by Arjan den Boer
In December 1945 the first post-war international train ran from Amsterdam to Brussels, equipped with luxury Pullman carriages. Because the German-destroyed Moerdijk bridge was not yet restored, the train made a detour through Nijmegen. The journey took a remarkable eight hours — twice the normal travel time.
Designer Fedde Weidema created a poster for the Pullman train. It was the first of a series of posters commissioned by the Dutch Railways.
A Frisian printer's son, Fedde Weidema attended art schools in Arnhem, Utrecht and Paris. He became a graphic designer and surrealist painter. Best-known were his illustration to 'The Eighteen Dead' and the logo of De Bezige Bij publishers. After the war Weidema played an important role in the cultural life of the city of Utrecht.
The return of the Pullman cars in late 1945 had a symbolic meaning: the restoration of pre-war luxury. In the 1930s, these carriages were used in the Étoile du Nord between Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris and were characterised by luxury upholstery and great comfort.
First-class passengers were seated in club chairs at double tables and were served lunch.
The second class was furnished with fixed benches and four-person tables, and a voiture restaurant. There was no third class.
On the mainland, the carriages of the British Pullman Car Company were operated by Wagons-Lits, known for the international sleeper trains such as the Orient Express. The term Pullman became a synonym for luxury and comfort.
The Étoile du Nord is also known from the 1927 poster by A.M. Cassandre (1901-1968).
Cassandre had great influence on the work of Fedde Weidema, who became acquainted with Cassandre's work at Galerie Nord, the art gallery of Weidema's mentor Willy Wagenaar in Utrecht. The gallery was named after the Nord Express, for which Cassandre had designed a similar poster.
In 1937 Weidema met Cassandre in Paris.
The well-to-do clientele of the Étoile du Nord probably was not used to putting their feet up on the table. But some could apparently afford to: Dutch soccer player Kick Smit (1911-1974) on the way back from a victory in Paris in 1936.
The Étoile du Nord was one of the most luxurious trains ever running in the Netherlands.
In the interwar period it was part of a network of legendary Pullman trains like the Flèche d'Or (London-Paris), l'Oiseau Blue (Antwerp-Paris) and the Edelweiss (Amsterdam-Basel). Further south the Côte d’Azur Express ran.
When the Netherlands were occupied in May 1940, all international rail traffic was suspended. The domestic trains continued to run until the railway strike of 1944, which lasted seven months.
When the country was liberated in May 1945 there proved to be extensive damage to tracks, bridges, stations and trains as a result of neglect, destruction and bombing. Dutch Railways estimated the total damage at 500 million guilders. It took some time before railway traffic was fully resumed.
In December 1945 the first trains to Brussels had to make a detour through Nijmegen and Den Bosch. During the journey, war damage was still visible as the railway stations were badly damaged by bombing. They were provisionally restored and replaced a few years later by new stations designed by architect Sybold van Ravesteyn.
During the war the surrealist in Fedde Weidema awakened. He started creating dreamy, ominous paintings under the influence of Joop Moesman, Willy Wagenaar and other surrealists he had met in Utrecht in the interwar period.
In 1943 Fedde Weidema met chemistry student Geert Lubberhuizen, who was active in the resistance and wanted to publish the work of banned authors. He asked Weidema to make — under a pseudonym — an illustration to the poem The Eighteen Dead by resistance hero Jan Campert.
The success of this broadside poem gave rise to the underground publishing house De Bezige Bij, for which Weidema designed the logo, and also posters later on.
In 1942 Weidema was given his first commission from the Dutch Railways: two murals in the Utrecht Central railway station restaurant. Stylistically they stand midway between his surrealist and graphic art. Ironically, the murals were destroyed during Allied bombardments in 1944.
On Sunday December 2, 1945 the festive first ride from Brussels to Amsterdam took place. On board were the directors of the Dutch and Belgian Railways, Wagons-Lits, and members of the cabinet from both countries.
The locomotive, decorated with green wreaths and Belgian and Dutch flags, was from the brand-new 4700 series.
It was ordered in Sweden in 1943 despite the war, and delivered shortly after the liberation.
