Exhibit at the Nelson pays fitting tribute to Worlds Fairs

In a city that has never had a world’s fair, a new show at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art offers a splendid substitute.

“Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851-1939” is a parade of greatest hits from almost a century’s worth of fairs, presented in an environment designed to give a “you are there” feeling.

The museum has been preparing for this show for months, and beginning Saturday visitors can enjoy beautiful objects, flashy presentation pieces and technological innovations — all the things that made a world’s fair visit an experience of a lifetime.

Besides introducing popular products and amusements like the zipper, the Ferris wheel and the ice cream cone, the world’s fairs offered an opportunity for nations to polish their images before the world. The fairs were


place for countries to show off their creativity and innovation, art and industry.

“This whole exhibition is about marketing,” says curator Catherine Futter, who organized the exhibit with Jason T. Busch of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

The two start things off with a bang in the form of a huge, gleaming silver vase that exemplifies the tour de force technical accomplishment that was a specialty of the fairs.

Designed by Henry Hugh Armstead for C.F. Hancock Sons, it’s called the Tennyson vase for its vivid scenes of Arthur and Guinevere, Lancelot and Merlin from the poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Exquisitely detailed down to the texture of the chain mail worn by the knights of the roundtable, it was hailed at the time as an “admirable work” that “upheld the renown of England” in the 1867 Paris Universal Exposition.

National pride was a big driver of what countries exhibited at the fairs, and it seems no accident that the Norwegians chose to sail a reconstructed Viking ship to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a fair held to celebrate the arrival of Columbus in 1492. The Norwegian display also included a silver centerpiece in the shape of a Viking ship by the Oslo-based silver firm David-Andersen.

Maximum wow

The exhibit features wow objects in abundance, including the Yatman Cabinet, a writing desk designed in the style of a 13th-century French church by William Burges and painted with historic scenes relating to writing and printing by pre-Raphaelite artist Edward John Poynter. The desk’s borders include charming stencil work images of hedgehogs and flowers. The cabinet is a prized possession of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Futter said.

Nature and narrative mark the objects in the first part of the exhibit, which also reflects the mid-19th century interest in historical revival. The Nelson’s towering Gustave Herter bookcase, topped with carved spires, and a famous plate by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, emblazoned with the admonition “waste not, want not,” exemplify the gothic revival; a jewelry box by Giovanni Battista Gatti is adorned with an intricate Renaissance pattern in ebony inlaid with ivory.

Don’t miss the artist’s “signature” in the form of two little cats — “gatti” means cat in Italian.

Not just styles, but techniques were revived as badges of national identity. Salviati Co. combined old secrets with new forms and colors in its “modern Venetian glass.” Examples in the exhibit include a glass ewer with swirling striped design and a tall abstract-patterned vase, shown at the Vienna Universal Exhibition of 1873.

A lidded punch bowl and stand made by the Russian Imperial Glass Factory still feels exotic, perhaps because its rich, Byzantine-inspired design based on traditional bejeweled metalwork never got much of a foothold among American manufacturers and designers.

Stained-glass windows by the English pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne Jones and American John La Farge add glow to a set of shallow niches that are part of Amanda Zeitler and Amber Mills’ understated but inspired exhibition design meant to evoke the architecture of the fairs. Suspended arcs above one grouping of cases allude to the ribbed vaults of exposition halls; the entrance to the exhibition features a grainy black-and-white film of early fairgoers strolling with parasols and traveling by horse and buggy.

Obviously they had fun, but they also had their horizons broadened by exposure to cultures around the world. As reflected in dozens of objects in this show, the fairs encouraged and showcased an unprecedented cultural mixing. During a recent tour, Futter singled out an oval-backed ebony and ivory armchair, “made in India in the French taste for the English market,” as a particularly telling example.

The ivory carving is remarkable, particularly in the fringe of little balls that pretends to be cotton around the bottom of the seat. The chair is but one example of what by now has become a crafts cliché: manipulating one material — wood, metal, stone, clay — to make it appear to be another.

Occupying another category altogether is a famous Tiffany vessel that re-creates the design of a Pueblo Indian pot in precious metals.

Other extraordinary objects include a Japanese tray decorated with Mount Fuji scenes in lacquer and ivory applied to the interior of a real tortoise shell. A glittering, rococo-styled dressing table and stool made of silver by Gorham Manufacturing Co. of Providence, R.I., is over the top.

