RIHA Journal 0300 | 31 May 2024

Gesamtkunstwerk World’s Fair. Revisioning International Exhibitions

Introduction to the RIHA Journal Special Issue

Eds. Buket Altinoba, Alexandra Karentzos and Miriam Oesterreich

From their beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century, the world’s fairs sought to generate a synthesized body of knowledge about the world by gathering an encyclopedic and didactic collection of objects from a wide array of fields: technology, machinery, handicrafts, the visual arts, performance, and ethnography – knowledge made visible and experienced through artifacts sourced from all over the world. This expanded visual experience can also be understood as one that interprets the gaze as a catalyst for a multi-sensory perception and categorization of material culture, of both two- and three-dimensional objects of vision. Thus, these exhibitions not only synthesized 'the world', but they also synthesized arts, handicrafts, architecture, and technology into an imagined Gesamtkunstwerk. The objects and works of art – handcrafted or machine-made – displayed at the world’s fairs were conceived as a mass spectacle as they were turned into the signifiers of a narrative – imagined and presented as coherent – of technological progress, colonial expansion, and artistic innovation. The colonized regions were to stand in contrast to this, with ethnographica and handicrafts presented as traditional, 'authentic'. Nevertheless, a complex network of "shared histories" and transnational interconnections became manifest at the world’s fairs.

Viewing and re-viewing world’s fairs

[1] The Crystal Palace, built in London’s Hyde Park on the occasion of the first ever world’s fair in 1851 and later destroyed by fire, can be experienced again virtually since a few years. In preparation for an exhibition in 2011 on the founding history of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the progress of the construction and the spatial effect of the Great Exhibition were reconstructed in a 3D film by Architectura Virtualis, a cooperation partner of the Technical University of Darmstadt (Fig. 1).1 Equipped with VR glasses, the viewer still can take a virtual walk through the wide, bright interior space, as if in a gigantic greenhouse, and marvel at the light shining through the glass panes of the facade as these contrast atmospherically with the thin cast-iron struts framing them.2

1 Computer generated image of the Crystal Palace in London, built in 1851, destroyed in 1936 (© 2011 Architectura Virtualis GmbH, cooperation partner of the Technical University of Darmstadt, with kind permission of Dr.-Ing. Marc Grellert)

The "spectacular transparent structure" of the architecture made of prefabricated timber, cast iron and glass elements became the model for world exhibition buildings up until the 20th century.3 The virtual reconstruction, which is part of a larger project generating digital 3D reconstructions of historic, destroyed architecture, demonstrates the potential to create memorial culture using digital technology. In addition, it allows an aesthetic experience of a historical event that is said to have been visually innovative. According to some accounts, it was so overwhelming that it revolutionized ways of seeing in the second half of the 19th century. Flânerie, in the context of the world’s fairs, was an act of both seeing and moving through the exhibition spaces; the 1851 fair’s aesthetic can be re-experienced in the form of virtual flânerie. In addition to this VR reconstruction, other 3D models as well as two-dimensional images also serve to highlight the then new visual structure of a world’s fair, or in other words, a re-visioning of the world’s fairs through a 21st-century lens.4

[2] In the 19th century, vision is to be considered a central category of world perception, as the enthused author Hamlin Garland expressed it in a letter to his parents on the occasion of the 1893 world’s fair in Chicago: "You must see this Fair!"5 Since their beginnings in London in 1851, the world’s fairs had become a must-see, and it was not by coincidence that numerous tourist sights (!), such as the above-mentioned Crystal Palace, the Eiffel Tower (Paris 1889) and the Trylon and Perisphere (New York 1939/40), came into being there. From atop the Eiffel Tower, for example, which was built as a viewing platform, the entire world’s fair could be surveyed in a panoramic view from above. The Tower thus manifests a mise-en-scène of the gaze: the world can be taken in at a single viewing, thus rendering it controllable and amenable to visual ownership.6

[3] The world’s fairs combined the presentation of objects with an early form of globalization. Seeing and showing appear here as fundamental mechanisms closely connected to colonization and globalization. In coining the term "imperial eyes", Mary Louise Pratt drew attention to the connection between regimes of seeing and imperial domination.7 This kind of authoritative model of vision and knowledge is associated with the gaze from above, which in turn is closely linked to the "cartographic gaze" of modernity: "The cartographic view is therefore inseparable from a new regime of historicity of the masses."8 In this view, or gaze, there is an interweaving of the aesthetic view of the landscape in the tradition of Joachim Patinir (world landscape) and the geopolitical gaze.9

[4] This ocularcentrism – the hegemony of the eye – is taken further at the world’s fairs, where numerous technical innovations in optics were introduced.10 The stereoscope, for example, was presented to a broader public at the London Great Exhibition in 1851 and quickly became one of the most popular visual devices of its time.11 However, photography, panoramas, and film also played a key role at the world’s fairs, serving simultaneously to explore the limitations of art.

