THE PASSING OF TRAINS



          Lontano lontano
          come un cieco
          m'hanno portato per mano
              

          Come far and going farther
          the blindman
          a hand taken by the hand

                                    (Giuseppe Ungaretti)


    The federal Swiss railway system has long been considered to be one of the most efficient, and pleasant, in the world. In terms of natural beauty, the itineraries which Swiss trains offer the traveller are particularly blessed by a breathtaking variety of vistas, constituting some of the most suggestive excursion routes to be found anywhere in Europe. The Swiss railway can also boast the "slowest express train in the world" (Zermatt - St. Moritz).

     The SBB, CFF, or FFS, depending on one's individual idiom, covers a network extending over 3000 kilometers, and was entirely electrified more than fifty years ago. Children travel free of charge, while dogs are required to pay the equivalent of a Second Class ticket.

     It was the late Nineteenth Century French poet, Jules Laforgue, who said Comme ils sont beaux les trains manqués: "How beautiful, the trains we miss..." Trains -passing, stopping, only to depart once more- provided the leitmotiv of the early years of Sandro Zendralli.

     The circumstances of the childhood of an artist are often overlooked in art historical chronologies. It is a time of life worthy of far more study than it customarily receives. It was the great Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi who once memorably answered the question, When did you make this sculpture? by saying: "All my work dates from age fifteen."

     Likewise, another sculptor, Henry Moore declared, "The work of the artist is all in the recapturing of the vividness of our first childhood impressions." The Dutch-American artist Claes Oldenburg recently said that his works done in adulthood were "all invented when I was a child."  
 
     Son of a station master, Sandro Zendralli passed his childhood in a workaday yet  metaphysical realm made up of the magic of arrivals and departures, the comings and goings of passengers and freight, foreign excursionists and somnulent commercial travellers, newly recruited soldiers and weekend boy scouts, religious pilgrims en route to some holy site and eager sports squadrons directed toward their next inter-regional play-off match, newly elected dignitaries and convicted detainees... the daily traffic of any provincial train station in any corner of the world.

     The local station, more than any other place in a small town, was still in this second half of the Twentieth Century, the undisputed communications center of civic life, the primary point of contact with the great world beyond. It was the locality of escape for every innocent adventurer and the place of return for every repentant prodigal son. The train station is also a locality where the dimensions of time and space intersect: train stations are philosphical spaces. The purpose of a traditional classical education, wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, is to assure that a traveller who must wait alone for several hours at a country railway station will be able to entertain himself.

     One gains the impression that Sandro Zendralli, unlike many other children, was at no time afflicted by the so often disappointed urge to run away from home, to flee, perhaps to join the circus or venture to some distant land or unknown exotic isle. Instead it would seem that he was content to observe, through the passing scene of slow seasons of boarding and descending, the metaphysical spectacle of displacements. In this way, as well as in others, he resembles the painter Giovanni Segantini who, as Vittorio Sgarbi has written, "did not feel the urge for evasion, the need to flee... to go out in search of a lost innocence."

     Sandro Zendralli was born on April 11, 1946. It can be said that he experienced one of the rarest gifts which the Gods bestow upon mortal man: a childhood whose skies were unclouded by either sturm or drang.

     Sandro Zendralli: "I can say I had a childhood that was very happy, very modest. I had parents who gave me an education that was very clear, disciplined but beautiful, because we were a very united family. Each and every sacrifice was equally shared among my brothers and myself. My father was station master and we often moved, because he would be reassigned from one town to another. In this way I was able to make a wide diversity of friends, see a diversity of landscapes since we were moving from place to place.

     "Femendriso, Claro, Faedo, Balerna... While we would be there I would be going to school in Lugano or then in Claro, so there was always this fact of moving from here to there and making new acquaintances in each locality along the way.

     "Because of the complicity of our strong family loyalty, no one in our entire family could permit himself to disappoint the others, to let them down, for example by being left back a year in school. Otherwise, it would have meant going out to look for a job. This is why all of us, my two brothers and I, always put our shoulders to the wheel and never were sent back, not even once. My brothers always came first in their class. My younger brother loved mathematics and already in the fourth grade was helping his teacher to correct the other pupils' exams.

     "My older brother was also a born mathematician, although he also had a great gift for foreign languages. I on the other hand had already been nicknamed The Artist by the entire family. At that age I was oriented to this predisposition and it gave me a great deal of joy. It took one form: drawing. In practical terms, my family put this idea into my head, in view of the fact that I had demonstrated little talent for mathematics, and because I had this slightly particular comportment that set me a bit apart from my brothers.

