interiors.

Central to the exhibition are the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, which are gathered together. They will no doubt be a large attraction and bring visitors to the gallery. Yet here, away from water lilies and sunflowers, it can be appreciated how these artists brought this new vision of technology into their new vision of landscape.

A 19th century woman sits looking out of this oil painting while a little girl beside her gazes through the railings at billowing steam from trains

Claude Monet, Gare Saint-Lazare © National Gallery, London

It now seems obvious these artists concerned with light and luminescence should find the smoke and steam of the train and its stations so absorbing. The pictures in this exhibition by Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Daumier and Van Gogh, amongst others, demonstrate how in the later years of the 19th century the train worked its magic on the major artistic sensibilities of the age.

Turning the corner into the 20th century, the train journeys into the psyches of the Futurists and Surrealists and in turn appears in dreamscapes and forms strange and sometimes disturbing juxtapositions with people.

The train here is emotive and evocative because the artists have dramatically transported and transformed the steam train from ugly machine to urgent symbol. Works by the Italian Futurists and Delvaux figure here.

A dark steam train viewed in stark perspective from the engine backwards

Pierre Fix-Masseau, Exactitude © Minneapolis Institute of Arts

As the steam age winds down so, ironically, the power of the machine is admired all the more and in the later 20th century images found in the exhibition, the train becomes the image of progress. The Soviets use it to demonstrate the transforming power of socialism and the Western European artists use it to show the transforming power of travel itself.

This theme is also found in the work of American artists and images of Empire collected together in the exhibition. These demonstrate the link between imperialism and exploration and the train.

American artists such as Inness and Bierstadt show the mammoth steam trains tiny in the context of vast landscapes and wilderness. The train was opening up continents and joining oceans whilst defining Empire’s expanse. In these paintings, the people as pioneer, for good or bad, is symbolised by the ploughing of the steam train through unfamiliar scenery.

An oil painting of a steam train crossing a nineteenth century American landscape

George Inness, The Lackawanna Valley © Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Art in the Age of Steam represents a collecting together of eclectic images that allows us to share a fascination with the power, symbolism and beauty of the Age of Steam.

This is an exhibition preview. If you’ve been to see the show, why not let us know what you think?

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