[5] The Eiffel Tower, itself becoming an icon of modernity in the realms of both the arts and technology, has been celebrated as a spectacular combination of aesthetic and engineering appeal; it has attracted millions of people through the years to visit it in person.12 Its image has appeared over and over again in high and low culture and has itself formed part of a new visual culture that runs parallel to the history of international exhibitions while simultaneously being foundational to them (Fig. 2).

2 Advertising label of the company U. Leonhardt & Co., Mülheim an der Ruhr, manufacturer of aniline dyes and chemical products, 1895 (photo: Miriam Oesterreich)

[6] This special issue takes visual practices of presentation and representation as its starting point and subjects them to a literal re-visioning (Latin "re-" = "back" respectively "again", "videre" = "to see").13 Using the term herself, Adrienne Rich writes that "re-vision is the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction".14 A re-vision demands the transformation of habitual ways of thinking and symbolicrepresentations.15 With regard to the world’s fairs and considered from an art history perspective, such a re-vision constitutes a gap that this journal issue seeks to fill.

[7] Starting with the first official world’s fair held in London in 1851, the above-mentioned Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations hosted in the so-called Crystal Palace, numerous industrial fairs took place within a few years and in quick succession (Dublin 1853, New York 1853, Paris 1855, Manchester 1857, London 1862). Each of these bore witness to the "legacy of the Great Exhibition"16 in the major capitals of the western world, culminating in theExposition universelle de 1900 in Paris under the official motto "Le bilan d’un siècle".17 Up until the outbreak of World War I, the universal exhibitions also became a realm in which power relations between colonizer and colonized were visualized: the western nations were conceived as being industrially and artistically advanced, thus establishing a competition over which country best represented modernity. The colonial states were imagined to exist in contrast to this modernity, with ethnographic items and handicrafts presented as traditional or 'authentic'.

[8] The world’s fairs sought to generate a synthesized body of knowledge about the world by assembling an encyclopedic and didactic collection of objects from a wide array of fields: technology, machinery, handicrafts, the visual arts, performance, and ethnography – knowledge made visible and experienced through artifacts sourced from all over the world. In this novel, because greatly expanded visual experience, the viewer’s gaze can be understood as a catalyst for a multi-sensory perception and categorization of material culture, of both two- and three-dimensional objects of vision. Thus, these exhibitions not only synthesized 'the world', but they also synthesized arts, handicrafts, architecture, and technology into an imagined Gesamtkunstwerk (a complete and unified work of art). The objects and works of art – handcrafted or machine-made – displayed at the world’s fairs were conceived as a mass spectacle18 as they were turned into the signifiers of a narrative – imagined and presented as coherent – of technological progress, colonial expansion, and artistic innovation. This notion of the world’s fair as a mass spectacle is not only linked to considering it as an accumulation of "animated things"19, but also to the way it transports its visitors into a magical enchanted world. Staged presentations of spectacle are thus conceived as 'modern' magic, an experience that ties in with the 19th-century topos of phantasmagoria. Image making traditions and optical devices such as the 'magic lantern', which combined music, lighting and the projection of images to create a "popular […] form of Gesamtkunstwerk"20 and had the power to evoke astonishment and sentimental emotions, developedin the course of the 19th century into educational media which allowed objects to be conceived in an aesthetically appealing way.21 With this didactic aim in mind, the idea of the baroque Wunderkammer was adapted to the larger framework of the world’s fair and transformed into an industrialized cabinet of curiosities.22 In particular, scientific and technical objects were popularized by being 'performed' in fair displays,23 thus establishing further parallels between art museums and world’s fair exhibitions.24