     "Looking back on it now, my childhood seems like a sort of beatific isolation. When the time came for me to attend high school, I said to myself: mathematics is never going to occupy center stage of whatever turns out to be my activity later in life. But then, to the surprise of everyone, this turned out not to be altogether true, and as time went by I came to receive the highest marks even in mathematics."

     "My childhood was not entirely taken up by the railroad. There was also the whole ambience attached to it that fascinated me: like the vegetable garden, for example, where you arrived when you came down from the station. It had chickens whose eggs one could gather, a completely rural situation. The trains certainly suggested a romantic feeling with all the people getting on or off, there was the sound of the locomotive's breaks and the departure that set free all that power of the locomotive in order to pull the train.

     "All those things, taken together, established a specific dimension. It was not just about the trains. I remember the accompanying sounds as something musical, with a certain regularity so that you knew when it started and when it ended, as opposed to some noise in a city that appears without warning as nothing more than an annoyance factor.   

     "The atmosphere was made up out of a set of things, like the sense of liberty together with technology, as well as the sacrifices and appreciation of simple things: the smell of herbs, oats... When we were in Claro, close by the station there was a barn, where you could go out into the fields and you would get on top of one of the wagons there that transported these massive amounts of hay, pulled by a horse that looked like some sort of moving monument.

     "The horse's incredible strength made it resemble nothing more than a steam locomotive. I sensed the fatigue of the horse. The farmers would load more hay on the wagon, and we kids on top were having great fun stomping it down while looking on the world from such a lofty prospect. We never made any trips, nor were there any skyscrapers to ascend in order to look down onto the world. Instead, we had the smell of the horse, and its digestive end-product, which is not a bad smell. On the contrary: the smell of horse manure greatly contributed to the appreciation of the whole scenery.

     "Another highlight were the railroad crossings: when the bells rang they announced the arrival of the train. The barriers would come down and open up again after the train had passed and peace had been restored.

     Raymond Villon Duchamp sculpted a monumental horse as an abstract machine, a locomotive.

     "I don't know why, but that horse in front of the hay wagon in its monumentality and the way it moves makes me think of de Chirico. This power... also the prospective to see it from above.

     "The world of trains has very specific rules: first the bells that announce it, the power, the breaks, the departure... These are moments that resemble the rules in life. The tracks go in parallel directions, they lead to horizons, the movements from town to town, like in a dream. The train as a means of transportation, but also of transport, of the wish to be brought to different places. Just as with ships. You can even think of pilgrims from Northern Europe who wanted to go from Paris maybe to Rome. Movements had a completely different rhythm: one had to change carriages while travelling on Roman roads. Today distances became shorter because of the acceleration in transport systems which changed the whole travel rhythm. Impressionism in painting arrived together with the train system.

     "I don't know what had an influence on me. I went to the movie theater like everyone else, but it wasn't that. Maybe it was the happiness of my childhood that allowed me to create ideas for my own sake, without bothering about too much else.

     "I did drawings mainly in black and white. I used colors only in school. Because I liked the ink. My father gave me very special pens that they used at the train station. No one else would have this type of pen which made me very proud at school. Today, instead, I broke into color, the ones that come from inside of me without any connection to my past, only the positive aspects come out. Though I always carry the memory of those very nice periods of my life, the capability of being able to live on little, and to adapt to any kind of situation.

     "We were living over the railway station where the trains come in and out. The periodical sound of the trains never bothered me. Car traffic, quite on the other hand, annoys me. The train appears like music, because you know when it starts and when it stops. But cars pass without schedule, which is more like a violence because it's an indiscriminated movement. The train on the other hand has its timetable and becomes almost like an alarm clock in the morning.

     "Here is a funny story: my father always got up very early in the morning, for example around four o'clock. My two brothers and I had to take the train to go to school, the same one that my father would signal to depart, holding a sort of palette up in the air, wearing his hat that looked like a captain's hat with its three stripes. One morning we had not heard the alarm clock and were late to school.

     "Preoccupied, my father called at home because usually we would drop by his office before leaving to have a little morning chat. This time he hadn't seen us, and the train had already arrived and was waiting on the track to continue on schedule. My school friends were already on board the train looking out the windows trying to figure out what was going on, while we three came running with the satchel and hopped on the train which my father then let go, with two or three minutes delay. Official rules strictly forbid the station master to hold trains for personal motives.

     "We played other foolish tricks: once we sewed very carefully three more stripes on my father's hat. His official cap as station master resembled that of a captain, with stripes going around it to announce his rank. So we added with needle and thread three extra stripes. This sort of thing, of course, we considered the height of hilarity. When he put on his cap, he hadn't even noticed what we had done. Only the station guard noticed, but didn't dare say anything. Peels of laughter on our part.

