When Brussels began construction of its subway system in 1969, it set aside 2% of the large construction budget for art—especially-commissioned, contemporary art that would adorn and “elevate” the majority of stations in the system. A far-sighted and forceful connoisseur, Emile Langui, then succeeded in persuading the public authorities to permit the art world alone to select the creators of the works that would go into the walls or ceilings of underground stations. An autonomous commission, composed of persons so eminent that they would be free from all outside pressures, was established to make the selections. Artists, it was agreed, would be chosen solely by reputation among their peers, regardless of their politics. And once chosen, they would be given carte blanche. Working from the very outset with the engineers and architects who were planning the form and shape of each station, these top Belgian artists—ranging from the world-famous Paul Delvaux to the newest enfant terrible operating out of a shabby garret studio near the Gare du Midi—proceeded to create either murals (often on acrylic-treated metals) or sculptures or bas-reliefs that have given a sense of tingling aliveness to the tasteful and uncluttered subway stations of Brussels.

Stations (and artworks) we think are worth a visit include:

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  • Station Bourse near the Grand-Place: “Nos Vieux Trams Bruxellois” (Our Old Brussels Trams), in oil, on panels, by the eminent Paul Delvaux (a night scene of bygone Brussels streetcars, but with atypically-clothed females alongside, and thus lacking the subconscious eroticism and terror of most Delvaux); and “Moving Ceiling,” a cascade of stainless steel cylinders (some fixed, some mobile) falling from the roof, by the sarcastic Belgian artist, Pol Bury.
  • Station Botanique: “Les Voyageurs” (the travellers) by Pierre Caille (21 funny, wooden cutouts between panes of glass, of anxious commuters); “Tramification Fluide” (Smooth Tramways) by Emile Souply (giant, clustered clothes hangers in brilliant colors against white, a stunning image); and “The Last Migration” by Jean-Pierre Ghysels (a highly abstract flight of birds, in oxidized copper, meant to signify the antithesis of the unnatural, sun-excluding, closed life of the subway).
  • Station Hankar: “Notre Temps” by Roger Somville, a 500-square-yard acrylic acryllic painting on concrete requiring two years to complete, of the violent movement and march of humanity for social justice, including a caricature of the Chilean dictator Pinochet, all in frenzied streaks and daubs of red and yellow flame-colors that spread across the right angles of the station and visually eliminate those angles.
  • Station Merode: “Vive la Sociale” an oil mural by the exciting Roger Raveel of faceless humans in a social setting, next to an Adam and Eve copied from the Van Eycks’ “Holy Lamb” in Ghent.
  • Station Montgomery: “Thema’s” by famous Pol Mara, four pop-art collages devoted to sheer sensuality.
      STIB, which runs Brussels’s public-transport system, has put together a leaflet on the underground art galleries; download it at www.stib-mivb.be.