Published: April 10, 2012
Long before the wonders of the world and distant lands were but a click away via a computer or television, world’s fairs brought the world to people with exhibits featuring innovations in design, materials and technologies, showing the promise of a brighter tomorrow and in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, what the world could †and would †be.
“Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851‱939” breaks ground with a breathtaking and in-depth survey of about 200 best-of-the-best decorative objects seen at world’s fairs. While the exhibit is not a march through the history of such events, nearly every major fair from 1851 through 1939 is represented. Focusing not on fair ephemera or souvenirs but on decorative arts, this exhibit of luxury objects is pure eye candy.
Many objects are being seen in the United States for the first time. Due to the impermanence of the world’s fairs, their decorative arts are sometimes the only surviving objects. Decorative arts, especially objects made of ceramic, metal, glass and wood, were physical expressions of the progressive ideals espoused by the fairs.
Aided by a generous research grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the exhibition is on view through August 19 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Co-curators are Catherine L. Futter, the Helen Jane and Hugh “Pat” Uhlmann curator of decorative arts at the Nelson-Atkins, and Jason T. Busch, curatorial chair for collections and the Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman curator of decorative arts and design at Carnegie Museum of Art .
“Attending a world’s fair was like seeing the whole world in one place,” says Futter. “To me, it is where manufacturers really showed the top of the line, they really pulled out all the stops to show what they could produce, whether it was the most innovative materials or most forward-thinking processes, and they always made them in the most dynamic, showstopping way.”
Owing to the Nelson-Atkins’ contiguous exhibition space, the exhibition here is organized chronologically by period groupings around set themes such as Nationalism, Historicism, Cross-culturalism and Technology, but as many objects in the fairs fit into several of these themes, the thematic areas are not highly defined and the period groupings blend and flow into one another.
Representing the apex of artistic and technical ingenuity, the exhibition highlights pieces made by renowned international artists and manufacturers, ranging from a monumental 1850s Gothic Revival cabinet to a 1930s streamlined Art Deco glass chair, to masterworks of jewelry and objects in glass, silver, and porcelain by artisans and designers such as Baccarat, Tiffany, Cartier and Sevres.
“It’s not because they are only beautiful that they are here. It’s because at that particular moment when they were premiered at a world’s fair, it was the highest achievement a nation could do, an artisan could do, an artist could achieve,” said Julián Zugazagoitia, director and chief executive officer of the Nelson-Atkins.
The exhibition boasts a handful of vases, all unique, luxurious and marvels of technology. Tiffany’s Conglomerate vase created a commotion at the 1878 Paris Exposition, amazing fair visitors with its fusion of Asian-inspired design that blended Chinese form with cutting-edge Japanese metalworking techniques.
A pair of Elkington & Co. (England) enameled and gilded brass vases, circa 1875, made for the Philadelphia Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 also embodies cross-culturalism. The influence of Japanese art on Western goods was very strong in the late Nineteenth Century after Japan ended a nearly two-centuries-long, self-imposed isolation. Asian art caused a stir in London in 1862 and in Paris in 1867. As seen in the Elkington vases, Western designers emulated Eastern techniques, creating a look similar to cloisonné.
A Japanese vase created for the same fair by Fukagawa Yeizaemon (1833‱889) of glazed and enameled porcelain appears at first glance to be very Eastern with depictions of two samurai fighting in a plum garden, but on closer inspection, Futter says, the vivid hues of purples and pinks could only be achieved by the advent of German glaze technology. “Something like that is fascinating to me, that a vase could be loaded with so many stories about style, nationalism and technology and the fact that it’s not Asian taste ut the Japanese interpreting European taste,” Futter says.
Similarly, Belgian designer Raymond Ruys, working for Delheid Frères, created the stunning Zaire centerpiece bowl for the Exposition Internationale Coloniale, Maritime et d’Art Flamand in Antwerp, Belgium, 1930. Ruys adapted African form and styling to make a simple yet striking design in silver, using as inspiration traditional Congolese works, blending their solid forms with the clean lines of Deco styling.
