World’s Fairs 1851-1939 decorative arts at Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (2012)

World’s Fairs 1851-1939 decorative arts

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
14 April 2012 - 19 August 2012

Press release text by Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

A groundbreaking exhibition of extraordinary decorative arts and design shown at world’s fairs from 1851 to 1939, representing the pinnacle of artistic and industrial ingenuity, opens at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City April 14, 2012, and runs through Aug. 19 of that year. Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851–1939, co-organized by the Nelson-Atkins and Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, includes dozens of international loans of furniture, metalwork, ceramics, glass, textiles, and jewelry, many never before seen in the United States.

After Kansas City, the exhibition travels to Carnegie Museum of Art, Oct. 13, 2012–Feb. 24, 2013, and to the New Orleans Museum of Art and The Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC, in 2013.

Spanning the most dynamic period in craftsmanship and manufacturing history, Inventing the Modern World is organized chronologically and thematically, with the overarching premise of innovation. Works exemplify technological and scientific invention, cross-cultural influence, national pride, modernism and historicism.

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From international museums and private collections, [Catherine L. Futter and Jason T. Busch (curators)] carefully selected the finest and most compelling objects shown at major and minor world’s fairs from the 1851 London exhibition to the 1939 New York fair. Their work was supported by a generous research grant provided by the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Examples of innovation include a Thonet rocking chair that demonstrated new bentwood processes at the 1862 London International Exhibition; a vase with a complicated Black Iris glaze and electroplated mounts created by the Cincinnati-based Rookwood firm shown at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle; a dazzling bracelet of diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds set in platinum and osmium that Boucheron displayed at the 1925 Paris exposition to showcase progressive designs and metalsmithing techniques; and a lighted plate glass radiator by the Saint-Gobain manufactory from the 1937 Paris fair.

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The exhibition’s cross-cultural themes are illustrated through objects such as a corsage ornament in the form of a Chinese mask that employs jade and onyx— materials not typically used in Western jewelry of the time. A silver vase by Tiffany & Co. is decorated with Japanese-style techniques such as mokume, in which bits of silver, brass, and copper are hammered into sheets to create patterns suggesting wood graining before being attached to the surface. Middle Eastern influence is seen in the parchment-covered Cobra chair by Carlo Bugatti, shown in his groundbreaking installation at the 1902 Turin fair.

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The fascinating tension between historicism and modernism is typified by a superb silver dressing table and stool by the Gorham Manufacturing Company of Providence, RI. Shown at the 1900 Paris exposition, they embody the French 18th-century fascination with nature and luxury, while its curving lines point toward Art Nouveau’s organic nature.

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Changes in urban life, the discussion of the role of the machine in production, and new resources and processes all contributed to a redefinition of the decorative arts and modern living. Materials such as glass, as in the Pittsburgh Plate Glass table shown at the 1939 New York fair, indicate the desire to push existing materials to new levels, while the Gilbert Rohde chair shown at the same fair displays a new material, Plexiglas, as well as a new reductive form.

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