National monuments are subjects of legends. Besides being the setting of where documented history have taken place, their spaces have also inhabited notable figures whose influence, whether positive or negative, is responsible for shaping the world we live in today. Though, even despite their cultural significance, few would regard them as a tour de force in popular culture, with the exception of the few, including the Orient Express; the 158-year-old locomotive and its luxury train carriages. Immortalised over several decades in literature and on the silver screen, the iconic 19th-century train — conceived in 1883 by Belgian industrialist Georges Nagelmackers — revolutionised the art of travelling in a world absent of commercial planes.
From left to right: The Orient Express’ iconic Oeil de Boeuf des Voitures Pullman glass window features an iconic Art Deco design that allows for discreet ventilation; A lounge table setting recreated to mirror the lavish lifestyle of its guests onboard.
Running from capital cities in Europe to as far as Baghdad, Cairo and Tripoli in Central Asia, its ambitious journey marked unprecedented accessibility for the wealthy to travel to captivating locales worlds away from all they find familiar, within the span of days and signalled the dawn of a new age in modernisation. However, even greater than its expansive route, is the splendour of its lavish carriage interiors and accompanying services, where guests are treated to all manners of finery while onboard.
From left to right: An artefact of a commercial poster by the Orient Express promoting trips to Constantinople, Israel from capital cities in Europe; An intricate floral marquetry design decorating the interiors of the luxury train carriages.
This rarified world and its glamour has over the years served as a catalyst for intrigue in the realm of fictional thrillers, most notably by author Agatha Christie in her book “Murder On The Orient Express,” in which the storyline takes inspiration from real events that transpired during the train’s numerous travels. Now, in an exhibition titled “Once Upon a Time On The Orient Express,” launched this month at Gardens By The Bay, featuring a centrepiece that is the actual Orient Express’ carriage itself, guests are able to board the train themselves, albeit stationed in place, and study the wealth of its legendary archives up close in detail.
From left to right: An antique travel wardrobe typical of the time of the Orient Express’ wealthy guests; A recreated scene of the discovery of antagonist John Cassetti’s corpse in Agatha Christie’s renowned tome Murder on The Orient Express.
In a press statement, general commissioner and curator of the exhibition Claude Mollard says, “[With] countless partners from France and abroad, including loaners of exceptional pieces, and the Youth Association for the Maintenance and Preservation of Old Trains (AJECTA) teams who restored and sent two Pullman cars, as well as, a 158-year old locomotive to Singapore, were called upon [to make this exhibition possible]. Presenting lifestyle and travel masterpieces that once embodied modern times, it is also a multi-disciplinary project designed for all audiences, encompassing in situ display of cars and the locomotive, exploration of little-known aspects of the Arab world, history of East-West relations, inspirations for exciting thrillers, underrated artistic encounters, and so much more.”
Monsieur Claude Mollard is a highly prominent art administrator, academic, artist and public intellectual who has held the position of a consultant in cultural engineering as well as Special Advisor to Jack Lang, President of Arab World Institute (IWA) since 2010.
He continues, “The Orient Express also evokes an air of nostalgia with the incorporation of the Art Deco architecture reminiscent of the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station that once connected Singapore and Malaysia in 1923.”
The exhibition is housed within a show-space with an exterior rendered to resemble Paris’ iconic Gare du Nord terminal, and includes a pop-up cafe for casual dining. Additionally, a fine dining establishment designed to resemble the Orient Express’s own dining carriage in its prime is also launched in collaboration with three Michelin star chef Yannick Alleno for the duration of the exhibition showcase. Its carefully curated menu is crafted to highlight the fullest flavours of local seasonal ingredients with the use of high gastronomy concepts, and will be plated to mirror the legendary meals of the bygone era.
The carriage, decorated by René Lalique, where high profile figures including politicians, movie stars and writers would meet.
In an exclusive interview with T Singapore, Claude Mollard offers a deeper insight into this exhibition and how it came to fruition despite the odds.
T Singapore (T): Why was Singapore chosen as the first destination to showcase the Orient Express outside of France?
Claude Mollard (CM): Back in 2015 when the president of the Arab World Institute (IMA) Jack Lang was a guest in Singapore, he had the opportunity to discuss the idea with then Minister of Culture, Community and Youth, Mr Lawrence Wong. From there, the idea grew thanks to [founder and director of the exhibition] Lydie Blandeau’s energy and commitment who initiated to be the representative of the IMA in Singapore. Many parties were involved such as Guillaume Pepy, President of Orient Express Heritage and former President of the SNCF group, who raised the visionary idea for the exhibition in 2014. Guillaume de Saint Lager, Vice President and Executive Director of the Orient Express, and their teams, as well as members of the IMA who recreated the 2014 exhibition while updating it in 2 months, all made this fabulous exhibition possible.
T: What was the biggest challenge for you when it comes to curating this exhibition, besides transporting the Orient Express to Singapore?
CM: The transport of the Orient Express to Singapore was a real saga itself. But the biggest challenge was to take care of the art pieces during the lockdown and assuring the [private] collectors who had accepted to lend several objects of their possession. Then it was to transport this biggest historic monument over 10,000km to Singapore.
An archival image of boarding platform at the Orient Express that will be replicated at the exhibition.
T: What are you personally most looking forward to in this Orient Express exhibition?
CM: This exhibition contributes to the continuation of the history of the Orient Express in its most beautiful way. During the 19th century, the train constituted as the main bound between the East and the West. I think it is a great statement to set up an international project at a time where borders are closed. It offers to the Singapore citizens the opportunity to witness what [everyone] can share in times of peace, no matter what difficulties the world is facing.
T: Share with us one of the most interesting facts about the Orient Express that is not known to many.
CM: For the inauguration in June 1883, Nagelmackers invited many journalists and writers to describe this spectacular event. In fact, it was [arguably] the first-ever press trip [known in the world] providing coverage on the daily newspapers and reviews.
T: Having captivated the world of film and popular culture over many years, why do you think the Orient Express continues to draw so much appeal with global audiences even in modern times today?
CM: The Orient Express appeals to a fantasy of dreams and the mystery of the epic characters who travelled through the mythical train. For example, “From Russia with Love” starring James Bond; Murder on the Orient Express from author Agatha Christie; but also World War II-era spies [such as] Mata Hari and Joséphine Baker. The politics, the arts, but also the cultures have crossed paths. It seems like great minds and destinies have left their trace in the Art Deco decors and the train itself. It carries with it a whole mythology worthy to witness for its innate grandeur.
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