Wednesday 21 February 2018

L' Exposition Universelle de 1900

It was the last of its kind, the last of the true "universal" expositions and the final in string of international expositions held in Paris in 1855, 1867, 1878, and 1889. L' Exposition Universelle de 1900 was the high point of La Belle Époque and widely considered the finest of its kind ever held. Its monumental works still grace the waterfront of the Seine, including the Grand and Petite Palais, Pont Alexandre III bridge, and gare d'Orsay train station, now the Musée d'Orsay. The Paris Metro was also an inheritance of  L' Exposition Universelle, and though it did not play as strong a role in the aesthetics of the exposition, the Art Nouveau so associated with the Metro was brought to a true international audience. 

The previous major exposition was the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which presented the United States of America come of age. The frontier was declared closed and the United States turned inwards and upwards, attempting to push new frontiers of industry and establish itself as a global player on the world's political and cultural stage. France had no such compulsion. After all, it was France, generally acknowledged as the world's cultural centre. Even past Parisian expositions had a sensibility of France trying to prove itself in the wake of wartime. There little of that preoccupation in 1900... This exposition was strictly looking back at the accomplishments of the past and looking forward to the future accomplishments yet to come, while all the time celebrating the greatest in French and international art.

The Eiffel Tower and Globe Céleste.

One of the great icons of the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle was the striking image of Le Globe Céleste - the Celestial Globe - against the Eiffel Tower. So striking is the image that one wonders if it went on to inspire the Trylon and Perisphere of the 1939-40 New York World's Fair. The exterior of the Globe Céleste was emblazoned with constellations and topped with an observation deck. It's interior prefigured the later development of the planetarium. Visitors would sit back in reclined chairs to view a panorama of the solar system passed before their eyes.

View of the Globe Céleste from the Eiffel Tower.

Blueprint of the Globe Céleste's interior.

Le Globe Céleste did not last as a testament to the Exposition as did other structures, but it did have a more lasting and pervasive impact. The Exposition Universelle of 1900 inexorably changed the art of public education in museums, zoos, aquaria, and planetaria. Contrary to the image of cases upon dreary cases and cages upon dreary cages, lined up one after another in endless rows, the Exposition pioneered in the development of innovative and immersive themed educational experiences.

Half a century before at the first Great Exhibition, an aquarium was built according to the classic model. The Crystal Palace Aquarium was a fully Victorian affair, filled with rows of glass aquaria set on brass pedestals, in wallpapered halls with velvet drapes around the windows. The aesthetic sense of such an aquarium was the bringing of the natural world into the drawing room, conforming to and displaying in the organized patterns of Linnean classification. This aquarium signified the victory of the industrial order over the rest of the world, where all things were processed and put in a ledger of scientific and economic facts. Like the rest of the Great Exhibition, romance had very little place in the ordered world of the British Empire.

The Crystal Palace Aquarium.
The Crystal Palace Aquarium was spectacularly repudiated by the aquarium at the Exposition Universelle. Coming out of the late Victorian Romantic, Gothic Revival ethos, L'Aquarium de Paris was an ultimate expression of the grotto aesthetic and the polar opposite of the Crystal Palace's elegant drawing room.

Entrance to the aquarium at the Exposition Universelle.

An article of the time described the aquarium thusly:
The Aquarium de Paris is devoted to the wonders of the deep. There is shown in minature the bed of tropical ocean and Polar sea. Mackerel, whiting and other familiar fish, as well as representatives of the turtle and the octopus, have found their way to the centre of Paris, to add to the gaiety of nations, and it is anticipated that by bringing water from the sea, and with the aid of an elaborate system of filtration, they, or at all events, most of them, will be kept alive until the Exhibition comes to an end. By an ingenious system of lights a submarine volcano is shown in full eruption, and to complete the picture of deep sea marvels there lies in the ocean bed the wreck of a good ship, with divers hard at work sending the cargo to the surface. In order that details may not be wanting to give reality to the scene, oysters and other shell fish, as well as anemones and sponges, have been collected by the designers of this unique aquarium, whose work of preparation extended over several years.
This description is not complete. As visitors descended the faux-rocky steps into the cavernous aquarium, they saw the central feature of a sunken vessel. Surrounding this, set into the textured stone walls imitating the moist, dripping, mossy atmosphere of an underwater grotto are the glass aquaria. These featured not only the array of creatures themselves, but ghost sirens projected into the aquaria by "Pepper's Ghost" effect. A sampling of illustrations from the official guidebook give a sense of the scenes unfolding before visitors.

