Direction of travel

Richard Hamilton, Trainsition III, 1954

Richard Hamilton, Trainsition III, 1954

I often think my journey to work is a bit ridiculous. Like many people teaching in art colleges, I live in London but work elsewhere. On a good day* my commute is a four and a half hour round trip, give or take a bit. Though there is art in other cities – a lot in some places, but then Glasgow would be an even stupider commute for me – for me, being in London makes the most sense. (Plus, you know, I’m a Londoner. Always have been and probably always will be.) It’s just that I don’t happen to work here.

Like many of my colleagues, I accumulate piles of train tickets. Many of us seem to have vague plans to make a piece of work with them at some point. Whether anyone ever will, I don’t know (I’ve yet to see the evidence if they have). I know I haven’t (and, in all honesty, probably never will).

All of which means that there was one series of works in the Richard Hamilton exhibition at Tate Modern that really resonated: the Trainsition paintings. Hamilton taught at Newcastle for years but, it seems, stayed living in London. Suddenly my commute seems positively mundane. Unlike me though, Hamilton turned the experience into art. Well done that man.

Richard Hamilton , Trainsition IIII, 1954

Richard Hamilton, Trainsition IIII, 1954

The paintings talk of the ever changing view from the window as the countryside rushes past the train. They talk of that weird thing that happens when you look at the view and some things seem still while others are blurred beyond recognition as they hurry past. Arrows show what whooshes where. The paintings are thin on detail (adding to their universality) but laden with familiarity. Train views are all about tiny details . They are about the things it takes days of watching to make sense of. The landscape changes all the time, of course, but what changes more is how we look. I am always finding new features to the world I rush through each day; I’ve been known to swear blind that very obviously nineteenth century buildings “weren’t there this morning”. Obviously I could pay better attention but I like the randomness of letting the view rush past in it’s own disorganised way. The constant surprises please me.

These aren’t Hamilton’s best known work and they didn’t change the art world in the way that Just what is it did but they’re engaging paintings that I really relate to. And it’s great to know that others have coped with even stupider commutes. And it’s good to know that they can become good art.

* And they are not all good days. On a bad day, of course, it’s a very different story. Occasionally, I haven’t made it in to work at all (usually thanks to the wrong kind of weather, the wrong kind of falling trees, the wrong kind of cable theft or whatever). One day it took me over four and a half hours just to get home. Thanks South West Trains, I enjoyed that one.

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