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Hundertwasser: 'Night Train,' 1978.

For Christmas a couple of years ago my little sister and her husband gave me a beautiful volume of reproductions of Hundertwasser's graphic work. Paging through the succulent prints of this artist, I came across the silk screen entitled Night Train. What first attracted me to this image was that the train and the cubicles below it were in astounding blues: little boy blue, sky blue, and night blue all shaded together, and bleeding down to turquoise. Most pleasantly fixated, I began to experience the elevated feeling one gets, for example, in certain Tokyo stations of the Japan Railway. One exits a frighteningly crowded car, in which one has been squeezed and shoved without even being noticed, and emerges onto the cold night platform, still a member of a swarm. The swarm disperses. One breathes, shakes off the miasma of the crowd, and the train also departs, bearing away its vertically stacked humanity. For the first time one can see beyond the track a spectacular view of urban immensity: lights below, silhouettes of towers, more crowds - yes, a panorama of crowding, which is only a panorama because one is momentarily out of the crowd. This is the vantage point of the Hundertwasser print.

But in fact the night train goes nowhere; it comprises the top story of a blue skyscraper block to whose manifold windows are pressed eyes as large, colorful, and blandly expressionless as the camouflage spots of certain butterflies. A second block of apartments abuts the foreground; here the faces are even larger. They gaze straight out at us as if pushed from behind by unseen inner multitudes, which could conceivably impart a desperate feeding; yet everything is "cute," clean, and colorful here, as in Japanese cartoons. Atop this edifice, what seem to be beams of darkness ascend to penetrate a horizon of graded darkness reminiscent of that of certain ukiyo-e prints; these beams go straight up like anti-aircraft lights at a party rally in Nuremberg; below these bands of darkness, the sky becomes the strange cold pink hue one sometimes sees on winter afternoons in the Japanese "snow country" described so hauntingly by Yasunari Kawabata. Farther down still, this blush of the air merges with a plain of snow crystals stood on end. These entities can be glimpsed through the train and buildings; both snow and city are made to appear vulnerable by this effect of mutual transparency. Closer to the foreground, the snow becomes more sandbarlike, with lavender-pink streaks, and when we see it underprinted through the windowed faces the effect is like that of reflections in illuminated glass. The longer one gazes at this print, the more the strange pink and white background becomes pervasive. It lies not only behind and through the city, so to speak, but also on either side of it, isolating the metropolis and enhancing the strangeness of that night train that can go nowhere without crashing five stories down into the empty snow. And why are all those not-quite-droll urban countenances so cheek by jowl? One would miss their colorful eyes, as benign as traffic lights, if they were to leave their windows, but how much healthier it would be just the same for them to go play in the snow! This print rubs our noses in the utterly peculiar self-containment of cities.

Along the lighter blue city wall below the train, Hundertwasser has placed long horizontal yellow action streaks. The train is in motion, but somehow everything else is in motion, too, and meanwhile everything stays where it is.

This print brilliantly visualizes the paradoxes of city life and helps articulate for me the dreamy sense of powerlessness I often feel in busy human hives. By rendering my predicament as something whimsical and pretty, it helps me to relax and think - not to fear, not to reject, but to consider. The longer I look at Night Train, the more impelled I feel to seek out an understanding of my relationship with the urban culture in which I live - as well as to put on my snowshoes again and head for the mountains. Where is my night train going? Can it really go anywhere? Do I want to stay inside it for the rest of my life? Are all those beautiful eyes enough for me?

If Hundertwasser had put in a monorail track so that the night train had somewhere to go, it would have bisected the print and ended the enveloping snowy peace. This is what happens in the real world. If we want to stay within the city and we also want to go everywhere, then the city must go everywhere with us. If we want to go to the wilderness, then we must go on our own power, and leave the night train behind. I love this print because it makes the choice so graphically clear.
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Author:Vollmann, William T.
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Feb 1, 1996
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