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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Paris (1937) to Rome (1942): World's Fairs on the Eve of War

With thanks to Robert H. Kargon, Karen Fiss, Morris Low and Arthur P. Molella, authors of World’s Fairs on the Eve of War: Science,Technology and Modernity, 1937-1942 (2015, 205 pp., including 46 pages of notes, and index, $34.95 hardback [$21.00 amazon]), and thanks to the publisher, University of Pittsburgh Press, for providing a review copy.  A good read, highly interpretive, fascinating. 

Followers of this website will be familiar with E42, the world’s fair-like exposition south of Rome, planned by Mussolini and a bevy of Fascist-oriented architects.  E (esposizione, exposition) 42 (1942, the planned opening date) never opened and was only partially built when the war changed everything.  It was not finished until the mid-1950s.

What is less well-known is that E42 was only one of 5 major world’s fairs—planned and/or opened in France (1937), Nazi Germany (1937), the U.S. (1939, New York City), Japan (1940, planning only), and Italy--in the 6 years spanning 1937 and 1942.  The authors of this slim and smart book—Robert H. Kargon, Karen Fiss, Morris Low, and Arthur P. Molella--take up all of them, one at a time in chronological order, including an extended and worthy treatment of the Rome expo.  They examine how each of these nations (and others, such as Russia, that mounted exhibits at some of the fairs), came to terms with science and technology—that is, “modernity”—but also how each nation, and each political regime, used the fairs to negotiate the relationship between modernity, the world-wide Great Depression, their own national cultures, and their needs as nation-states in a world rapidly approaching—and then fighting—World War II.  In some sense, the fairs were about defining the future, and the future looked very different from these distinct national perspectives.  All the fairs can be understood as national propaganda.  

At the 1937 Paris fair, for example, the French positioned themselves against what the country perceived as the American version of modernity: consumption of things and Fordist mass production.  Instead, the French fair emphasized “human creativity,” “artistic invention” “good taste,” intellect, and bringing social classes together.  Lots of art (Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Fernand Léger), French cinema.  As the authors suggest, “France imagined itself as a rational middle way between contending ideologies, the “new and powerful forces threatening the stability of Europe.”  
Sonia Delaunay, Propeller (Air Pavilion), Paris, 1937
German pavilion, Paris
In contrast, the Soviet and German pavilions, situated across from each other, were huge, imposing, and confrontational, all about strength and power.  Italy’s pavilion, designed by Marcello Piacentini, was more modest, though it did feature an enormous equestrian statue honoring Mussolini, who was fond of posturing on horseback. 

Russian pavilion, Paris

Schaffendes Volk, Dusseldorf
The 1937 German fair, the Schaffendes Volk in Dusseldorf, while less than a full-blown world’s fair (as in Rome, there were no foreign pavilions), expressed the German perspective.  This fair was about getting the Germans to understand and participate fully in the ongoing militarization of Germany, while recognizing that some consumer purchases would have to be deferred; autarchy (the 1930s word for economic self-sufficiency); and the machine age.  The Nazis were suspicious and intolerant of modernism in the fine arts, and so the fair didn’t do much, if anything, in those areas.  To emphasize the goal of self-sufficiency, the fair incorporated a display by IG Farben, maker of synthetic rubber (and, as it turned out, Zyklon B gas, used to kill millions of Jews), as well as other exhibits about synthetic fabrics.   Lebensraum (living space) was the theme of another pavilion, which also emphasized the German “race.”  The fair presented women as housewives and purchasers. 

Poster for the planned 1940 Japan fair
In contrast to the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which accepted modernity whole-heartedly and looked relentlessly into a technological and scientific future, the 1940 Grand International Exposition of Japan, planned but never opened (that darned war!) was packed with tension between modernization and tradition.  The Japanese didn’t reject technology and science (they would need both to fight the Chinese and the Allies), but they were into the cult of the emperor and didn’t like the idea of seeing their country overwhelmed by western ideas, values, and modes of production.  Those planning the fair also had to find a way to merge international modernism in architecture with Japanese design traditions (like the Shintō shrine).  “Many Japanese,” write the authors, “believed that Japan combined the best of East and West.”  

