Sixty years before this painting, the first passenger train ran. Forty years before it was painted, this station at Cardiff Harbor in Wales was built. And twenty years before Les Docks de Cardifflike this work in the French Museum D’Orsay hot, electric light only came into the public space. So these three lights on this thriller series-worthy foggy train station at night were a rather new topic. Artists earlier in the century had resisted these modern antics. Not Lionel Walden, who I had never heard of before seeing this work. He and his generation, with Monet leading the way and Turner prescient just before that, knew better: there’s art in this†
The writer Émile Zola said of these artists: ‘They found poetry in train stations as their father’s found poetry in the woods and rivers’. And so it is: the beauty of a light penetrating through the smoke, in a crunching and squeaking landscape of iron, wet rails and steam floating in the air like white women. The routine of night work, the code language of flashing lights and switches and whistles, the boats and cranes in the background.
How do you create that atmosphere? Well, with a few blobs. I thought that was so cool when I saw this last year; the rather clumsy difference between that intense nighttime atmosphere and the seemingly carelessly slammed flats of paint that make up these lights. Like a switch that is diverted from illusion to material. Those hazy auras around the lamps, like lights in a humid air, are painted with much thinner paint so that even the fabric of the canvas participates in the imagination. On top of that those dots of light that move towards us. Two orange, one green. Maybe one is from a train, the others are from the station. It’s hard to see exactly, because seeing exactly isn’t the goal here at all.
This is a new kind of landscape that presented itself to man. Cardiff Docks station is different than Monet’s famous stations where he painted the Parisians on their way to their country estates. Passengers were subordinate here, there wasn’t even a platform until 1879; coal was transported from the British mines to the harbor and transferred to the ships. An industrial station without ornate cast iron and without the elegance of the upper middle class and their dream of the wider, more accessible world.
Other artists also painted the train lights, and every time such a train seems to be something alive, something looking at us. Turner let the light steam through a misty British landscape, Monet let the light crystallize in a snowy landscape in icy winter air; a bit monstrous, especially since the front is blood red for reasons that are unclear.
The painters saw poetry, I see a train as a character. In its habitat, in this case. With piercing eyes right through the night. And the best part is that this Lionel Walden makes the paint light up with a few clever strokes.
Lionel Walden, Les Docks de Cardiff1894, oil on canvas, 127 x 193 cm, Musée D’Orsay Paris.
J.M.W. Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway †detail), 1844, National Gallery London
Claude Monet, Le train dans la neige (detail), 1875, Musee Marmottan Monet Paris