The Europalia arts festival highlights the phenomenon of ‘train’ in all its aspects. The poster exhibition in the Center de la Gravure shows that the NMBS did not shy away from daring graphics.

Two posters by Cassandre, in strong white, blue and red, leave you wanting more. The NMBS and other railways have often worked with great graphic artists and artists, the exhibition shows Lines & tracks in het Center de la Gravure in La Louvière.

Cassandre, aka Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron, is just one of them. He embodies the era of international mobility that the trains ushered in barely two centuries ago: born in Ukraine to French parents, studied in Paris, worked in New York, back in Europe just in time to be mobilized for World War II. You may not know his name, but you will recognize his poster for Dubonnet immediately. He also designed the two logos of Yves Saint Laurent. And posters for fast boats and trains, that is.

New speed

The exhibition features 150 posters on two floors. They tell about a technological revolution that has already changed its face a few times. There are not even any posters left of the first 25 years of the Belgian railways. They were communiqués about new trajectories, aimed at the business world.

A poster from 1895 promises Belgian farmers that dairy products, vegetables or flowers delivered to Ostend before noon will be on London markets before four o’clock the next morning. This new speed is also attractive to passengers, who are starting to travel for pleasure. The world exhibitions give tourism a major boost.

This results in beautiful posters in Belle Époque or Art Nouveau style, with beautiful girls in bathing suits or elegant dresses promoting the delights of the Belgian coast or a water cure in Spa. They were often by the painter Armand Massonet, whose two sketches can be seen in the exhibition next to the final poster. Striking: the swimsuit of one model has disappeared in the finished version.

After the Second World War, freight transport grew explosively: designers resorted to the language of comics to emphasize its speed and versatility. Those were the years when standard-sized containers were developed and international shipments came within the reach of private individuals – ‘a chest to Congo is accepted at all stations!’ insures a poster. But rail increasingly had to compete with the car for passenger transport. You can see this in posters for night trains and car trains to exotic or snowy places, in pop art colors and strong lines.

Own face

They are pieces of zeitgeist with a face of their own that the posters with photos often lack. Gradually, the image is formed of a company that has already followed trends in its communication – in the 1960s the NMBS tried to lure Tati-like businessmen to the train, not the growing group of young people and women who were traveled by train. After the oil crisis of 1973, it took until the 1980s for the train to be featured in campaigns as an environmentally friendly alternative.

And that while the company really kept up with all trends and worked with well-known designers or artists – there is also a Henri Evenepoel poster at the expo. The boldest commission dates from 1989: the artists Corneille, Pierre Alechinsky, Gerard Fromanger, Edouardo Arroyo and Antonio Segui each created a work of art in their personal style, with no more than a tiny Wagons Lits logo. The marketing department would not have been happy with that, but those five contemporary works of art are one of the nice surprises in this exhibition.

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