     "After the fifth grade in elementary school there was either high school or the gymnasium. High school was slightly less demanding. I had my sights set on the gymnasium. When I got there, again I put aside money from my allowance in order to buy a satchel. I somehow saved a vast sum in ten cent pieces, and with that I was able to buy the satchel. The owner of the shop still remembers to this day when I came in with my bundle of coins.

     "My mother had a very sunny open disposition, very expansive. She would cook, invite guests. The person who guided me was my father. My father was a very refined man, highly intelligent: at school he had always received the top marks, and had skipped a class.

     "Our school trips were limited to Canton Ticino; we didn't go farther than that. Visits to some historical town... but the big thing was someone sneaking cigarettes, and us attempting to smoke them. I got sick and didn't dare tell my mother and father. They never said a word about it."
          
     An adolescent roaming the corridors of bookshop or library in order to determine the author or authors with which he will set out on the great adventure of self-education resembles nothing more than an awkward giraffe testing his wobbly legs in the verdant savanna. Adolescents begin by devouring what comes first into their reach.

     Sandro Zendralli: "I read the philosopher Bertrand Russell. His book Why I am not a Christian. I wanted to liberate myself from the idea of religion to orient myself toward principles in which I myself believe, not those that come to be imposed by educators: school, family, society. I wanted to make my own way. I read Ivan Ilych, then practically all of the books of Herman Hesse, then a bit of Franz Kafka. I also read Sigmund Freud and superficially a bit of Carl Jung, but it is not that these are things that particularly captured my interest. Much later in life, La poétique de l'espace of Bachelard was to be an important book for me.

     "No one can educate a son according to what Freud says. What Freud thinks does not interest me, I'm interested in what I think, what I can give with complete spontaneity, and all my love. This is important. I prefer to read a book by Picasso or by a musician, because there are these parallelisms, these paragons, of that same epoch between the arts and also the sciences with their many discoveries.

     "Reading Herman Hesse I completely identified with him. I thought he was me. I found similarities in his way of thinking. In the first chapter of The Stations of Life he describes his childhood which was identical to mine. My favorite books are Siddharta, Stations of Life and Steppenwolf. He lived in Montagnola, in Canton Ticino, and it was here that he wrote these books. Hesse also was an avid painter. I would imagine him in his garden with his colors, painting and writing wonderful things at the same time. I read only a few authors, but those few I devoured... Kafka, Chekhov, the poetry of Jacques Prévert, short and intense, Ungaretti, a poet whose hermetic declarations are to be understood in a very wide manner. Behind those phrases you hear a sound of words and a meaning that are transmitted to those who understand him well.   

      "All the same, most of my free time was taken up with drawing. I drew everything in sight. Even to this day I remember the smell of the box which I was presented as a gift where I could keep all of my pencils, gouaches, brushes and pocket knife. My brothers and I were also given a box of paints, which my brothers used very little. These colors were still with me when I graduated to the Superiori. Throughout this simple existence, in view of the fact that my parents were able to permit themselves to open the doors of the world only up to a certain point, I did everything I could to get as much as I could out of school, to pick up the signals that were being transmitted.

     "One of these signals was Igor Stravinsky. Already the strangeness of this name was enough to arouse my curiosity. It was through an older school companion that I came to hear his music for the first time, and when I heard it I told myself that I wanted to possess a record of this composer of my own, in order to be able to listen to it whenever I wanted to. I put aside all my savings, even by going to school on foot until the great day arrived when I was able to buy the record and listen to it on the rudimentary phonograph player that my family possessed. I hauled it to my room and at last was able to enter into the rigorous structures of the great Russian composer."

     The steam locomotive had, in a century and a half, transformed not only the landscape which it traversed but also the society which it transported with a theretofore unimagined speed, and a testimony of this transformation is to be found in the paintings of William Turner in Great Britain and later in the canvases of the Impressionists from Pissaro to Monet, a theme that was  to haunt the dreams of the Surrealists from René Magritte to Paul Delvaux.

     The novel, and later the cinema, could not ignore this essential social innovation and eagerly took up the logistics of train travel as a sort of deus ex machina fundamental to new forms of narrative structure. The list would be far too long to enumerate here, since it would begin with Charles Dickens and extend to Thomas Hardy and Henry James, Georges Simenon, Louis Ferdinand Céline, Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Blaise Cendrars, without forgetting about Alfred Hitchcock in such masterpieces as The Lady Vanishes, North by Northwest, Strangers on a Train, and many others. Trains have played an essential role in the imagination of contemporary artists as well. The great David Smith had begun as a welder of locomotive boilers. Carl Andre once said:

     "I worked on the railroad in Pennsylvania... working on the railroad was my diploma in sculpture."

© 2014 SANDRO ZENDRALLI