Art nouveau

Ornate is an understatement for the objects in the first section, but just as one begins to feel the onset of ornament fatigue, relief comes in the form of art nouveau and the pronounced shift to an airier, Japanese-influenced aesthetic of flattened patterns and sinuous lines.

Jewelry inspired by nature and arresting textiles take center stage at this point.

At the 1900 Paris Exposition, Tiffany showed an iris corsage ornament created from precious stones and metals; French designer Rene Jules Lalique used opals and diamonds in a stick pin incorporating highly realistic renditions of five wasps.

This was the exposition that showcased art nouveau, and the style reaches an apotheosis of sorts in a pair of sinuous insect-like andirons by French designer Louis Majorelle. But it had many national variants, including an edgier, more angular German variety seen in Otto Eckmann’s stylized “Five Swans” textile, also shown at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

Belgian art nouveau had its moment in the sun three years earlier, at the 1897 Brussels Exposition. At the Palace of the Colonies in nearby Tervuren, King Leopold II showed off products — and people — from the Congo Free State, where his brutal rule resulted in the deaths of millions of Africans.

The fair was “all to promote Leopold’s colonial holdings,” Futter said. It’s a fact she wants visitors to keep in mind when viewing a mailbox made of Congolese bilinga wood and ivory by Belgian designer Paul Hankar that the Nelson recently added to its collection.

Midway through the exhibit viewers can learn more about selected objects at an “augmented reality station,” where a Web camera will read the digital codes on six souvenir art cards and bring up the objects in virtual 3-D; visitors can also view short videos about how the works were made and what made them important.

Nearby, viewers can “try on” jewelry at a dressing table station featuring rotating three-sided mirrors affixed with images of selected items.

The jewelry is alluring, but the textiles in this exhibit are irresistible.

Norwegian Gerhard Munthe found inspiration in Norwegian folktales for his tapestry “The Daughters of the Northern Lights,” showing a trio of polar bears approaching three women in long white sheaths. The bears have their tongues out, but the most curious element of the composition is the women’s wild blond hair, which looks as if they stumbled into an electromagnetic field.

“Morning Sea,” a hyper-realistic rendition of white-capped waves, won a gold medal at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Unbelievably, it’s embroidery, created by artist Hashio Kiyoshi using 250 shades of silk thread.

Futter said she was thrilled to be able to secure the loan of two tapestries from the Czech Republic. Portraying carpentry and glassblowing, they are from a set of eight cubist-inspired depictions of traditional Czechoslovak crafts, made by Frantisek Kysela in a bid to establish the identity and modernity of the newly created country of Czechoslovakia.

Kysela’s tapestries were shown at the 1925 Paris Exposition, and they appear in the exhibit’s final section devoted to art moderne, later art deco.

A case containing a bejeweled Cartier clock and a bracelet and belt buckle incorporating sapphires and diamonds exemplifies European art moderne’s use of luxurious materials. But for inspired design, the Italians have it, in the form of an extraordinary porcelain urn by Gio Ponti, adorned with classical motifs arrayed against a gold and white geometric background.

The modern world

Big changes set in over the next decade and a half. A series of fairs, including the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, celebrated the modern world of industry and technology. The Westinghouse Pavilion at the Chicago fair displayed huge art deco-styled, industrial laminate panels advertising the company’s role in radio broadcasting and high voltage railway electrification.

The panels add graphic punch to the exhibit’s final gallery, which is dominated by modern furniture displayed on a large, low platform that juts dramatically from the wall.

The arrangement includes an early Herman Miller Plexiglas chair, Alvar Aalto’s Savoy vase and a glass table supported by three glass cylinders. It was shown in the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co.’s “All Glass House in the Town of Tomorrow” at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Aalto’s biomorphic vase and Marcel Breuer’s undulating bent wood Chaise Lounge No. 313 mark exceptions to the dominant aesthetic of clean geometric forms, and by this point, ornament has all but disappeared. It does surface in a silver soup tureen by French designer Jean Puiforcat, but the source of inspiration is no longer nature, it’s the machine.

The Museum of Modern Art anointed the new aesthetic in the 1934 exhibit “Machine Art.” Curated by architect Philip Johnson, it included Gilbert Rohde’s futuristic Z-Clock and assorted industrial objects. One of them was a self-aligning ball bearing. The hematite spheres that adorn the circumference of Puiforcat’s tureen look just like it.