Embodying nationalism, which was a key component of world’s fairs as countries would vie against each other, the Tennyson vase was a powerful symbol of Britain’s national spirit. Silversmith-turned-sculptor Henry Hugh Armstead (1828‱905) designed this vase for C.F. Hancock & Sons in London in 1867 to celebrate Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poems about the life of King Arthur, moralizing that English citizens must struggle to stay morally straight. The vase was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1867, and the Weltausstellung 1873 in Vienna, a fair espousing culture and education.
Other triumphs of nationalism were Tiffany’s Viking punch bowl, using Nordic motifs to celebrate long-ago American ties to Norway, made by G. Paulding Farnham for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago; and Gerhard Munthe’s tapestry design, the “Daughters of the Northern Lights,” inspired by Norwegian folklore. A model of the tapestry was shown at the Louisiana Purchase International Exposition in St Louis in 1904.
Among the items that embody several of the exhibition’s themes is Gilbert Rohde’s Z clock, exhibited at Chicago’s A Century of Progress International Exposition of 1933″4 and which is noteworthy both for its technical innovation as well as its dynamic use of new materials. Replacing traditional “brown wood” clock cases, Rohde used a strong diagonal bar, hence the Z name, that echoed simplicity and lowered production costs. The 1933 design in glass, enamel and chromium-plated steel was emblematic of the Art Deco period and the move toward streamlining.
While most of the items in the exhibition are small, several pieces of furniture grace the exhibit, including the Centripetal Spring Chair designed by Thomas E. Warren for the American Chair Company and shown at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, London, 1851. Consisting of a cast iron spring and an upholstered seat that swiveled, the chair allowed for better comfort and mobility.
A furniture standout is the monumental bookcase that Gustave Herter and Ernst Plassmann teamed up to create for the first world’s fair conducted in the United States †the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York in 1853. Created in the Gothic style popularized by libraries, the 134½-by-118¾-by-30¼-inch piece was decorated with elaborate spires, arches, buttresses and figures dressed in medieval style.
Jewelry highlights in the exhibition include a René Jules Lalique brooch, circa 1903, in gold, glass, enamel and sapphire, measuring 3¼ by 5¼ inches and exhibited at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, and a corsage ornament by Tiffany & Co., known for its use of American stones, such as the Montana sapphires in this striking piece that was shown at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900 and acquired by Henry Walters in 1904.
Three decades later, Walters founded the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Md., and his penchant for collecting items at world’s fairs set him apart from most other American museums and collectors then. Several American museums, such as the Nelson-Atkins, the Carnegie and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, now have a burgeoning collection of world’s fairs objects, but Futter notes that most were acquired in recent decades rather than from period collecting.
Quite apropos, this exhibit on world’s fairs was sourced from around the world. After several trips to Europe in 2009 to visit museum collections, Futter and Busch winnowed down a list of thousands of objects, and each object “had to fight for its place in the exhibit,” passing a litmus test to determine if the object was truly innovative.
“The exhibition checklist comprises decorative arts unattainable as a group in any one museum in the world,” says Busch. “Objects were selected according to themes that resonate throughout ‘Inventing the Modern World,’ including technique, cross-cultural influence and nationalistic inspiration, all of which shaped the competition inherent to the fairs.”
A full-color catalog, written by international scholars of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century decorative arts and co-published by Skira Rizzoli, accompanies the exhibition. The book is available from the publisher at www.rizzolitusa.com for $75.
The exhibition will travel to the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, on view from October 13 through February 24, 2013. Other venues where it will be seen include the New Orleans Museum of Art from April 14 through August 4, 2013, and the Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C., September 21, 2013, to January 19, 2014.
The Nelson-Atkins is at 45th and Oak Streets. For information, 816-751-1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org .
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