[9] As museums and art collections have emerged in part from universal exhibitions, it is necessary to look more closely at the objects and how they were exhibited in order to identify the hegemonic mechanisms of construction that were deployed. Combining displays of fine art with the above-mentioned popular, scientific, and technical objects and devices, world’s fairs formed an integral part of the nineteenth-century "exhibitionary complex"25 based on a specific visual experience. The question of how something is "given to be seen"26 at the world’s fairs’displays, and therefore how a certain reading is given and prescribed, points to our predominant interest in visual regimes and their aesthetics – an issue that has been largely neglected in previous studies. Visitors were also viewers who were confronted with a variety of often fleeting visual impressions. They absorbed these impressions through a dynamic interplay of active engagement and passive reception, oscillating between attentive contemplation and inattentive consumption.27 In this context, the way in which art itself was viewed also changed, as paintings were no longer produced and given meaning in an – impossible – aesthetic isolation or in a continuous tradition of painterly codes, but as one of many consumable and ephemeral elements within an ever-expanding array of images, commodities and visual stimuli.28 Crary speaks in this context of a "confusing bifurcated model of vision in the nineteenth century" based on a co-occurrence of 'modernist' and 'traditional' ways of seeing.29

[10] The world’s fairs presented just such a co-occurrence of different modes of perception. Walter Benjamin summed up the "visual imperative and its rehearsal in the world’s fairs as 'see everything, touch nothing!'"30 This occurred by inviting visitors to walk through a miniaturized world which, although deprived of haptics and reserved for the visual, nevertheless offered the possibility of immersion. People moved apparently effortlessly along the trottoir roulant (moving sidewalk) of the Rue de l’Avenir (Future Street) at the 1900 Exposition universelle in Paris (Fig. 3).

3 Moving sidewalk at the Exposition universelle de 1900, Paris, lantern slide, 3.25 × 4 inches. Brooklyn Museum, New York City, Goodyear Archival Collection (photo: https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/archives/image/55036)

This moving sidewalk, consisting of three kilometers of movable platforms mounted on wheels, led visitors through the exhibition on a viaduct seven meters high, past its sights which once again gave them a view from above.31 People got on and were set in motion in a kind of perpetuum mobile. In this way, the circulation of people – which is also manifested in the parallel railway tracks – is associated with the circulation of goods at the world’s fair.

An art history perspective on world’s fairs

[11] Given that visuality is a key category, it is all the more surprising that no specific art history consideration of 19th-century world’s fairs and their legacy in the 20th and 21st centuries has been undertaken to date. However, as far back as the mid-twentieth century, art historian Nikolaus Pevsner and art dealer Yvonne Ffrench both published respectively a synopsis of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in terms of its artistic objects.32 And since the late 1970s, there has been a proliferation of studies dealing with the follow-up exhibitions to the Great Exhibition and their significance in the context of the art industry. 33 The focus of these, however, has been more on economic and political issues and the conditions prevalent in both art and industry in national comparison. In general, world’s fairs have so far often been analysed from a historical perspective, and more recently through an interdisciplinary lens, in terms of the participating nations’ pavilion architecture and inter-national competition, and less in terms of what was actually presented and how it was presented within the pavilions or in the common exhibition buildings.34

[12] Seeking to offer a resolutely art-historical perspective that probes beyond the declared intention to display national grandeur, the present issue addresses the transnational and postcolonial entanglements of the world’s fairs and how these are manifested in their spectacles of art, visual display and technological demonstration. Through the shift of notions between fine arts, crafts, industry, science, and technology, we seek to reconsider the concept of art, not least because it leads directly to the concept of design as well as to new ideas regarding what actually constitutes art. The sense of uncertainty prompted by the advent of mass-produced industrial products served to call into question the status of art and to some extent gave rise to reactionary artistic positions such as historicism and the cult of monuments as well as to clear references back to an imagined classicism, visible in the displays and architectural flourishes of the world’s fairs. At the same time, industrial innovations gave rise to new art forms informed by modernity, such as the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain,35 the Impressionists in France, and the Art Nouveau movements in German-speaking countries and beyond.36 In view of the simultaneity of multiple historical, 'national' and modern styles on the sites of the world’s fairs, debates also arose around a new kind of art criticism, such as in the print media and the extensive catalogue literature. Furthermore, new theoretical approaches were also presented here, including the discourse on realism prompted by Courbet’s initiative for his own Pavillon du Réalisme outside the official world’s fair in 1855,37 and debates around functionalism accompanying the Cologne Werkbund presentations in Brussels in 1910 and in Ghent in 1913.38 New styles and techniques and newly developed materials such as industrially produced colors also led to a modernisation of art production.

