The Art of Travel

The Lure of Trains: A Journey to Fascination as Machinery, as Symbol and as Artistic Muse

On The Town | Isabella Vatter | November 2006

Modernity and romance when the journey is the goal (Photo: Deutsche Bahn)

Exactly eight minutes until the train departs. Damn, I’m late! 9 a.m. is simply too early. My sleepy body is driven on by frantic thoughts of missing this train.

Wiggling past the crowds of early birds at Munich’s Central Station, I search left, right and up for signs to guide me towards the platform. A sigh of relief escapes me as I discover it’s the first, and blissfully empty, platform on the left.

A last check with the friendly and fully bearded conductor, and I enter a second-class compartment of the train to Vienna.

Then I change my mind, and take a seat in the restaurant car, at a cosy table for two, the scent of coffee tickling my tired nostrils. Slowly unwinding, I take in the surreal surroundings. A rich wine-red motif dominates the section - seats, curtains and even the walls are all in the calming colour.

An unusually friendly, even cheerful, waiter in perfect uniform comes to the little table to take my order of coffee and orange juice. In a minute, I am served a generous bowl of steaming cappuccino.

As I contentedly sip my coffee, I feel the machinery gently setting into motion beneath me. With a consistent, calm strength, the train glides out of the station and the lush, green Bavarian landscape unfolds before us. It has been a long time since I have been on a train, and the new sensations are curious. My memories are connected with unbearable crowds of people, shoving, with smoky, stuffy compartments and never-ending hours of discomfort.

So over time, I became a car-lover, some people would call it a snob, avoiding this legendary public means of conveyance.

As I nestle into my comfortable bench, the sun playfully sparkling between the passing trees, I question my dislike of train travel. The slight jiggling motion, the comforting warmth of the coffee and the fabulous view from the large windows stir a sense of wonder. Where have I been all these years! Suddenly, I am hit by a wave of inspiration: Images in sepia tones of majestic old trains pass before my inner eye. In truth, I have always been fascinated by trains - as machinery, as symbol, as artistic muse.

A beautiful drawing by Honoré Daumier entitled the Third Class Wagon shows a dark and gloomy scene of working class passengers riding on the train.

The compartment is shadowy, with people crammed on the simple wooden benches, one cradling a child, another clutching a woven basket. The picture is dated 1862, when the patterns of life shaped by Industrial Revolution had spread from Britain across the Continent.

In art equally radical changes were taking place, some tracked in Daumier’s drawing. Though realistic in theme, there is a romantic spirit, the figures portraying not particular people but mankind in general.

This increasing disregard of individuality was typical of the time, in which machines replaced human labour, and an all-encompassing industry appropriated the uniqueness of craft.

Here, in my quiet compartment, the other passengers were calmly carrying out their work; reading the paper, going through study notes or playing cards with their children. The steady, rumbling tranquillity of this kind of travel gives the space and time to reflect, maybe do some writing, and just be alone with your thoughts.

As the 19th century waned, the train was, if anything, an even more popular image in art. Impressionism had revolutionized the art of painting and its initiator, Claude Monet, was leading the modernization. His vibrant 1877 painting Gare St. Lazare depicting a cross section of the train station, encompasses all the attributes of impressionism.

The visible, energetic brushstrokes, light colours and the emphasis on light in its changing qualities accentuate the effects of the passage of time. The fascination of being able to journey faster than the eight mph (13km/h) of coach horses at a trot, the sensation of moving landscapes rushing past the window, and the joy of travel were hallmarks of this vital artistic movement.

Technology advanced, trains became faster, and then faster still. This ability of and love for speed developed into the central motif of the early 20th century movement called Futurism. Boccioni, Marinetti, Balla and Co. celebrated the high-speed trains (as well as the automobile and the airplane) as proof of the technological triumph of man over nature.

Motivated by technology, speed and violence, the Futurist’s work was dynamic, their aim to capture on canvas, an object’s movement in space.  I am pulled from my thoughts by a sudden jerk of the train; we have reached Salzburg, and people start to enter the restaurant car.

Just as in Daumier’s painting, these passengers are not individuals to me, but a company of like-minded souls, all sharing the pleasures of train travel. Though we’ve never met, I feel somehow I know them, and if we were to start up a conversation, I suspect we would find common ground.

As we gently begin to move again, my contemplations do so as well. I realize that the train not only inspired painters, but also the entire world, artistic and scientific.

From Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express to Goethe’s Travels, political whistle stop tours and the transcontinental railroad linking of America from East to West, people were inspired by this way of travel – its many faces of Modernity and Romance, the reliability and comfort, and today the appealing nostalgia for a time when the journey was  as important as the destination.

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