The next day the first train left for Brussels. This ride also had a festive touch: at lunch wine was served from an old Wagons-Lits wine collection, which had been kept hidden in the Amsterdam station building during the war.
Pullman cars departed from Amsterdam until the late 1960s. In November 2010, the Pullmans returned when the Venice-Simplon Orient Express visited Amsterdam. This expensive retro-train consists of restored carriages from the 1920s and 30s, including a Pullman car with kitchen from the Étoile du Nord.
It was typical of post-war reconstruction in the Netherlands: the contrast between the half-ruined station building - riddled with bullets, the waiting room dismal and ragged with a hole in the mirror... versus the lush interior of the Pullman with its armchairs and paneling and all comforts.
Dutch newspaper De Tijd, December 4, 1945
Weidema depicted no carriages on his Pullman poster, but familiar attributes: a coffee cup with the Wagons-Lits logo, a silver pitcher and a table lamp. The same lamp and the window contour can be seen on a 1927 poster for the Étoile du Nord, with the Dutch landscape in the background. Weidema reworked this into a contemporary version without any people in it. The landscape was reduced to a cloudy sky.
Weidema was explicitly asked to depict the cold-cut sandwiches. They were meant to represent abundance after the war shortages, but look rather scanty compared to the pre-war multi-course lunches.
The Pullman train had to make a detour of 80 kilometers because of the devastated railway bridge over the Hollands Diep, the principal North-South connection. The Moerdijk bridge was destroyed in 1944 by the Germans to stop the Allied forces. It wasn't until May 1946 that the first train could cross it again.
In August 1946 Prince Bernhard performed the official re-inauguration. The bridge was decorated with Dutch, Belgian and French flags along with the coats of arms of Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris: the Pullman train could now resume its old route to Paris as Étoile du Nord. Luxury trains under that name continued to connect Amsterdam with Paris until the arrival of the Thalys high speed train.
From Dutch newspaper Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad, September 5, 1946
read by Philip Freriks (Dutch)
Since a couple of days now, an old acquaintance, who has been absent for some years, calls at the Rotterdam Delftsche Poort station four times a day.
A racehorse of noble blood, yet still head and shoulders above all the beautiful new material of streamlined Diesel-electric trains, which we were already spoiled with before the war, and which now have reappeared, almost in the old shining glory of yesteryear.
A noble train it is, the Pullman with its massive harmonica cars, blue and cream colours, its luxurious furnishings that create a warm atmosphere, its pink shaded lamps which resemble a garland of flowers when the train dashes along the minor stations in the evening, drawn by a snorting, sturdy Jumbo, as noble as the carriages which it rushes from Paris Nord to Amsterdam since the Moerdijk bridge recently restored the direct North-South connection.
The Pullman rides again was the first of a series of posters Fedde Weidema created on the instructions of the Nederlandse Spoorwegen (Dutch Railways) and subsidiaries.
The collaboration continued into the 1970s. In the same period Weidema also worked for the Jaarbeurs Utrecht Fair and various cultural institutions.
After years of working as a designer, Weidema took up the paintbrush again in the 1970s. But his surrealist paintings were not as successful as his illustrations and posters.
In 1982, the Centraal Museum in Utrecht organized a retrospective exhibition of his paintings, drawings and posters. Weidema designed the exhibition poster and catalog himself. By then, his graphic style had changed radically under the influence of modernist designers such as Wim Crouwel.
Railway Posters by Fedde Weidema
With special thanks to Udo Boersma (Van Sabben Poster Auctions) and Philip Freriks.
Behrend, George Luxury Trains. From the Orient Express to the TGV. New York 1982
Juffermans, Jan, Magisch Utrecht. Beeldende kunst in de Domstad in de 20e eeuw. Utrecht 2010
Meyere, Jos de e.a., Fedde Weidema, schilderijen/tekeningen/affiches. Tentoonstellingscatalogus Centraal Museum, Utrecht 1982
Veenendaal, Guus Spoorwegen in Nederland van 1834 tot nu (hoofdstuk 20: De NS in de oorlogsjaren). Amsterdam 2008
Photo collection National Archives of the Netherlands
Image collection Utrecht Archives