[13] This special issue seeks to draw a line from the world’s fairs of the past to the world’s fairs of the present and to interrogate them with regard to their particular implications for art historiography and to critically examine their constructions and representations. As part of this, the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk – that is, the 'exhibitionary complex'39 in the form of the world’s fairs’ displays – will be critically reviewed in terms of its inherent universal claims. The arrangement of buildings, artifacts and objects will be examined from a new perspective, particularly in view of their significance for individual and collective practices. Considered against the background of nation-building and global entanglements,40 such practices can be called into question, while legitimation strategies associated with power relations can be rendered visible. Given an increasingly industrialized system of art production and the growing interpenetration of art and everyday life, the volume also explores the extent to which the world’s fairs of the past – as "a true culmination point for key ideas"41 – contributed to the development and dissemination of new design principles while also prompting modern city dwellers to look at the world in a different way.

[14] In this introduction, we seek to identify four fields – 'Gesamtkunstwerk and the assemblage of things', 'technology and art', 'colonial entanglements and postcoloniality', and 'gender and fashion' – which, despite their importance at the intersection of art, handicraft, architecture, and technology, have been somewhat overlooked in the discourse on world’s fairs. Various aspects of these notions are taken up and discussed from different perspectives in the paragraphs that follow.

Gesamtkunstwerk and the assemblage of things

[15] Encountering the eclectic arrangement of buildings, artifacts and objects when visiting the Great Exhibition in 1851, Charlotte Brontë described it as a "unique assemblage of all things".42 Indeed, it could be said that art, applied arts, artifacts, machines, technological innovations, industrial palaces and national exhibition architecture form an unparalleled symbiosis at the world’s fairs. The synthesis achieved by such an encyclopedic, didactic assemblage was reflected in the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk:43 It is no coincidence that the idea of a complete and unified work of art and the concept of world’s fairs both emerged during the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1850, for example, Richard Wagner described the Gesamtkunstwerk as "The Art-Work of the Future":

The great United Art-work, which must gather up each branch of art to use it as a mean, and in some sense to undo it for the common aim of all, for the unconditioned, absolute portrayal of perfected human nature, – this great United Art-work he cannot picture as depending on the arbitrary purpose of some human unit, but can only conceive it as the instinctive and associate product of the Manhood of the Future.44

This belief in the art of the future fits well with the future-oriented focus of the world’s fairs, an orientation that manifests itself especially in the machines displayed there (Fig. 4).

4 Interior view of the Galérie des machines, Exposition universelle internationale de 1889, Paris, architects: Ferdinand Dutert and Charles Léon Stephen Sauvestre, engineer: Victor Contamin (photo: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., Prints and Photographs Division, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2001698576/)

5 Adolph Menzel, The Iron Rolling Mill (Modern Cyclopes), 1872–1875, oil on canvas, 158 × 254 cm. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Nationalgalerie (photo: SMB – Nationalgalerie / Andres Kilger)

Adolph Menzel’s painting of the iron rolling mill, a major work in the Realist tradition that was exhibited twice at world’s fairs, once in Paris in 1878 and once in St. Louis in 1904,45 places the toils of labourers center stage (Fig. 5). The work’s title Modern Cyclopes serves, however, to elevate the scene into the realm of myth, given that Cyclopes are considered to be the helpmates of Hephaestus, the god of smithing.

[16] The boundaries between art / craftwork / non-art / machines were therefore negotiated anew in the concept of the world’s fair. Designer Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867–1908), for instance, presented his interiors at the world’s fairs (1900 Paris, 1902 Turin, 1904 St. Louis) as complete ensembles, which contributed greatly to the international influence of the Darmstadt artists’ colony, which he had joined in 1900 (Fig. 6).46 Jörg Scheller points out that "Gesamtkunstwerk and Gesamtkonsum (total consumption) are two different modes of post-metaphysical socialization (Vergesellschaftung) and communitization (Vergemeinschaftung): the one communal, the other agonal."47

6 Joseph Maria Olbrich, Darmstädter Zimmer, presented at the Exposition universelle de 1900, Paris (reprod. from: Hessisches Landesmuseum, Institut Mathildenhöhe, and Kunsthalle Darmstadt, eds., Ein Dokument deutscher Kunst: Darmstadt 1901–1976, 6 vols., exh. cat., Darmstadt 1977, vol. 5, p. 68)

