Archive for Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Railroad’s glory days captured in art exhibit

October 1, 2008

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by trains.

When I was little my mother tied me to the clothesline so I wouldn’t run off to the railroad tracks nearby. Several of the great adventures of my youth involved trains – a ride in a steam locomotive, for one, my first solo ride as a passenger when I was about 10 or so, for another.

In my youth, I was a train spotter, although I never heard that term until recently. Nevertheless, that’s what I did anytime the opportunity presented itself.

We lived in Colby, a small town in northwest Kansas, until I was 5, and I spent all or parts of my summers there until I was 20. Colby today is familiar to many people who travel west on Interstate 70. Colby was served by two railroads, the Rock Island, which went out of existence after its bankruptcy in 1980, and the venerable Union Pacific, which survives today as one of the few remaining Class I railroads in the United States after a wave of mergers since the 1980s.

I spent a lot of hours in the summers, watching one set of tracks or the other, and my cousin Tom and I almost made a habit of meeting the Rocket, the Rock Island’s streamliner bound for Chicago, when it stopped about 5 p.m. every day. A favorite trick was to place a penny on the track, then marvel at how it was flattened almost beyond recognition when the train passed over it.

The mergers of the 1980s and ’90s that reduced the number of railroads in the United States to just a handful have taken a lot of the interest out of watching trains, but I still look when the opportunity presents itself. I still get a charge pacing alongside a speeding locomotive.

With that as background, naturally I was drawn to “Art in the Age of Steam,” the new exhibit that opened a couple of weeks ago at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

The full title is “Art in the Age of Steam: Europe, America and the Railway, 1830-1960.” The collection of more than 100 paintings, drawings, prints and photographs shows how artists in Europe and America responded to the railroad.

The exhibition is divided into six parts:

• “The Formative Years in Europe” shows how early images, usually commissioned by the railroad companies, helped make the new concept of rail travel more familiar.

• “Human Drama” focuses on stories that unfold in railroad stations or in compartments as people experience the rigors, dangers and joys of travel.

• “Crossing Continents” shifts the focus to the United States and the railroad’s role in westward expansion. Included here are the famous photograph of the completion of the transcontinental railroad and another of the building of the Kansas Pacific, taken near Hays, Kan.

• “Impressionists and Post Impressionists” features artists who were attracted to the railroad, both as a means to their favorite painting sites and as an important feature of life. One of these is Claude Monet’s famous painting, “Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris” in which passengers rush to their trains as the steam envelopes the train shed.

• “States of Mind” portrays the railroad less realistically as artists attempt to evoke the feelings and ideas of rail travel.

• “The Machine Age” caps the exhibit with works that glory in the steam locomotive at the moment it was being challenged by road and air transport. The exhibit ends with a series of photographs by O. Winston Link that celebrates the end of the steam age.

All in all, the exhibit is great fun. If you’re at all susceptible to the lure of the rails, I highly recommend a visit. The exhibit closes Jan. 18.

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