Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World's Fairs, 1851-1939

Article excerpt

REVISITATION OF PAST EXHIBITIONS THROUGH NEW EXHIBITIONS has been a strategy in the curatorial repertoire for more than 20 years. For example, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's 1991 Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Germany restaged much of the ominous Entartete Kunst exhibition of 1937. More recently, The Times Square Show Revisted at The Hunter College Art Galleries, New York reunited works by many contributors to the 1980 artist-initiated event that launched graffiti art. Such exhibition revisitation, which implicitly links the formation of meanings in art to aspects of public display, reflects the late 20th century turn toward context-based interpretation of art that coincided with the rise of 'the new art history' and such conceptual strategies in art as museum intervention.

The value of exhibition revisitation has not been as obvious for ceramics as it has for painting and sculpture: media with somewhat longer and more complex histories of manipulation principally for effect in the context of public display. Such exhibition consciousness clearly underlies much contemporary practice in ceramics, though it has yet to be the subject of serious reflection. Perhaps it is the functional nature of so much work in clay that diverts analysis of the formation of meaning away from the gallery toward sites of use, particularly the domestic environment. Nevertheless, designing and production of ceramic objects more for the purpose of exhibition effect than for efficacy in domestic use has been an established practice for at least a century and a half.

Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World's Fairs, 1851-1939 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City and the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh addressed an important part of the history of the orientation of ceramics toward exhibition. Uniting 45 ceramic objects (along with 145 other decorative-art objects) that appeared in blockbuster international expositions between the mid-19th and the mid-20th centuries, Inventing the Modern World provided a context for reflection on the global influences that shaped ceramics design in the modern period well before the advent of the Internet. Exhibition co-curator Catherine L Futter, the Helen Jane and R Hugh 'Pat' Uhlman Curator of Decorative Arts at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, observes that the "fairs were a chance for nations, manufacturers and citizens to put aside their political differences and gather to celebrate diversity and progress." (1)



They were also, of course, opportunities to showcase the products of national manufacture and to advance foreign trade interests. The climate of the world's fairs could be compared to that of the Olympic games, in which a fiercely competitive spirit underlies the ambassadorial aspects of temporary international camaraderie. World's fairs offered the opportunity not only to demonstrate the quality of a nation's own manufacture of objects d'art but also to gain insight into the tastes of other nations where potential shares of the markets for luxury goods might be won. More subtly, the fairs provided a chance for manufacturers to convince the citizenry of their own nations that their locally produced luxury objects played second fiddle to none on the world stage.


Karl L H Muller's Century Vase, designed for the Union Porcelain Works of Brooklyn, New York and displayed at the 1876 US Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia, overflows with national emblems from bison heads and pioneers to eagles, Native American chieftains and George Washington. Verging on vulgarity to the non-Victorian eye, the Century Vase was made to impress upon an American public still looking to Europe for leadership in the decorative arts that domestic manufacturers could pile on ornament with the best of them. To reinforce the validity of this assertion and to emphasise the legitimate lineage of American ceramics in British production, the Union Porcelain Works' display at the Centennial Exhibition featured copies of the Century Vase atop pedestals designed in imitation of Wedgwood jasperware. …