Walking from Brussels Central Station to the National Bank of Belgium’s Temporary Museum, you can’t fail to notice round sculptures dotting the walls on both sides of the National Bank of Belgium’s head offices. Depicting a variety of occupations, these sculpted roundels are the work of Marcel Rau, the artist tasked with the decorative aspect of the new premises built after the Second World War. Architect Marcel van Goethem’s clean modern design demanded an absence of ostentation and Rau opted for medallion-shaped images reminiscent of the medieval guild medallions that signified guild membership. Rau added a modern touch by expanding the old crafts, such as weaver and saddle maker, with such ‘modern’ occupations as railway worker and photographer. These references to professional life were meant to impress on passers-by the National Bank’s strong commitment to the country’s economy.
A total of 56 architectural medallions made it to the sidewalls of the building, and their motifs are reprised in the mosaic floor of its foyer. In the process of creating the soapstone roundels Rau made plaster models, three of which are now exhibited in the first room of the museum. They display symbols representing the trader, the bee-keeper and the architect.
Symbols of trade and industry are also reprised in the aluminium statues Marcel Rau designed for the main entrance to the building: Mercury, the Roman god of commerce, Minerva, goddess of wisdom and sponsor of trade, and Vulcan, the god of fire and heavy industry. This was the first time that aluminium had been used for outdoor statues, underlining the modern character of the building.
Born in Brussels in 1886 and a former student of sculpture and architecture in the same city, Marcel Rau already had a considerable track record when he was commissioned to decorate the Bank’s new head offices. By the late 1920s he had created the exterior architectural decorations of the Université libre de Bruxelles buildings. His glittering career had taken off in 1909 when he was awarded the Rome Prize for Culture, a travel grant that enabled him to make art and architecture travels through Europe. In 1915 he was appointed art education inspector for architecture and the decorative arts, while at the same time landing numerous public and private commissions. After the First World War, he was commissioned to design several war memorials, in Halle, Vielsalm and Oostende among other locations. Perhaps his best known work is his 15-metre high statue of Belgium’s King Albert, created in 1939 as part of his ‘Exposition de l’Eau’ in Liege. Marcel Rau died in 1966.
Although he studied architecture and grew up in an environment peopled with architects – his father Jules Rau was a famous Belgian architect and Victor Horta was his godfather – Marcel Rau chose not to build his career in that profession, even though he continued to have close ties with the world of architecture. One of his architect friends was Marcel van Goethem, with whom he was to work on the National Bank of Belgium’s new head offices.
Rau was not just a sculptor; he also designed numerous coins and medals, and has ten types of coin to his name. His best known was the Belgian copper 50 centimes coin dated 1952, which featured a miner’s head. The subject was a given and Rau was competing with another engraver, Armand Bonnetain, but landed the commission. When the coin was first issued, speculation was rife as to whose head was on it. Many assumed Rau had been inspired by Gustave Pierre’s drawing of miner Louis Delplancq, and Delplancq himself soon bought into the idea. Those close to Marcel Rau disagreed and said he had taken his inspiration from Donatello and Constantin Meunier.
What is more, Marcel Rau was the only person to ever put King Leopold III on Belgian money, as the so-called Royal Question stopped that monarch’s image from ever appearing on any notes. While there were plans to picture the king on notes, the political fracas around his person prevented them from being put into circulation, but his image is found on a series of coins from the 1930s, a design by Rau.
The monetary theme, then, found several expressions in Marcel Rau’s versatile career: in his coin designs as well as his artwork decorating the head offices of the issuer of Belgium’s notes and coins, the National Bank of Belgium.
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