The Last of Cubism: French Artists at the World’s Fair, 1937, Part Two

French Artists at the World’s Fair

The Last of Cubism, Part Two

Although the 1925 exposition, the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, introduced a style for modern design, later known as “art deco,” was enormously successful, unlike other exhibitions, no significant building was left behind. No Palais du Trocadéro from 1878, no Eiffel Tower from 1889, no Grand Palais from 1900–nothing more than a pleasant memory of showing the world that France still dominated in the visual arts. When the planning began for the next world’s fair, scheduled for 1936, but delayed until 1937, architecture was of primary concern. This fair, like its predecessors, had to leave behind a significant legacy. However, the theme for the exposition–modernity–proved to be challenging, raising the question: was France ready for modern architecture? At first, the architects summoned to compete in the early 1930s thought ambitiously, in terms of urban renewal, with the hope of extending and updating the infamous Haussmannization of Paris, which began in the 1860s. The Swiss architect Le Corbusier, long a resident of Paris and famous, was disqualified from the competition because he missed the deadline and submitted his proposal with his name on it–a violation of the rules. According to Rika Devos and Alexander Ortenberg in their book, Architecture of Great Expositions 1937-1959: Messages of Peace, Images of War, Corbusier wanted to shift the discussion away from a modern “style” to a modern “way of life” that would center on the home itself and how modern people lived in modern ways. In that same year, 1933, the architect would publish Ville Radieuse in which he wrote, “The city of today is a dying thing because its planning is not in the proportion of geometrical one fourth. The result of a true geometrical layout is repetition, The result of repetition is a standard. The perfect form.” The competition moved on without considering his question of life in a modern city and the idea of demolishing large sections of Paris was scaled down and the venerable architect Auguste Perret was given the task of coming up with a solution.

The Old Trocadéro, aerial view, taken in 1900

Perret wanted to do some tearing down of his own and he, too, dreamed of being Haussmann. “Yes, I pull down the Trocadéro, the sad remains of the 1878 exhibition. Yes, I eliminate the barracks of the École Militaire, which block the fine Gabriel façade. And this is what I replace them with: the Trocadéro become a Palais where all the large museums scattered about in Paris are centralized.” Everything seemed on track, but a year later in 1934, fascist riots disturbed the city and the exhibition was canceled. Artists and architects protested and managed to get the exposition back on track, but without the ambitious plans for urban renewal. Available space would be repurposed and all of the exciting ideas for modern architecture of glass and steel boiled down to rebuilding Perret’s original target: the Trocadéro. But a new name rose to the top: Jacques Carlu.

The old Trocadéro consisted of a central building, rather exotic eclectic roundish structure, flanked by a pair of curving wings, rather like St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. There had been plans to disguise this “belly” of the structure with a concealing container that was more “modern,” and there were ideas of demolition. The French immediately became protective of the Trocadéro. As Julia Kostova, author of Spectacles of Modernity: Anxiety and Contradiction at the Interwar Paris Fair of 1925, 1931, and 1937, said, “While not liking the old Troca in the first place, Paris was not ready to let go of it, bespeaking the disquiet modernity inspired. This sharply critical response further problematized France’s relationship to its past and its attitude toward modernity.” The architect proposed to “preserve a part from the old structure but to clad it with marble, and to gut out and renovate the other part.” While the Place de Trocadéro was named after a famous battle with Spain in 1832, the Palais de Chaillot was named after a medieval town of the same name.

Palais de Chaillot, aerial view

Carlu opted for a conservative course. He demolished the central rotundity and replaced with two separated classical buildings that connected to the curved collonades and visually opened the space. Julia Kostova explained, “..the visual regime proposed by the esplanade of the Palais de Chaillot embodied a particular French worldview that served to obfuscate France’s loss of dominance by visually reestablishing hegemony; in other words, not only was French hegemony not at an end, but it was plainly on view at the exposition. This view fostered an image of France as stable, coherent, technologically progressive, happy and free of conflict, inclusive of its provinces and colonies under the banner of the peaceful republic.”