Predictably, William Alford Lloyd, superintendent of the Crystal Palace Aquarium, was beside himself. He labelled this grotesque (grotto-esque) architecture the product of an "evil hour" appeasing "inartistically educated lifes." However, in the margins of the Crystal Palace guidebook where Lloyd wrote those words, a visitor scribbled "the Crystal Palace Aquarium is as plain and unattractive as a barn."

The Exposition Universelle employed Albert Robida to leave his mark on the concept of the "living history" museum. Illustrator and author of Le Vingtième Siècle (The Twentieth Century), if Robida was among the most successful of French futurists, it was because he was a conservative and cynical man. For him, the age of industrialization certainly carried promise, within folds of which came the deep absurdity of human life. He could easily predict battleships and televisions and shortened hemlines, but more than that, he could realistically predict how such technologies would be most likely used by projecting the foibles of his fellow citizens. He was living amidst the collapse of the traditional order and the wholesale willingness of people to go with technology and industrialization despite its costs on the soul, family and countryside. It is little wonder that he looked upon the modern era as the glorious ship of French history, bedecked with Gothic spires and piloted by a genteel beauty, sailing down the Seine while the bloated age of heavy industry sprawls along the shoreline.

Robida was as much a chronicler of the past as of the future. In 1895 he wrote and illustrated Paris from Century to Century, and a year later, The Heart of Paris. The pinnacle of his efforts was the exhibit Le Vieux Paris - Old Paris - at the Exposition Universelle. In the wake of the destruction of many of Mediaeval Paris' historic buildings in the modernization of the city and the development of its broad thoroughfares, a version in miniature was rebuilt along the bend of the river by Pont de L'alma.

Old Paris was not simply a location, but an attitude, a zeitgeist amongst Parisians at the turn of the century. This Mediaeval world of guilds and universities spoke to everything that the intellectuals and poets of the day felt had been lost in the tumults of the French and Industrial Revolutions (not to mention the mid-century loss of the Franco-Prussian War). When the spectre of "modernization" threatened the mighty Cathderal Notre Dame de Paris herself, Victor Hugo put pen to paper. Over the winter of 1830/31, Hugo sequestered himself away, save for nightly visits to the cathedral, and in summer of 1831 saw the publication of his novel Notre-Dame de Paris. This sprawling epic set at the close of the Middle Ages set in motion a 19th century Gothic Revival that included the 1845 restoration of the cathedral, which had been violated in the course of the French Revolution.

Interest was renewed in the places, things, stories and people of the Middle Ages. Gustave Doré lent his considerable talents to both Joseph-Francois Michaud's History of the Crusades and Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King in 1875. The Louvre opened its wing of Mediaeval art in the 1890's. Progressive Republicans and Catholic conservatives fought over who owned the 13th century, though both agreed it was worth owning. In 1909 Joan of Arc was beatified within the halls of Notre Dame, and in 1920 canonized as a saint. Through the century, from the advent of modernity to defeat by the Prussians to the turn of the century, the French took to a common Mediaeval mythology to bolster their sense of identity. Essentially, the fin de siècle recreated the French Middle Ages.

The irony was undoubtedly not lost on Robida, who easily satirized the consumptive and ridiculous habits of his fellow Parisiens. Nor was the opportunity lost on him either. Adrien Mithouard argued that the Gothic was not a bygone historical era but a frame of mind, a view of the world, that could be resurrected from its subtle dormancy whenever the conditions were right or necessary. This passion for the Middle Ages presented Robida with the chance of rebuilding it along the Seine in a kind of nostalgic theme park prefiguring the pink fibreglass castles of North America by half a century.

One guidebook described La Vieux Paris as where
are seen the quaint steep-roofed, half-timbered houses which still linger in some of the remote corners of France; the richly-wrought, antique weather vanes forming an attractive picture from the river; a castle with its donjon and moat just as it might have stood 'in the brave days of old'; tidy little shops filled with the deft creations of peasant fingers, with peasants themselves and townspeople, living as nearly as possible, in costume and occupation, the old fifteenth century days again.
Peasant fingers perhaps... The irony of Le Vieux Paris was that, as a critique of modernism, it was a thorough expression of it. Shoppes lined the thoroughfare of the Mediaeval city in miniature, selling both handcrafted gifts but also copious numbers of Robida portfolios. Le Vieux Paris was one of the most successful exhibits at the Exposition, a paradox in plaster. Bemoaning the passing of antiquated guilds, it provided goods for purchase by the hungry and affluent middle class looking for material splinters of a past way of life. The whole exhibit was nested into an Exposition intended to glorify the progress and industry of turn-of-the-century France. It was a respite from the modern age made possible by it.

Also popular for their romantic and picturesque qualities was the "Palais des Nations", the international pavilions. Across the Seine from Vieux Paris and the Aquarium stood pavilions from Italy, the Ottoman Empire, United States of America, Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Great Britain, other European nations and Mexico.