[17] Olbrich’s contributions were also linked to an extensive claim to renewal: "The house becomes a machine", he said: like machines, houses are "without style", defined by economic and functional concerns.48 This interface between Gesamtkunstwerk and world’s fair will be critically examined in the following. The very term Gesamtkunstwerk is in fact ideologically loaded and utopian and, as an anachronistic desire for the 'unity of multiplicity', it stands in opposition to the differentiation and autonomization of the arts. In this sense the world’s fair can also be seen in the context of the strategies developed in order to make modernity visible, strategies which coincided with the emergence of the department store as a new center of urban space, as well as museum strategies. The ephemeral mises-en-scène of world’s fairs thus become part of a radically altered visual culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: in most cases, the exhibition arrangements were dismantled and moved to arts and crafts museums, which in turn determined the very emergence of those museums in many cases (e.g., today’s Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, Paris; today’s Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin). It is thus necessary to examine and systematically analyse the characteristics of early exhibitions and scenography in their historical breadth, including the development of display cabinets, showcases and dioramas as well as photography, graphic art and poster art.

[18] While the futuristic utopias generally appear in a positive light, as unifying concepts, the close association of the Gesamtkunstwerk to totalitarian strategies becomes apparent precisely in the context of the world’s fairs.49 The portrayal of colonies as traditional, idyllic village communities ignores the violence of colonisation. Politics, aesthetics, industry, commerce and ideology are all brought together here. The claim to totality of the Gesamtkunstwerk has been critically analysed by Roger Fornoff, who emphasizes the structural analogies of totalitarian regimes and Gesamtkunstwerk.50 He speaks of a repressive harmony in the Gesamtkunstwerk which is likewise manifested in the world’s fairs.51

Art and technology

[19] From their very beginnings, the world’s fairs have foregrounded the relationship between artistic creation and machine production, between art and industry, and between architecture and technology.52 This is why it is worth scrutinising the multifaceted interconnections of art and technology that are summed up under the term techné. The Crystal Palace hosted an array of objects that testified to both artistic and technical virtuosity, with its display serving simultaneously as a spectacle for the audience. Inside the vast hall, art objects and artefacts were presented alongside domestic and industrial products, new technologies and scientific innovations. Moreover, in terms of its aesthetics and function, the exhibition building itself came to represent the essence of modern architectural engineering, and was to profoundly influence subsequent developments in 19th-century European culture and media. With its characteristic glass and iron structure, the oversized greenhouse-like structure designed by engineer and botanist Joseph Paxton not only emphasized the sheer modernity of this type of building (and others built after it),53 but also had a direct impact on art and modern techniques of reproduction: According to Albert Kümmel, new media such as the 'photo-sculpture' took the glass dome as their point of reference, as a kind of template: a small version of the round glass dome (Fig. 7) was used in the 1860s by François Willème for his invention of an apparatus that reproduced three-dimensional portraits of live models.54 The model stands illuminated in the centre of the dome room and is simultaneously photographed by 24 small cameras positioned invisibly in the outer wall at an equal distance from one another.55

7 Studio Willème, schematic drawing (reprod. from: Albert Kümmel, "Körperkopiermaschinen. François Willèmes technomagisches Skulpturentheater (1859–1867)", in: Skulptur – zwischen Realität und Virtualität, ed. Gundolf Winter, Munich 2006, 191-212: 194)

[20] Although it differs in some ways from the famous Crystal Palace building—Willème’s construction was "raised above a low, brick circular room"56 – the studio was both functional and aesthetic. Willème’s photo-sculpture studio became a theatre, a "mise-en-scène",57 where the sculptural object was created in several stages: After the pictures were taken by the hidden cameras, behind the scenes the reproduced copy of the model was reworked by the hand of a skillful sculptor. Thus, it was not the actual product, a portrait bust, that counted but rather the magical spectacle of the moment of its making – an effect which is comparable to the widespread perception of early photography as "natural magic". The "simultaneity of the revealing and keeping of a secret"58 indicates an emphasis on the effective staging of technology as magic. In the context of the Great Exhibition, Jonathon Shears refers to the spectacle as "phantasmagoria" to explain the effect of the manufactured glass on display: a range of new sensations were evoked by the machine-made materials and smooth surfaces which were capable of "enshrining fantastical possibilities".59 Patricia Di Bello also summarizes the 19th-century phantasmagoria as a "popular form of […] recreation that used magic lanterns to project images onto glass, cloth or smoke to create highly affecting, ghostly public spectacles".60

