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Swellboy on… great exhibitions

It’s a shame that nations no longer make an exhibition of themselves

Swellboy on… great exhibitions

Image: Brijesh Patel

March 03 2011
Nick Foulkes

London is girding itself for the Olympics and every week brings information about the completion of a new indoor ping-pong stadium or all-weather tenpin bowling facility, and of course the corollary: an inevitable row about the legacy aspect, wherein it emerges that it will be torn down immediately after the games to become a loosely sport-themed shopping centre and cinema complex, retaining a small bowling alley and a ping-pong simulator.

This came to mind the other day when I was summoned to Paris to look at a new watch by Chanel. Hand on the latest Justine Picardie biography of Coco Chanel, I swore not to divulge any information about this new timepiece until the opening of the Basel watch fair. It was not explicitly stated what would happen to me if I did blurt out this secret aforetimes, but I imagine it to be something nasty involving a vat of boiling Chanel No 5. However, I do think it is safe enough to reveal that the “reveal” took place in the semi-apocalyptic quasi-industrial basement of the Palais de Tokyo, a handsome art deco building with a great view of the Eiffel Tower.

The Palais de Tokyo is legacy project of sorts, a leftover from the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne of 1937, although of course the fair is chiefly remembered for the cultural stand-off between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the two superpowers of the day trying to outdo each other when it came to grandiloquent pavilions and allegorical sculpture.

It got me thinking about how we don’t do world fairs like we used to. It is generally accepted that Britain kicked off the trend for these displays of commercial and cultural muscle with the Great Exhibition of 1851; although I believe with a weary inevitability the French claim that they would have got there first, with a world’s fair in 1849, had it not been for the political upheaval occasioned by the deposition of the largely harmless King Louis Philippe and his replacement by Prince Louis Napoleon, first elected president and then president for life, appointing himself Emperor Napoleon III for good measure in 1851.

Of course Napoleon III made up for lost time with his own Exposition Universelle in 1855 and thereafter the Expo race was on, as nations indulged in these entertaining displays of national prestige. The Americans got a look-in with, among other things, a shindig in Chicago in 1893, laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park; and every country from Guatemala to Japan rode the coat-tails of the Expo trend. Nevertheless I feel it fair to say that the French, while not the first, proved themselves to be the most flamboyant of practitioners of this curious 19th-century phenomenon: pre-eminent among the Gallic legacy projects is of course the Eiffel Tower, erected for the 1889 fair, which also left the legacy of Paul Poiret, who learned to love colour when, hoisted on to his father’s shoulders at the Exposition Universelle, he could not tear his eyes from the illuminated multicoloured fountain, the so-called Fountain of Peace, which gave thrice-nightly shows.

However, the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 is my favourite. Visitors to the event were transported to an idealised medieval age with an entire street recreating the Paris of the Middle Ages, taverns, troubadours and all; after which they went on a simulated boat voyage from Villefranche to Constantinople, the effect heightened by “a brisk sea breeze, iodised and salty, that whips the traveller’s face”; or boarded a stationary railway carriage to be taken on a trans-Siberian train journey. Science was celebrated in a blazing palace of 12,000 electric lights, while night was turned into day by beacons that raked the Champ de Mars, and the Seine reflected the multiple colours of the electric light that was, in the words of one commentator, the “religion of 1900”. Of course, the entire world was there to be inspected: from oriental temples to Alpine chalets; and pavilion after pavilion glorifying the colonising might of the empires of Europe.

By contrast, the squabble over which Association Football team will get to occupy an abandoned sports stadium seems rather bathetic.

See also

People, Exhibitions