Meet me in St. Louis, Louis. Meet me at the fair. If St. Louisans today had the opportunity to take a stroll down the Pike and visit the exhibits of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, most would leap at the chance to experience the sites and sounds of the event they’ve heard about all their lives. And while this may be just a pipe dream, the real opportunity to view items displayed at the St. Louis World’s Fair currently exists at a special exhibit titled Inventing the Modern World, Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs,1851-1939, at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
Some 200 items are included in the exhibit, which runs through Aug. 19, with 11 from the 1904 World’s Fair that were originally displayed in the Palace of Varied Industries, where items like furniture, ceramics and gold and silver pieces illustrated the marriage of art and industry. “The largest collections in this display came from Germany and Japan—both countries had well-established marketing plans for their goods,” explains Catherine Futter, the exhibit’s curator. “These objects were a part of a manufacturers’ display, because world’s fairs during that period were big trade shows.”
Futter notes that the 11 items on-loan were gathered from places as close as a private collection in Kansas City (a glass and silver vase) to as far away as the MAK in Vienna, Austria (a wooden and enamel jewelry box), as well as two pieces from the Saint Louis Art Museum, including a pewter schnapps set and a glazed earthenware vase by Gates Potteries. She adds that one of the exciting things about the 1904 exposition is that it demonstrates a crossroads between Art Nouveau and Modernism. “When you look at the Saint Louis Art Museum schnapps set, it’s in the form of a peacock, but it’s a simplified peacock that is abstract and geometric. And when you look at the Gates vase, it still has flowing Art Nouveau lines. So it’s really an interesting fair: It’s the end of Art Nouveau, and Modernism is really moving forward.”
Another interesting piece from the 1904 World’s Fair is a Norwegian tapestry on loan from The Wolfsonian-Florida International University called The Daughters of the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) by designer Gerhard Munthe and weaver Nini Stoltenberg. “What’s special about it is it’s reviving the historic technique of weaving,” Futter explains. “But the way the daughters of the Northern Lights are depicted is very modern—it looks like a modern painting.”
Objects beyond the 1904 Fair include a Paper Maché piano that was shown in Paris in 1867, a chair made in India for the English market (shown in Paris in 1855) and a number of Japanese items. According to Futter, Japan had just opened to direct trade in 1854, so it was now getting its product out into the world. “Japan’s manufacturers made adjustments to cater to those new markets, so the items looked both very Asian and very Japanese to the rest of the world, but to the Japanese, the products seemed as if they had European or American influences.”
The first world’s fair was held in London in 1851 and was called The Great Exhibition. “Before there were world’s fairs, there were what we called national fairs in both France and in England,” Futter explains. “In 1851, Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband) and a man named Henry Cole decided to put on an international fair to promote and stimulate British industry.”
Among the largest expositions, Futter says, were the London fair in 1851, Paris in 1889, Paris again in 1900 and St. Louis in 1904. The Inventing the Modern World exhibit takes visitors through the New York World’s Fair of 1939. “And it was so popular that they had it in 1940, as well,” she notes “After this, world’s fairs change a lot, and the reason our exhibit ends in 1939 is because after that, the fairs were no longer about products—they were about ideas. And after 1940, there was World War II so nothing else happened until the 1958 fair in Brussels.” She continues to add that world’s fairs, from a product standpoint, have been replaced by trade shows, like car shows for example. “And of course, now we can sit at home with our smart phones, and we can look up the whole world pretty quickly.”