[21] Thus, with regard to the development of modern culture, the concepts of magic and technology became intertwined through their relationship with new media and their presence in commodity culture. The notion of the magical, which in the past had been an integral part of royal cabinets of curiosities (so-called Wunderkammer), is also a relevant topic in the transition to modern exhibitions: from 1800 onwards, industrial exhibitions, fairs, or individual demonstrations of 'curious machines' in museums are expressions of a specific aesthetics of display that now becomes available to the general public.61 This is also akin to an 'industrialized cabinet of curiosities' and is best illustrated by the 1839 painting by Samuel Rayner entitled Interior of the Mechanics' Institute, which captures the venue of the first Derby Exhibition of 1839 (Fig. 8).

8 Samuel Rayner, Interior of the Mechanics’ Institute (Derby Exhibition of 1839), 1839, hand-colored lithograph. Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby (photo: Wikipedia Commons)

The painting shows exhibits of science and technology assembled as cutting-edge innovations and displayed together with paintings and sculptures.62 Similar exhibition concepts supported "by the Royal Society, the Mechanical Institutes, or the Polytechnics" followed an educational agenda and were "designed to educate working people" while imparting 'good taste' to the masses,63 an issue that was to become even more prominent in the world’s fairs.

[22] Twelve years later, the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London’s Hyde Park enabled "the display of sculpture alongside objects of science and industry […] to reach a pinnacle".64 This way of displaying technology and art was thus familiar to Victorian scientific society. In 1851, sculptors such as "Benjamin Cheverton exhibited busts and reductions carved on-site using his machine; and photography was declared by the juries to be 'the most remarkable discovery of modern times'".65 At the International Exhibition of 1865 in Dublin, and again two years later at the Paris world’s fair, the above-mentioned François Willème took such elements of fantasy and showmanship to the extreme by concealing his photo-sculpture apparatus from the audience at a demonstration of this new reproduction device.

[23] While the first global exhibition held in London "only admitted those works of art, including sculpture, that were 'connected with mechanical processes'",66 the following world’s fairs in Paris were also exemplary not only for the interplay between art and industrial production but also in terms of their relationship to a multitude of industrially produced objects in the field of the arts. In this context, the possibilities of mechanical reproduction of three-dimensional objects as well as new materials took up a lot of space and set fashionable trends: ornaments and building decorations made of machine-made papier-mâché, portrait miniatures made of bisque porcelain or Parian ware, and showpieces made of copper with a wafer-thin coating of precious metal. The latter technique of electroplating is a sibling of the galvanoplastic technique, which was invented in 1838 for the mass production of artifacts and was celebrated with an allegorical monument of its own at the 1867 world’s fair in Paris:

Perhaps no other monument [than the one by Christofle & Cie.] in the abundant history of the monument has been so indicative of the spirit of the century. The high pedestal is adorned by the door of the sacristy of San Marco in Venice, the two larger-than-life busts are portraits of the composers Halévy and Rossini from the façade of the Opéra, the crowning group is the galvanoplastic cast of Pujet's marble 'Milon of Croton' from the Louvre.67

[24] It was against the backdrop of the world’s fairs that Gottfried Semper (1803–1879) attempted to give a coherent theoretical legitimation to the developments in the arts and crafts and the challenges of industrial production in the second half of the 19th century. Semper’s theoretical explanations mainly concerned the material of the time, iron, which was used for the first time in a comprehensive form in major building projects towards the end of the 19th century. During the 20th century, architectural historians Louis Mumford and Sigfried Giedion further developed ideas about architecture and materiality as well as mass culture, and such ideas also feature prominently in the writings of media theorist Marshal McLuhan, who became a spokesman for the "new emerging technoculture" and whose "interests in art, architecture, and popular culture" were so closely associated with the Expo 67 in Montreal that the latter is dubbed by some as "McLuhan’s Fair".68

[25] In addition to exploring the roles of engineers, architects, artisans, designers and artists in dealing with new materials and their presentation, it is important to consider the objects themselves as agents of innovative potential. This ontological approach to the materiality of machines and objects highlights their significant role in the interplay of art, science, and technology. Moreover, technological innovations were not merely exhibited and appropriated to present the profile of an 'advanced nation', but they were also effectively employed to engage spectators in a participatory manner. For instance, technologies such as lighting or binoculars were used in diorama and panorama presentations to create an immersive experience for the visitors.

