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Illustration of the Orient Express (courtesy Institut du Monde Arabe)

PARIS — In forming an exhibition on the Orient Express, the railroad line most steeped in myth, it was wise to bring in the body of the train itself. The habeas corpus of this hefty train, its 60-ton weight requiring a reinforcement of the pavement outside the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, offers a reality to a history as much wrapped up in fiction and fact.

View to the Institut du Monde Arabe from the Orient Express (photograph by the author)

That isn’t just with Agatha Christie’s murder mystery or Graham Greene’s tale. There was always a heavy amount of mythology from its beginning in 1883. The east of the line that went to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and later Cairo and Baghdad was idealized and romanticized by the west in Paris and Vienna. Travel posters showed gleaming ruins and exalted the exotic in primary colors. And the Orient Express leaving from Paris was the most glamorous way to get there.

Il était une fois l’Orient Express (“Once Upon a Time on the Orient Express”) opened in April with three restored cars of the train, as well as an exhibition of artifacts and art at the Institut du Monde Arabe. Curated by Claude Mollard, it’s a collaboration with the SNCF train company, which is planning to relaunch the Orient Express line in stages over the next five years. In this way it’s a curious mix of history as pr, as the exhibition both emphasizes strongly the luxury of traveling on the line, and the cultural complications that in many ways endure.

Orient Express ticket station (photograph by the author)

You start your journey at a facsimile train station, where you get a train ticket to board the three cars installed in front of the museum. There is a fourth which is hosting a pricey pop-up restaurant from chef Yannick Alléno, as well as a 1922 locomotive that periodically lets out a “chooo – choooo” from its metal body. Inside the cars, including the Flèche d’Or from 1929, the sleeper car from 1949, and the Train Bleu from 1929, is art nouveau splendor and little theatrical scenes representing different figures associated with the train, from entertainer Josephine Baker to novelist Pierre Loti to courtesan-spy Mata Hari.

It’s all very cinematic, and even has a bit of comedy; you end with the stage set for Hercule Poirot to solve the murder from Agatha Christie’s novel. But it is stunning, from the mahogany walls to the crystal details of beautiful ladies by René Lalique. You can’t help but want to make the journey.

Waiting to board (photograph by the author)

The Train Bleu car (courtesy Institut du Monde Arabe)

Flèche d’Or train car (courtesy Institut du Monde Arabe)

Detail of the Flèche d’Or car (photograph by the author)

Inside the museum, the exhibition is less thrilling with artifacts from the train, travel posters, and a video surrounding the space with archive footage of its travel stops. What it’s missing are details from the other side of the journey. It did, after all, make return trips, but there are no examples of things like travel posters advertising Paris to Istanbul, or voices from locals on the impact of having all these rich outsiders suddenly turning up on a timetable basis. It also doesn’t discuss much the fading of the train’s popularity in 1945, which cut off Istanbul service in 1977 and ended completely in 2009.

SNCF seems intent on keeping this luxury heritage alive, however, having purchased the vintage cars in 2010 from Christie’s, and now this initiative to return the line. But there’s a lack of acknowledgement that this is also resurrecting a relic of colonialism and its orientalist elite, even as it did connect countries previously difficult to cross with an enviable travel prestige.

Pierre Loti’s place (photograph by the author)

Hercule Poirot’s place on the train (photograph by the author)

Orient Express at the Institut du Monde Arabe (photograph by the author)

Il était une fois l’Orient Express continues at the Institut du Monde Arabe (1 Rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard, 5th Arrondissement, Paris) through August 31. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...