The Exposition did not open until 1937 but historian Jay Winter in his book Dreams of Peace and Freedom: Utopian Moments in the Twentieth Century noted that the city covered up for the delay by pairing 1937 to 1837 when the first train traveled between Paris and Saint-Germain, and 1637 when Descartes published his Discours sur la méthode. To celebrate the triumph of science, the ashes of the philosopher were transferred to the Pantheon in the closing ceremonies. The classicism of the new Palais de Chaillot and its tentative attempts at renewal made the gesture of the rejected architect, Le Corbusier, all the more significant in that modernity and the modern in architecture never materialized at the Fair of 1937. Aside from the renewal of the Trocadéro, France did not produce any major modern buildings and most of the pavilions were scattered across the fairgrounds and only a few, such as the Palace of Discovery survived.

The visionary architect, Le Corbusier, partnering with Pierre Jeanneret, wanted to stage an alternative exhibition called the “International Exhibition of Modern Dwelling,” a proposal for the city of the future built in part by demolishing most of the remaining historical Paris, an idea that failed to attract investors. Fortunately for history, the grand scheme was boiled down to a large tent that became a large book with images–blueprints and images and explanatory texts–that presented the architect’s hopes of a future that would never come. According to Romy Golan’s article, “Paris: A Cardboard Promenade,” the

“large, simple, tent-like structure of wood, steel, and brightly colored canvas, anchored by highly visible metal cables. (The idea of using water-resistant canvas apparently came from his cousin and frequent collaborator, Pierre Jeanneret, who had recently experimented with temporary structures for the Communist Party’s Fête de l’Humanité.) As Le Corbusier later noted with pride, his structure was rejected by the exposition’s authorities as non-architecture and was omitted from both official publications..the Temps Nouveaux pavilion was dominated by photomurals, it included, in a typical Corbusian gesture toward unadulterated creativity, a number of children’s paintings..Le Corbusier deployed every type of imagery at his disposal to make his point, juxtaposing aerial views of the Roman Coliseum with arrays of Gothic spires jumbled with those of American skyscrapers and his own (“Cartesian”) high-rises, men and women at work in city streets, in fields, and in domestic interiors, mingling with blow-ups of Brueghel paintings, medieval prints, diagrams, newspaper cartoons, and caricatures. Rather than offering an encyclopedic overview of urbanism, he provided what he called a sampling (the French word is “échantillonage”) of the possibilities offered by modern urbanism, and left it to the viewer to pull together the necessary threads. It was a creative take on the pedestrian “timeline..”

Le Corbusier. Photomural for the Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux (1937)

In a play on Corbusier’s famous phrase that a house was “a machine for living,” historian Ivan Shumkov called the tent, “a machine for transforming the visitors by initiating them in the new doctrines of architecture and urbanism..” The largest photomurals displayed in Corbusier’s remarkable tent were blown up photomontages that took up large expanses and dominated the more didactic content. As shall be noted in the next article on the French artists at the Fair, Fernand Léger also used photomontage in his murals. In fact, in order to give them employment during the Depression, the French artists were called upon to decorate the nation’s buildings with murals, providing them with a nice income for their work. As Arthur Chandler explained in 1988,

“..some of the most renowned French artists of the period – painters Robert and Sonia Delauny, Albert Gleizes, sculptors Henri Bouchard and Alfred Janniot– staved off starvation with government commissions. But there was a subtle price attached to this patronage: modern painting and sculpture at the Exposition Internationale were reduced to the status of architectural embellishment. First the superiors, then the equals of industrialists, artist had now fallen to the level of plaster molding manufacturers and furniture decorators..The official book of the exposition, Le Livre d’Or, significantly makes no mention of the names of the artists who painted the murals. After all, why mention them, unless one also mentioned the designers of cowcatchers or pull-down compartment beds?”