[26] As both technology and the belief in technological progress generated a notion of the 'modern' inherent in nationalist competition, a supposed set of 'others' was simultaneously conceived as non-modern. More than any other phenomenon of the era, the world’s fairs contributed to the bias of colonialist nations developing the very technology for which the colonies supplied the (human) resources and raw materials. This bias resulted in reciprocal dependencies as will be problematized in the next section.

Colonial entanglements and postcoloniality

[27] It was not just the range of categories and objects that was expanded in the Gesamtkunstwerk of 19th-century world’s fairs, but also their geographical boundaries: no less than the entire world was to be included in the exhibitions.69 The history of the world’s fairs is inextricably bound up with colonialist realities, partly due to the exhibition of non-European goods and artifacts in the pavilions of the colonizing nations – designed to establish the latter’s identities – and partly through the semantic links with other universal exhibition formats such as the human zoo and the "Gewerbeschau" (trade show). These exhibition formats effectively constituted the economic, political and ideological framework of the world’s fairs, which were dedicated to the 19th-century belief in technological progress, and at the same time were always colonial exhibitions as well. The art presented here is thus closely interwoven with these global and imperial interests of the industrial age. The very title given to the world’s fair in Chicago in 1893 made clear that it was about the colonial aims and expansion of the participating nations: the "World’s Columbian Exhibition" was to be an anniversary celebration (one year on) of the four hundred years since Christopher Columbus 'discovered' America.

[28] The idea of progress was closely linked to Columbus in the United States at the end of the 19th century: the reference to his 'discovery' of America in 1492 made it possible to represent the civilizational development of North America – not least in comparison to South America and Europe – as an extraordinary success story,70 with colonialism providing the initial impetus for economic development and the progress of civilisation. Columbus’s three caravels, the Pinta, the Santa María and the Niña had been reconstructed on the exhibition grounds and could be experienced close up. A postcard from that time shows the Columbian Fountain (Fig. 9), made by sculptor Frederick MacMonnies, at the centre of events, namely, with the Grand Bassin before it, ready for the taking, as it were.

9 General photographic view of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, gelatin silver print, 24 × 33 cm, photographer: Frances Benjamin Johnston. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., Prints and Photographs Division (photo: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.14202)

10 Columbian Fountain, sculpture by Frederick MacMonnies,at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, photographer: Charles Dudley Arnold, published in: The American Architect and Building News, no. 961 (May 26, 1894), p. 140 (photo: Columbia University Libraries – Digital Library Collections)

The allegorical figure of 'Columbia' (Fig. 10), representing colonial 'discovery', rides high upon the ship of state, surrounded by Music, Architecture, Sculpture and Painting, each visible as a rower on the left-hand side, and by Agriculture, Science, Industry and Trade on the right-hand side. Here, too, technologies and the arts are again shown as complementing each other in the context of (imperial) progress. It was by means of these 'mises-en-scènes', which brought together colonization, nation and progress, that modernity was conceptualized and claimed by the industrial nations as belonging to them.

[29] A similarly overinflated presentation occurred architecturally at the New York World’s Fair in 1939/40, bearing the title "Building the World of Tomorrow": the so-called Foreign Nations Building (Fig. 11), a row of identical pavilions rented out to the less wealthy nations, was grouped around the Lagoon of Nations and the Court of Peace (in the year of the outbreak of World War II).

11 Hall of Nations area and Foreign Nations Building with the Mexican flag seen in the center, New York World’s Fair, 1939 or 1940, color slide, photographer: Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., Prints and Photographs Division (photo: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/gsc.5a30829)

The US presented itself as a hegemonic power (Fig. 12): The US Government Building occupied the northern end of the site’s great main axis, along which the pavilions of the nations lined up and Constitution Mall led to the Theme Center with the monumental structures of the Trylon and Perisphere encircled by the Helicline. This was joined at the southern end of the axis by the presentation of the City of New York and the triad of the three major US automobile companies General Motors, Ford and Chrysler Motors, flanked on either side by the railroads and aviation buildings. Amidst this gigantic display of economic prosperity (following the years of the Great Depression) and progressive politics in North America, the pavilions housing the "foreign nations" appeared small and marginalized. The 'foreign' exhibited in the various pavilions served as a spectacularized counter-image to the 'modern' identity of the USA.