In 1889, Andrew Carnegie explored the world's fair in Paris, where a brand-new Eiffel Tower straddled the entrance by the Seine River. Four years later, the shrewd Scotsman strolled the exhibition halls of Chicago's White City, built for the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Afterward, he praised the event in an essay in The Engineering Magazine:
"I make bold to say that after every work of art, every ponderous engine, every invention, everything that proved the cunning brain and hand of man, has faded away, the general effect of the purely artistic triumph attained by the buildings and their environment will remain, vividly defined in the memory ... ."
The steel tycoon went on to say that the American sculpture and paintings compared favorably "even with the best of the foreign modern masters."
Inspired, the philanthropist established museums of art and natural history in Pittsburgh in 1895 and the next year created the Carnegie International, a showcase of contemporary art from all over the world.
So it seems especially fitting that Carnegie Museum of Art opens a show Friday focused on furniture, jewelry, ceramics, glass, metalwork and textiles that were displayed at world's fairs spanning the period from London in 1851 to New York in 1939.
"Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World's Fairs" showcases 200 objects ranging from a mid-1800s gilded pianoforte covered in papier-mache to a 1920s Art Moderne corsage ornament made of jade, onyx, diamonds, enamel and platinum. Heavyweights represented include Alvar Aalto, Baccarat, Cartier, Gorham, Tiffany, Sevres, Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. and Westinghouse. The lavishly illustrated catalog -- $45 for soft cover and $75 for hardback -- features 10 essays by decorative arts experts from various disciplines.
Before the advent of mass marketing and Internet shopping, world's fairs served as an international trade show suffused with nationalism because each participating country displayed its best artistic designs and scientific innovations. They also fostered cross-cultural exchange: Artists from Tiffany and Gorham watched how the Japanese made cloisonne and imitated that technique in their own designs. The Nuremberg Museum purchased 1,750 objects from the world's fair held in Vienna in 1873 and used them to educate art students.
The influence of the 1893 Columbian Exposition is still felt here because the figures installed in 1907 in the Carnegie's Hall of Architecture are, "model-for-model replicas of the architectural, sculptural and bronze casts shown in Chicago," said Jason T. Busch, decorative arts curator for Carnegie Museum of Art.
The show is also a chance for unseen, unsung objects to gain a wider audience. An example is a pair of art nouveau andirons made around 1900 by Louis Majorelle. Stored in the basement of the Budapest Decorative Arts Museum, they were exhibited at the Paris world's fair of 1900 and are a favorite of Mr. Busch, who crisscrossed Scandinavia and Europe in a relentless quest for distinctive objects. His co-curator and constant companion was Catherine Futter, decorative arts curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., another large lender for the show.
The idea for this exhibition germinated in the 1990s while Mr. Busch and Ms. Futter worked with Christopher Monkhouse at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Mr. Monkhouse, who worked at the Heinz Architectural Center from 1991-95, is curator of European decorative arts at the Art Institute of Chicago.
At the Paris world's fair of 1867, a pair of bright blue vases with scenes of swans represented the marriage of art and industry, Ms. Futter said, adding that they were part of the inspiration for this show. Originally, she and her colleagues thought the swans were hand-painted, but further research revealed they had been printed using chromolithography. This color printing process allowed porcelain makers to produce more affordable objects for a mass market, she said.
Also astonishing is a wooden mosaic table by Peter Glass, a German immigrant and cabinetmaker who earned his living as a Wisconsin farmer. His intricate woodworking so impressed the French at their 1867 world's fair that Glass was the only one of nine American furniture makers to win an award in Paris.
Some things never change, and that includes a woman's need to store her jewelry. Today, women can buy attractive jewelry wardrobes everywhere from Tiffany to Target. Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III, had a jewelry cabinet made of mahogany and trimmed in gilded bronze. The legs unscrew so that the cabinet can be taken on trips.Eugenie was the wife of Napoleon III, known as Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
"Well, if you're the empress, you've got to have a really nice place to put your tiaras," Ms. Futter said.
World's fairs are still held, but their focus has changed. Since 1939 in New York, these marketplaces for commerce and cultural exchange have been less about products and more about ideas such as urbanization and globalization. For three days in 2010, Mr. Busch attended a world's fair in Shanghai, China, where the theme was "Better City, Better Life."
"So many countries participated, knowing what China has become," Mr. Busch said, adding that the fair attracted 500,000 people daily. He loved a retrospective of hand-selected objects that won awards at earlier fairs.
"I had such a pride for how countries were being represented in that retrospective," Mr. Bush said, citing such examples as the Eiffel Tower, the Ferris Wheel and the Unisphere from the 1964 world's fair.
"The majority of the audience was a Chinese national audience. At pavilions hosted by Germany, Norway and the Netherlands, audio and visual stimulation were used from the entrance to the exit."
"They were very much trying to respond to a young Chinese audience growing up with the hand-held devices and computer," Mr. Busch said.
The next world's fair is slated for Milan, Italy, in 2015.
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Marylynne Pitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1648.