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

French Artists at the World’s Fair

The Last of Cubism, Part Three

For Robert and Sonia Delaunay, the opportunity to decorate two buildings, one dedicated to airplanes and the other featuring trains, was too good to refuse. Both artists had long been painting modern life and both lived immersed in technology—Robert in his Talbot—and in cutting edge fashions–Sonia’s “simultaneous” dresses–so that doing murals on modern transportation–trains and airplanes–the pavilions for the International Exposition of Arts and Technics in Modern Life in 1937 would be extensions of the lives they were already leading. By the late 1930s, the painting of Robert Delaunay had stiffened and thickened, lacking the translucence of color they had possessed before the War. The designs for the two buildings were the final expression of Orphism, distilled into a formula, hardened into a composition of colored discs as a signature motif. The circular forms that had once referred to the halos of light surrounding the new electric lamps for the streets of Paris could be translated into the rushing wheels of a locomotive or the swirling propellers of an airplane. The earlier works of both artists, Robert’s 1914 painting Homage to Bleriot and Sonia’s 1913, La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, an account of a journey on a train by poet Blaise Cendrars, designed by Terk-Delaunay.

The particular buildings for the Fair, Palais des Chemin de Fer and the Palais de l’Air, designed by architect Félix Aublet, which were decorated by the Delaunays became the swan song for the couple’s collaboration and, not incidentally, for Orphism and for Cubism itself. For years, Robert Delaunay had been isolated by choice, allowing Sonia to take the lead, but the chance to do murals on such a grand scale tempted him to make his presence known to the public once more. As his friend and art historian Jean Cassou explained, “In this spirit of intuitive and amorous synthesis of Orphic cubism, Delaunay always aspired to accomplish vast works which would express some great idea collective. His isolation in our age stems from the fact that he escaped the temptation of the easel painting in order to learn of possible techniques that would reconcile painting and architecture.”

The maquette for the entrance to le Palais des chemins, representing clouds of smoke and the layout of tracks, by Robert Delaunay

Sonia Delaunay. Voyages lointains (1937) also for the Palais des chemins

Delaunay had a long friendship with Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy and had seen the Parisian debut of the latter’s famous Licht-Raum Modulator, an amazing apparatus that was a beautiful machine casting light and forming shadows. The artist was interested in collaborating with architects because he had been impatient for years with easel painting. In fact, The City of Paris of 1910-1912, shown in the Salon des Indépendants in 1912, was four meters long. Then, when he was invited by the well-known architect, Robert Mallet-Stevens, to produce a mural for the building Society of Decorative Artists for the famed Art Deco exhibition of 1925, Delaunay painted The City of Paris, the Woman and the Tower. This mural was an answer and a sequel to the earlier The City of Paris, and once more he had been called upon to do murals for an international fair. Murals in a building would give him the opportunity to increase the size of his paintings to the monumental, enveloping the viewer with discs of color.

Robert Delaunay. The City of Paris, the Woman and the Tower (1925)

This triptych was one of the last major figurative works by Robert Delaunay. By the 1930s, he had made the definitive move to total abstraction and he produced a series of paintings called Rhythms, consisting of colored discs. He translated these paintings to “wall coverings,” geometric designs featuring circular shapes applied directly onto the wall itself. The pigment substitutes, such as plaster and casein or plaster laced with sawdust or textured cement, produced raised surfaces of designs that could withstand exterior climate changes. The Reliefs were shown in a Parisian gallery in 1935 and it was at this exhibition that Delaunay met Félix Aublet, who was looking to employ unemployed artists for the upcoming world’s fair. Two years later, Delaunay had, not a wall, but the interior of an entire building to plan and decorate.

Palais de l’air with the murals visible on the back wall in 1937

Exterior of the Palais de l’air in 1937

According to the Centre Pompidou, which organized a retrospective for Delaunay in 2015 (with occasional translation assists from the author) “The Air Palace, located on the Esplanade des Invalides, with an area of approximately 6300 m2, is contrary to the Palais railway, a building designed for exhibition. All metal, it consists of two curiously heterogeneous parts: a transparent tapered lobby and a long opaque gallery, covered with cement slabs..The upper segment was 25 m by 36 m wide, the dome, which overlooks the lobby, is entirely covered with Rhodoïd, transparent material and multicolored, which are associated light projections. In the middle of colored ellipses that recall the rings of Saturn and airplane flight paths, a bridge hanging in the attic allows the public to discover, an airplane suspended in the from the ceiling, in the air, as it were. At night, the transparent walls of the hall allowed a view, from the outside, of this extraordinary cosmic composition, while the fires of three rotating lights come intensify chromatic vibration of color. Under this facility, designed by Delaunay and Aublet, two other aircraft and the latest engine models are exposed on the ground.”

