Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Tramcars Ascendant

The cultural history of the tram is as yet unwritten but the tram was an early agent in the growth of suburbia as extended tram routes enabled developers to offer new homes for the out of town commuter. In North America (where trams were streetcars), Hollywood silent comedies made much use of the streetcars of Los Angeles as comic accessories. The most sublime cinematic tram-ride is in Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) where a remorseful George Brent desperately attempts to convince his terrified young wife that he has renounced all thoughts of murdering her while the tram proceeds from rural arcadia, via industrial suburbs to the frenzied heart of the metropolis. Murnau’s tram-ride was entirely filmed on the Fox lot and the city centre set he constructed was the largest ever in Hollywood, before or since. For Frida Kahlo the terrible injuries sustained as a teenager in a tram accident would overshadow her entire adult life and artistic output. In 1926 Antonio Gaudi had a fatal encounter with a tram outside his unfinished Sagrada Familia in the streets of Barcelona. Silent, empty and inscrutable trams share pictorial space with the skeletons, nudes and classical temples in the paintings of Paul Delvaux while blunt-nosed and hard-edged trams chisel their way at terminal velocity through high-rise canyons in Frans Masereel’s woodcut urban visions. In literature the most poignant evocation of the tram is in Victor Klemperer’s wartime diaries (I Shall Bear Witness, To the Bitter End) in which he bleakly and dispassionately recorded the incremental exclusion of Jews from the trams of Dresden, by degrees confined to the open-air rear platform before total prohibition was imposed.

The days when the tram reigned supreme in the streets of the world’s major cities (the first two decades of the last century) coincided with the heyday of the picture postcard leaving a rich legacy of images of trams ruling the streets. These images come from postcards accumulated over many years without much regard to the traditional preoccupations of collectors such as condition, completeness or specialisation. Indeed, the surface stains and blemishes, the scuff marks and edge wear, the postmarks and postage stamps and fragmentary inscriptions all enrich the mysterious lustre of postcards and their ability to burrow deep into our visual imagination. A combination of traditional coach-building skills and the very latest in electric traction motors placed the tram at the forefront of early engineering technology and its continued survival across the world is evidence of its value for mass transit. Even in countries where private interests tend to take priority over the public interest, the tram is making something of a comeback, having been largely eliminated in Britain (where it was seen as an impediment to the free movement of private cars) and USA (where powerful automotive and oil business interests conspired to take control of tram systems and convert them to bus operation).

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