Sunday 30 December 2007

L’art entre en gare

French Railways (SNCF) had the bright idea of dragging three locomotives through the streets of Paris and displaying them in the Grand Palais to mark 70 years (1938-2008) of publicly owned railways in France. Our own British Rail (or British Railways as it was then) was born 10 years later in 1948 and survived for only 46 years before being slowly strangled to death between 1994 and 2000 on the orders of John Major and the Adam Smith Institute. The French public have not yet signed up to the Blair-Thatcher consensus in which “public equals bad; private equals good” and carry on in their misguided way to support the idea of a nationalised railway. All they get for their ideological inflexibility and resistance to progress is a passenger service which is faster, more frequent, more comfortable and costs a fraction of the price demanded by the privately owned operators in Britain.

The Grand Palais is a magnificent structure combining engineering ingenuity with the decorative excess of the Belle Époque and made an appropriate setting in which to display the technological achievements and cultural by-products of seven decades of railway activity. The exhibition entitled, “L’art entre en gare” was a broadly cultural survey and correspondingly light on the engineering detail that many rail buffs find so absorbing. In doing so, it covered art, photography, cinema, architecture, publicity and the changing fashions in staff uniforms in equal measure. Attendance was no more than modest – most visitors were either in the Buffet or queuing up to climb into the locomotive cabs. The photographs were taken on Christmas Eve with the assistance of some brilliant winter sunshine. It’s a sad reflection on our times that the French public were queuing for over an hour to visit the Courbet exhibition next door at over three times the price!

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