The next post will discuss the work of the Delaunays on their murals at the 1937 Fair.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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The Philosophy of Walter Benjamin, Part Two

WALTER BENJAMIN (1892 -1940)

Life and Work: Part Two

Working for German publications, Walter Benjamin earned enough money to spend some months in Paris where, in 1927, he began his famous and unfinished Arcades Project. As one would imagine, he and his wife Dora divorced and in 1930 Benjamin published his Habilitation and a new essay, dedicated to his lover, Asja Lacis, One Way Street, in 1928. This essay is a montage about Paris after Baudelaire. Here Benjamin showed his knowledge of Russian films, which excelled in the use of modern editing techniques and we see the beginnings of his intuition that film was created a disembodied eye and a new way of perceiving. The short snippets of his impressions of Paris are laced with cryptic observations such as, “All disgust is originally disgust at touching” and “Warmth is ebbing from things.”

Benjamin’s heightened sense of the overlooked, the passed by, the trace made him open to the ideas of Surrealism. In an essay of the same year entitled Surrealism. The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia, he wrote,

The Surrealists’ Paris, too, is a “little universe”. That is to say, in the larger one, the cosmos, things look no different. There, too, are crossroads where ghostly signals flash from the traffic, and inconceivable analogies and connections between events are the order of the day. It is the region from which the lyric poetry of Surrealism reports. And this must be noted if only to counter the obligatory misunderstanding of l’art pour l’art. For art’s sake was scarcely ever to be taken literally; it was almost always a flag under which sailed a cargo that could not be declared because it still lacked a name. This is the moment to embark on a work that would illuminate as has no other the crisis of the arts that we are witnessing: a history of esoteric poetry. Nor is it by any means fortuitous that no such work yet exists. For written as it demands to be written—that is, not as a collection to which particular “specialists” all contribute “what is most worth knowing” from their fields, but as the deeply grounded composition of an individual who, from inner compulsion, portrays less a historical evolution than a constantly renewed, primal upsurge of esoteric poetry— written in such a way it would be one of those scholarly confessions that can be counted in every century. The last page would have to show an X-ray picture of Surrealism.

During the 1920s, Benjamin considered on two different occasions the possibility of emigrating to Palestine but rejected the idea. One can only imagine “what if” he had gone to this safe place. He would have lived, yes, but what would he have written about, cut off from the cities that nourished him, Berlin and Paris? Benjamin remained in Europe and traveled back and forth between Berlin and Paris and made the transition from mysticism to materialism. As would be indicated by the variegated influences upon the writer, Benjamin was never an orthodox Marxist and shied away from the use of the dialectic. By the end of the decade, he was adrift as an home de lettres, a polite phrase for a literary career marked by written fragments and short reviews. It could be said that he did not find his true voice until he completed his decade of apprenticeship and entered into the 1930s.

The beginning of the decade of the Thirties was the end of the old and the beginning of the new for Walter Benjamin. Benjamin’s mature materialist work during the early 1930s was greatly impacted by Bertolt Brecht’s Marxist ideas of intervention with bourgeois complacency. His friends in the Frankfurt School, such as Theodor Adorno, were not happy with the impact of the “crude Marxism” of Brecht on Benjamin’s thinking. Benjamin wrote favorably of Brecht (who was not impressed with Benjamin) and elucidated the producer’s ideas in What is Epic Theater? (two versions) 1939. In addition, published after his death were Brecht’s “Threepenny Novel” and Conversations with Brecht. Written in Paris in 1934 (but never published in his lifetime), The Author as Producer is perhaps his most Brechtian expression of the role and function of the writer in modern times.