Sonia Delaunay. Murals for the Palais de l’air (1937)

Robert Delaunay. Hélice et Rythme (1937)

For the married couple, the murals were a dazzling achievement. The success of the International Exposition of Arts and Technics in Modern Life is perhaps more in its place in history as one last bit of international cooperation than in any coherent manifestations of the themes. For many of the artists whose work appeared in the pavilions and palaces, it would be their last mature work before the Second World War, after which they would disappear from history. Artists like Fernand Léger would live another twenty years, long enough to see French art eclipsed by American art. Historians tend to prefer to discuss easel painting and often ignore the entire oeuvre of an artist. And yet the 1930s was a Golden Age for mural painting. It is rare to find an account of Paris between the Wars that goes beyond Surrealism, but many artists were drawn to the alternative of Social Realism which was diametrically opposed to the flight from reality and the journey into the unconscious taken by the Surrealists. Again, art history has shied away from political art and Surrealism, with its apparent lack of politics was more comfortable, because the politics of Surrealism–and Surrealism was political–were easier to ignore than with Social Realism. Diego Rivera left Cubism in pursuit of an art that expressed its own age and its needs in an era of social struggles and class divides. The Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union, expressed in the Pavilion, had stirred sympathies for the working classes and a desire for a more egalitarian justice.

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Fernand Léger. Le Transport des Forces. Palais de la Découverte (1937)

Joies essentielles, plaisirs nouveaux. Pavillon de l’Agriculture, Paris, Exposition Internationale (1937)

Fernand Léger, trapped between the avant-garde Surrealists, who were on the wane, and the concrete abstraction of Le Corbusier, sought a New Realism that would express its own time, the modern age of the thirties, in a readable–realism–fashion without being didactic and while retaining recognizable avant-garde features. Léger said, “It’s easier to look backward, to imitate what is already done, than to create something new.” Like the Delaunays, he sought connection with modernity. The murals he did for the pavilions at the 1937 Fair showed the impact of the current debate over the role of the artist in a society increasingly dedicated to listening to the needs and demands of the working class. In France, a new government had been elected in 1936 and the forty hour work week and paid holidays became part of a worker’s right. Léger, politically inclined towards supporting the proletariat, insisted that photomontages were an avant-garde solution to Socialist Realism and its didacticism. In Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art Between the Wars, Paul Wood pointed to Léger’s use of photomontage in his murals in his work for the fair as indicative of the ongoing debate of what art should be in an age of social urgency, trapped between Communism and Fascism. To anyone used to Dada photomontage, the use of mass media in a mural scale is a contradiction in terms and there is no doubt that Léger’s sincere idea was a clumsy mural, a bad solution. Like the position of the French government–in between–the struggle of French art to find the secure footing it had once enjoyed. Something had happened since the great fair of 1925 and the murals, commissioned by a government embarrassed that, in the supposed capital of the art world, their artists needed employment. And yet the argument–realism or abstraction? and if realism, what kind?–was suspended when the Second World War ended the debate, leaving important questions dangling in the margins.

The late or post-Cubists works of Robert Delaunay are rarely discussed within art history and only recently has the career of Sonia Delaunay been reconsidered. Of Robert, one must read between the lines and consider the possibility that being thought of as a “deserter” because he refused to serve in the military during the Great War might have hampered his post-war career in Paris. But the lively social life of the Delaunays suggests that the career of Robert might have stalled on its own, while Sonia continued to thrive and grow as an artist. The work he did for the Fair of 1937 was among his finest and would, sadly, constitute the end of his career. In a year, Robert became ill with what was diagnosed with cancer and he struggled for three more years to survive. However, the Nazis marched into Paris and immediately the life of Sonia who was Jewish was in danger. The couple fled south to Vichy territory where they found safety. In 1941, Robert Delaunay died of cancer, leaving a wife who would outlive him some thirty years and a son, Charles, who would become a world recognized jazz expert.

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

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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.

[email protected]