One result was the “Imperial Crown style” of architecture, a herald of postmodernism: take a rationalist, concrete, steel-frame, modernist building and put a traditional, pitched roof on top.  The winning entry for one of the Japanese halls combined the Shintō shrine with designs for Michelangelo’s Capitoline Hill complex and Bernini’s St. Peter’s Piazza.  Like the Italians and Germans, the Japanese were into “autarchy” (self-sufficiency) as well as race and nationalism, “blood and culture.”

Hey, we’ve made it to Italy, and E42!  Here at RST we’ve written extensively about the planned expo and the arch intended to be its centerpiece (Modern Rome has an EUR itinerary, Rome the Second Time devotes a special section to the arch, and there’s E42 material on the blog, too; links to some posts are at the end of this post).  So here we’ll deal mainly with what the authors of World’s Fairs on the Eve of War contribute to our understanding of E42. 

Ludovico Quaroni poster, with
a version of the E42 arch
Kargon et. al appropriately emphasize the way in which the exposition, designed to be permanent, looked to both a Fascist future, in which Italy was imagined as a world power, and the glorious ancient Roman past.  The never-built symbol of this synthesis of past and future was the Arco dell’Impero, the enormous arch that was to sit astride the far-flung complex, evoking not just technology and science but the imperial conquests of imperial Rome, past and present.  Mussolini wanted to be compared (favorably, of course) to the Emperor Augustus (just as Hirohito saw himself as the heir to Emperor Jimmu), and so he had an Augustan exhibit that had been at the Palazzo delle Esposizione moved to a new building in E42.

E42 planners also wanted to emphasize “Italian scientific genius.”  The arch would have done that, had Italians been able to figure out how to build an arch 600 meters high.  But they couldn’t—at least in the time frame they were afforded. 

Another way to showcase Italian prowess in this area was E42’s Museum of the Sciences, “heavily planned” but, like the arch, never built. 

Italy was not without a scientific heritage, and the new museum would have trumpeted the accomplishments of Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, and Marconi.  Planners hoped to present Galileo as the founder of scientific method, and Marconi’s contributions to radio were widely acknowledged and praised.  However, as the authors of this book argue, there was not much more to celebrate.  “Too bad,” they write, Italy’s “great atomic physicist Enrico Fermi had fled with his wife, Laura, to America.”  Too bad, too, that the 1938 anti-Semitic laws had forced many other notable scientists to leave the country.  (Mussolini once referred to Einstein’s theories as “a Jewish fraud lacking in originality.”)  Some thought the planners might have done better emphasizing technology rather than science (think of the Roman invention of cement).  Perhaps the basic idea was flawed.  “The Italian performance in science and technology over the last century,” the authors conclude, “was distinctly subpar by world standards.” 

Square Coliseum
Where Italians did excel was in art, architecture, and design, and today EUR (Esposizione Universale di Roma) stands as a monument to that heritage, albeit a flawed and ambivalent one.  The authors present E42 as the product of a debate and competition between Italian rationalist modernism, on the one hand, and “monumental Fascist classicism,” represented by Piacentini, on the other.  The former found its way into the fair’s most iconic structure, the Square Coliseum, and some other buildings, and the arch would have fallen in this category, too.  Indeed, the authors of World’s Fairs foreground the contributions to E42 of Italian futurism and they echo architectural critic Vincent Scully’s remark, that “EUR has a de Chirico-like perspective.” 

Museum of Roman Civilization (now closed for lack of funds)
To be sure, there are places in EUR where the absence of people might lead one to think of Giorgio de Chirico.  But by and large the complex lacks the painter’s sense of the mysterious, and its linearity and stasis seems to have no relationship with futurism’s curves and movement.  No, Piancentini (as the authors acknowledge) “won” the competition with rationalist modernism.  The result is a heavy, overbearing architecture that represents Fascism’s glorification of strength and power, its turn to colonization and, not far down the road, war. 


Some additional RST posts featuring EUR:
Il Fungo - Rome's Mid-century architecture.
The art of Caffe' Palombini in EUR.
EUR's manhole covers.
Folk-art and Fascist architecture in EUR.

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