Benjamin was dedicated to writing an engaged form of cultural criticism that responded to the every shifting environment of Berlin and then Paris and was, therefore, more attuned to modern times than professors in the ivory tower. He was sensitive to the moods of his times and could veer easily among them, writing of smoking Hashish in Marsailles, 1932 and of The Destructive Character, 1931. The latter work is precinct: “The character knows only one watchword: make room; only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred.” Benjamin’s earlier writing, Critique of Violence, was related to his interests in Kant’s moral imperatives—morality had to be universal and logical and disinterested. He wrote in 1921 of legitimate and illegitimate uses of violence but a decade later, Benjamin notes the youthful unthinking destructiveness alive in his nation, a destructiveness that is all instinct and completely without moral foundation.

Benjamin was now acutely watchful of the political direction in Germany. He was aware that the rise of the Nazis would mean trouble for all intellectuals, especially Jews. Benjamin wasted no time in leaving Germany after Hitler came into power and went to his second home, Paris. Paris was very different city from Berlin; Berlin was one of the centers of modernity in mass media and mass culture, from film to advertising to radio, while Paris was a place more connected to the past—at least in terms of how Benjamin would later write of it. Although Paris, in its own way, was also modern, Benjamin seemed to have been sensitive to the history that haunted the City of Light, its streets, its structures, its arcades. Benjamin assumed the mantel of the poet Baudelaire and became a flâneur, roaming the city’s past. But it was here in this city that the writer was able to combine the rise of mass media and the resulting development of a new consciousness in Berlin with his sensitivity to the ghosts of Paris.

While in Paris, Benjamin wrote A Short History of Photography where his habitual way of thinking in terms of mysticism reemerges and he developed the famous concept of “aura,” which would reappear five years later in the 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction. The “Artwork” essay is, like the essay on photography, almost epistemological, forays into the nature of photography and mass media in modern life. Aura is used in two very different fashions. For the “Artwork” article, aura is about the loss of “art” as it was once understood as a cult object, and in the “Photography” history, aura is about haunting. The ghost of Paris that inspired the idea of aura was the photographer Eugène Atget who had recently died. Like Baudelaire and like Benjamin, Atget had wandered the streets in Paris, capturing its unexpected corners and details with his big viewfinder camera. With Atget Paris seemed eternal and unchanging and uninhabited except for that which has passed and left its traces.

And then this refuge became a place of danger. From 1935, the Frankfurt School in exile in New York had been financially supporting Benjamin, who was loath to leave Europe. But time ran out and Hitler began the war longed for by the German people and the Wermacht rolled east. At first, it was the French who, at the outbreak of the War, indiscriminately rounded up all Germans and Austrians on September 3, 1939, and Benjamin was swept up and placed in the Internment Camp at Nevers. It seems clear that from that point on Benjamin lost his moorings and was emotionally shattered by this sudden turn to his fortunes. Once again, he had lost his place

In a brief 1988 essay, Walter Benjamin in the Internment Camp, Hans Sahl wrote movingly of the frail and fragile philosopher suddenly thrown into the “notorious Stade Colombe.” The two men waited on the stone steps and Benjamin, as Sahl reported, like a good Marxist tried to unmask the reality but his gift for seeing the whole through detail did not allow him to grasp “reality as a façade.” When they arrived in Nevers they became part of a remarkable temporary society described by Sahl. “Orderly” Germans organized groups and remade working society, complete with Benjamin, watched over by a young disciple, teaching an “advanced class” to devotees. Finally, the French PEN club arranged for the release of Benjamin but now he had only six weeks left before the Germans invaded France.

With France under the heel of the Germans, all Jews in France, refugees or natives, were now targets of an extermination machine. After being in Paris for only a few months, in the summer of 1940, the Nazis seized his prized library. For Benjamin, the quintessential wandering Jew, his books were his home. One of his loveliest essays is Unpacking My Library. A Talk about Book Collecting, in 1931. He begins, “I am unpacking my library. Yes I am.” He describes himself as a “collector” and ends with

“…a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.”

