29 October 2012

Inventing the Modern World

Can we begin to imagine the excitement surrounding a visit to the World's Fairs of the day?
It's a difficult leap to make-but imagine-none of the technology-where every day we are tossed to the winds of the net.

 the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations
 the Crystal Palace showed off London's architectural genius as well being host to the first fair.

When the first world's fair opened in London,1851- it dazzled. The newest advances in living and design were showcased and within the pages of  Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs- one can still be dazzled.
I can myself in the moment with the aid of this book and Wonder.

Brainchild of Prince Albert-patron of the arts, the First World's Fair saw over six million visitors enter Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace triumph made of iron and glass.

Dickinson's comprehensive pictures Scenes from the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Yesterday I went for the second time to the Crystal Palace.

We remained in it about three hours, and I must say I was more struck with it on this occasion than at my first visit. It is a wonderful place – vast, strange, new and impossible to describe. Its grandeur does not consist in one thing, but in the unique assemblage of all things. Whatever human industry has created you find there, from the great compartments filled with railway engines and boilers, with mill machinery in full work, with splendid carriages of all kinds, with harness of every description, to the glass-covered and velvet-spread stands loaded with the most gorgeous work of the goldsmith and silversmith, and the carefully guarded caskets full of real diamonds and pearls worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. 

It may be called a bazaar or a fair, but it is such a bazaar or fair as Eastern genii might have created. It seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth – as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it this, with such a blaze and contrast of colours and marvellous power of effect. 

 The multitude filling the great aisles seems ruled and subdued by some invisible influence. Amongst the thirty thousand souls that peopled it the day I was there not one loud noise was to be heard, not one irregular movement seen; the living tide rolls on quietly, with a deep hum like the sea heard from the distance.-Charlotte Bronte, from The Brontes' Life and Letters, by Clement Shorter (1907)
 (more of what Charlotte saw that day here)

  Jean Valentin Morel Cup made of bloodstone with gold, enamel, emralds, rubies,sapphires and cameos, 1854-55
 attributed to Adrien-Louis-Marie Cavelier for Jean Valentin Morel
 Indianapolis Museum of Art, USA / The Bridgeman Art Library

In 1893, the World's Fair was in Chicago and my great grandfather Toby attended- returning with a doll-imagine that-a doll for his little son-my grandfather Louis. The doll was indeed a whirligig with a shrill whistle for the rowdy boy-but that whirligig was dressed in pink and ivory satin and silk and possessed the most beautiful china face and golden locks of hair ever to behold.

I'm sure Toby walked along the midway-and though the doll was a pittance to the likes of the decorative artistry of Tiffany-that doll held many a mystery for me on visits to my grandfather's house over the years. I have it tucked away upstairs.

the Midway in Chicago, 1983.

 Tiffany Coffeepot, 1893. Silver with enamel, ivory, and jade

Tiffany & Co. United States (New York, NY), 1837–present

Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Decorative Arts
Photo: Peter Harholdt

The May 1937 fair was held in Paris at a tenuous time in Europe. Dictators had seized power -at the fair the exhibition pavilions of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were blatant displays of monumentalism and nationalism. As a counterpoint -the Spanish pavilion held Picasso's most brilliant work to date “Guernica,” in protest to war.

the Soviet Union Pavilion, at l., the Spanish Pavilion at r.

Settee, 1937. Josef Hoffmann, silvered wood legs and stylized botanical-wool upholstery is original
Museum of Applied Arts-Contemporary Art, Vienna

 Nothing about the Hoffmann chaise gives it away as a creation dating back over 75 years-it is thoroughly modern and-glamourous.

Because of technology developed by the time of the fair- we can be in Paris for a glimpse.

The Book-captures brightest and best of the world,detailing over 200 objects spanning the most prestigious years of the fair. Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fair is written by 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 and Catherine L. Futter ,the Helen Jane and R. Hugh “Pat” Uhlmann Curator of Decorative Arts at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It's accompanied by an exhibition that was at the Nelson-Atkins this summer and just opened at the Carnegie Museum in New York. In the fall of 2013 the Mint Museum in Charlotte will host the exhibition. I'm sure to see it-but til then this wonderful book will suffice.

the book-available at Rizzoli here


  1. It is interesting to contrast the beautiful Dickinson pictures with old photographs of these expositions, which often give a more dense and crowded appearance. I think that both are accurate in their way, they just emphasize different aspects.

  2. The inventing of the modern world has become a discoverer's trope of popularity to match its vanity, and not merely (of course) in the tragically vulnerable state of publishing. But, lifting that generic claim from the data you present allows your presentation to be appreciated in proper scale; and I am grateful for its signature reference to familiar experience and its original synthesis. I sometimes wish we could spare ourselves the spines of our books.

  3. What a lovely posting.

    It's always interesting to see how people envision the future. I remember watching the movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey" in the 1970s, and wondering if my own future would be as minimalistic. But here we are, with folks still collecting Kewpie dolls, Hummels and Bud Light memorabilia, albeit through eBay!

  4. Loved the story of Toby at the Word's Fair in Chicago. That is so charming.
    I think that these Fairs and exhibitions did change consciousness...it was a chance for ideas to be made tangible, and for a wide audience. Certainly some fairs like the "Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes" ( I had to copy and paste that rather extended name which would be shorted later to describe a whole interwar style, art deco. The Crystal Palace exhibition comes up again and again when I am researching something -one of my favorite examples is the Crystal Palace exhibit of Osler glass furniture that, while not finding much success in Britain, seemed to suit the Indian climate and the Maharaja's taste. Japanese prints at 19th c Paris exhibitions influencing the Impressionists, and so many other things...Gaye, your posts always fascinating, informative, a treat. The images and videos a delight -loved the Hoffman settee.
    Warmest, xxoo

  5. I just stumbled across your blog this morning. I love this! Thank you so much for sharing such wonderful tidbits of history with the world. I will be checking in often now!

    Kind Regards,



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