Flanders’ faded advertising murals show history of consumerism

Summary

There are hundreds of old adverts painted on walls across Flanders, some of great aesthetic or historical value, and some a little the worse for wear

If the walls could talk

Billboards rarely contribute to a nicer streetscape. At best, they’re not generally aesthetically pleasing, but all too often they’re downright annoying, all these consumer messages crying out for attention. So street advertising isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions heritage.

But for those who pay attention, Flanders is home to a smattering of ancient murals that advertise long-forgotten brands. One of them is  “Olijfje” on Stationstraat in Londerzeel, Flemish Brabant.

The letters are faded but still legible. “Kook elektrisch”, it reads, or “Cook electric”. The figure, who bears a strong resemblance to the character of Olive Oyl from the Popeye cartoons, points to an old model of an electric stove. You can just about make out the symbol “ENB”.

After some research, it turned out that the acronym stood for Electricity North Belgium, one of the first power companies. “This painted advertising aimed to encourage people to use more electricity,” explains Edwin Deschepper, one of the people behind DeMurenSpreken (The Walls Speak), an organisation dedicated to the preservation and restoration of old advertising murals.

“At that time, connection to the electricity network wasn’t common in Londerzeel, and electricity was mainly used in agriculture for machinery,” he says. “The message encouraged households to switch to electricity, and ENB hoped to sell more electric power. It was actually the beginning of an evolution that continues to this day, to make everything at home run on electricity.”

The rise of consumerism

Olijfje’s old age is also apparent from another detail. Below the mural, the telephone number of the company that commissioned the image can be read. It has only three digits, meaning the mural must be older than 1939, when the system of three digits was extended to five.

Ultimately the advert’s age was determined thanks to the testimony of Suzan Vissers, whose grandfather, Jan Stroobants, painted the mural in 1938. He also painted a second advert elsewhere in the village, but that one is as good as gone.

You can easily walk by such ghost murals, but when you start to pay attention, you see them everywhere

- Edwin Deschepper

DeMurenSpreken began a campaign to restore Olijfje, and via the former Radio 1 programme Peeters en Pichal and the newspaper De Morgen, they launched an appeal for the public’s help in identifying these ancient murals. “Today we have an inventory of hundreds of advertising murals in Flanders,” says Deschepper. “Of these, there are a dozen that have great aesthetic or historical value. They tell us something about the rise of consumer society.”

But it’s not going well for the murals, he says. “There are still some left, but they’re mostly in a bad state. Usually, only a vague print of the original remains visible. You can easily walk by such ghost murals; but when you start to pay attention, you see them everywhere. Unfortunately,  they’re disappearing quickly.”

Often such adverts were painted on the sides of buildings, meaning that if another building or extra insulation, for example, is built against that wall, the mural is lost. A number of houses with such paintings have been demolished in recent years, and the old paintings are sensitive to the weather, too.

Down the street from Ghent’s Sint-Pieters train station is one of the finest examples of advertising murals in Flanders. On Prinses Clementinalaan, next to the information centre for the station’s massive renovation, is a mural advertising Marouf cigarettes that dates from 1920 and is painted in typical Art Deco style. And in Vilvoorde, another has survived the years, advertising Minerva cars – known as the Belgian Rolls-Royce.

“Our campaign has  brought these advertising murals to the attention of the heritage sector and the government,” says Deschepper. “Some of them are now protected, such as Olijfje and the mural at Ghent’s station.”

But protection status does not mean restoration, he points out, “which is why we are working on local support from citizens to restore these paintings. Apart from their historical or aesthetic value, they are important as an anchor point in a village or a city.”