At the time of the seizure there were probably over 2000 volumes in his possession. All of Benjamin’s books were gone. For someone who was so deeply identified with his books, to be stripped of his library was the equivalent of his being stripped of his soul. The swift seizure of libraries and, indeed, all personal property of the Jews, was the beginning of stripping Jews, first of their social place, their jobs, and then of their private possessions. This process of isolation and dispossession and hopelessness, which overwhelmed the Jews would culminate in the Final Solution and the near extermination of a people.

The stolen possessions of Jews, most of whom perished long ago in concentration camps, continue to this day to surface as stolen property, masquerading as “works of art” in museums who are loathe to give up their possessions. Entire libraries were appropriated and dispersed, never to be recovered. For Walter Benjamin, a write and a thinker, the loss of his literary possessions was a crushing blow. When the Gestapo emptied his Paris apartment of his books, they only took away a small part of his collection. Half of the books had already been smuggled out of Paris, and most of the remaining collection was given to the Bibliotéque Nationale by Surrealist writer, Georges Bataille, to whom it was entrusted.

After Benjamin was interned in a French holding camp at Nevers, he was returned to the Nazis by the collaborationist Vichy government. He managed to obtain an emergency visa and joined a party of refugees, taking an unguarded road over the Pyrenees towards the Spanish border. Like many of the other refugees seeking asylum, Benjamin walked on foot from France to Spain…a latter day pilgrim. This and other routes had been taken to freedom by well-known cultural dissidents, but on the day Benjamin arrived, the Spanish decided to close the border. Although Spain was a fascist nation, Franco ensured that the country remain neutral during the Second World War.

Switzerland used its neutrality to become the banker to the fascists and to become the keepers of Jewish wealth, but Spain became a conduit to freedom for refugees, opening and closing the border capriciously. Seasoned refugees knew to sit and wait. Benjamin was sensitive and highly-strung and dislocated from his home, his work, and his library. Unlike his colleagues and friends, he did not want to go to America and had no great will to survive. He had carried with him fifteen tablets of morphine (enough to kill several people) and when turned away at Port-Bou, Spain took them all. He refused to have his stomach pumped out and died in agony September 26, 1940. Horrified at such a gruesome suicide, the Spanish government.

Benjamin had long been planning to kill himself. His death was simply a question of when. In 1931, he stayed on the island of Ibiza for three months writing a chronicle on his relationship to Berlin or a journey through his childhood. Benjamin’s book was a summation of his life, a preparation for death. It was here on this island that he began to plan his suicide. Even though he lived a few more years, it was clear that his time as a writer in Berlin was coming to a close and that his writing had reached a kind of apogee. In a touching letter to Gershom Scholem, an old and dear friend and colleague, he wrote of “the deep tiredness” he felt as he watched the slow seizure of power by the Nazis. Opportunities for intellectuals were vanishing, as was the way of life that had sparked his writing. Ironically, it was in the last years of his life, while he waited for death, that his most influential work was written on the nature of “auratic” art. It is possible that he could have survived yet another displacement to New York, but Benjamin was not as tough as his colleagues and, when Spain closed its gate, there seemed no compelling reason to resist his longing for death.

The Frankfurt School was horrified and depressed at the loss of their eccentric colleague. After Benjamin’s death, it was Theodor Adorno who struggled to preserve his friend’s works and insisted on keeping his reputation alive. Along with Hannah Arendt, another intellectual refugee in New York, he labored to collect and publish Benjamin’s writings. As early as 1942, publication of his works in German began. English translation of his works was to take four decades. Some important essays by Benjamin were published in Reflections and Illuminations, including Critique of Violence, 1921, The Arcades or Passagenbeit, The Author as Producer, 1934 and The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936, and A Short History of Photography, What is Epic Theater? 1939, and Some Motifs in Baudelaire, 1939. Of these essays, the “Artwork” essay is the most famous today and this writing will be discussed in the next post.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]