The view along the Seine, starting with the Italian pavilion on the left,
followed by the Ottoman Empire, USA, and so forth.
The Palais des Nations was reserved for sovereign states. Across from the Eiffel Tower, in the plaza of the Trocadero, was the Exposition Coloniale. This area featured the pavilions of Africa, Asia, India, and the Pacific. Russia found itself situated there, as well as Japan and China, which may have merely been a space issue but may have also reflected certain prevalent attitudes having more to do with race than national sovereignty.

Congo Pavilion.
French Dahomey Pavilion.
Russia Pavilion.
Algeria Pavilion.
Tunisia Pavilion.
Indo-China Pavilion.

René Binet attempted to capture this zest of 19th century globalism in his triumphal archway, which served as the main gate to the Exposition. A unique structure, it was adorned with Persian and Byzantine motifs, as well as forms taken from scientific research: dinosaur vertebrae, flowers, beehives, and animals. Unfortunately, it's ostentatiousness became the butt of many jokes throughout the Exposition and it was generally regarded to be in extremely poor taste.

This tram transported guests to the main part of the Exposition.
More successful, and lasting, was the Grand Palais. Still standing today, the immense structure was faced in classical Beaux Arts style, but the airy interior was rendered in Art Nouveau ironwork. This architectural innovation opened up the interior to a sizable arena for exhibits on sculpture, automobiles, and horses. It's exterior identified the Grand Palais as a "monument dedicated by the Republic to the glory of French art". 

The Grand Palais (left) and Petite Palais (right) from the Pont Alexandre III.

The Grand Palais was also the last of its kind, a fitting final chapter in the pre-electric era. Prior to the advent of electricity, large glass-domed halls were necessary for large scale indoor exhibits. The Crystal Palace was one of the first and grandest, made possible by technological innovations of the Industrial Revolution. The Grand Palais was one of the last. Once indoor electric lighting became widespread, these delicate crystal cathedrals were no longer needed. And at the Exposition Universelle, the writing was on the wall. At the base of the Eiffel Tower, at the far end of the Champs-de-Mars, sat the Palais d'Electricité. This edifice, open to the public and illuminated at night by thousands of bulbs, supplied electricity to the entire Exposition.

The Champs-de-Mars from the Eiffel Tower.

Behind the Palais d'Electricité stood the Grande Roue de Paris, the world's largest Ferris Wheel at the time. The original Ferris Wheel, built for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition under influence from the Eiffel Tower, was 264 feet tall. The Grande Roue de Paris exceeded that by 64 feet and would not itself be exceeded until 1989, with the construction of the 353 foot tall Cosmo Clock 21 in Japan. Sadly the Grande Roue did not live long enough to see its record surpassed. The cars operating on the wheel were so large that they were removed to be used as relief housing for refugees of the Great War. The framework was dismantled for scrap in 1920. 

Unlike previous world's fairs, the Exposition Universelle of 1900 was the first to benefit from the new technology of the motion picture. Employees of Thomas Edison were on hand to record the proceedings on film, including famed moving sidewalk that carried passengers along a two-mile route.  

As gorgeous and innovative as the Exposition Universelle was, many factors conspired to make it the last of its kind. The dominant was financial. Attendance was up to a record 50 million, which caused rents to soar in the exhibit grounds, which in turn lead to large parts of the Exposition closing prematurely. Despite attendance, staging the Exposition actually cost more per guest than admission. Within six months it had lost 82,000 francs. That lost was passed along to the Exposition's shareholders, and rippled out to create a minor economic depression. Other expositions were held afterwards, like St. Louis in 1904, Brussels in 1910, San Francisco in 1915, And Chicago in 1933, but few had the fully universal scope of the Exposition Universelle of 1900. In 1928, the Bureau International des Expositions was created as a regulatory body to schedule official World Expositions. Since its inception, there have only been 12, with a 13th scheduled for 2020 in Dubai. Paris gave it another shot in 1937. Every few years, the World Expositions are supplemented with official Specialized Expositions (as well as the odd unofficial, BIE unsanctioned expos like the 1964-65 New York World's Fair), but the enthusiasm for international expositions waxes and wanes with the times. The pressures of wartime in particular put a damper on them, which is another reason why Paris did not host one again until well after the First World War.     


Silver Screenings said...

What an amazing exhibition this would have been, all of it.( If I had been alive then, I would have spent most of my time at the Crystal Palace Aquarium.)

Thanks for sharing this interesting slice of Paris history.

Cory Gross said...

Thanks for the comment!

I think both aquaria have their charms, but Paris' looks maybe more fun :)