Art and Architecture Towards Political Crises: The 1937 Paris International Exposition in Context

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The 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (‘International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life’) was held in Paris: the French capital’s sixth and latest International Exposition, after fairs held in 1855, 1867, 1878, 1889, and 1900. It took place between 25 May and 25 November, centred upon the Trocadéro, just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower.

The Palais du Trocadéro had been built for the fair of 1878, on the top of the same hill which had been utilised – along with the Champ de Mars – for the 1867 event. Designed by the architect Gabriel Davioud, and featuring a central concert hall, two towers, and two wings, the palace was a conflux of Moorish, Byzantine, and Classical architecture which proved unpopular with the public. Damp, and lacking heating and lighting, the palace also proved unsuited to its subsequent role as Paris’s first anthropological museum, the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. Picasso visited in 1907, and the museum’s collection proved a decisive influence on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which he completed later that year. Yet he remarked of his first visit, ‘the smell of dampness and rot there stuck in my throat. It depressed me so much I wanted to get out fast’. Slightly more flatteringly, he would recall:

‘When I went to the Trocadero it was disgusting. The flea market. The smell. I was all alone. I wanted to get away. But I didn’t leave. I stayed. I stayed. I understood something very important: something was happening to me, wasn’t it? The masks weren’t like other kinds of sculpture. Not at all. They were magical things.’

Owing to its poor condition, in 1935 the Palais du Trocadéro was dismantled, and rebuilt in preparation for the coming exposition as the Palais de Chaillot, which still stands. The Palais de Chaillot was a creation of the architects Léon Azema, Jacques Carlu, and Louis-Hippolyte Boileau, whose collaborative design won the competition held to determine the form of the new palace. In a style which combines Neoclassical architecture with Art Moderne, the palace features two arcing wings independent of the main building. These wings today house the Musée de l’Homme – the immediate successor to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro – alongside Paris’s architecture, monuments, and maritime museums; while the central building is home to the Théâtre National de Chaillot. On 10 December, 1948, the Palais de Chaillot hosted the United Nations General Assembly as it adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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The Palais de Chaillot as it appears today

The Eiffel Tower had been conceived and erected as the centrepiece of the fair held in 1889, amid a rhetoric which heralded the scientific and technological innovations of the preceding century. In the words of Gustave Eiffel, the tower his company was to build was to symbolise:

‘not only the art of the modern engineer, but also the century of Industry and Science in which we are living, and for which the way was prepared by the great scientific movement of the eighteenth century and by the Revolution of 1789, to which this monument will be built as an expression of France’s gratitude.’

In much the same vein, the 1937 event was to showcase the best of the world’s contemporary scientific and technological achievement. Pavilions were devoted to the cinema, to radio, light, the railway, flight, refrigeration, and printing. Posters advertising the exposition emphasised it as a coming together of ‘arts et techniques’. Pavilions were decorated and designed by artists and architects including Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Robert Mallet-Stevens, and Le Corbusier; Fernand Léger contributed Le transport des forces (‘The Transfer of Forces’) to the exposition’s Palace of Discovery; and Raoul Dufy completed and showcased his monumental mural La Fée Electricité (‘The Electricity Fairy’) – a vibrant mythologizing of the history of electricity. In fact, as with the Eiffel Tower in 1889, so too a tower was planned as the centrepiece for the 1937 exposition. To be called the Phare du Monde (‘Lighthouse of the World’), the observation tower was to be 2,300 feet (700 metres) tall – more than twice the height of the Eiffel Tower – and made of concrete. There was to be a restaurant on the top of the structure and a spiralling road ascending the exterior, which would lead to a parking garage at 1,640 feet. The tower would thereby serve as an ode to the automobile, and to the automotive industry which France had headed in Europe throughout the 1920s.

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Raoul Dufy – La Fée Electricité

Estimated to cost $2.5 million, however, the Phare du Monde was cancelled. More, the exposition became beset by delays. Originally scheduled to open on 2 March, the exposition was initially deferred to 1 May. But by the first of the month, only two of the pavilions from the forty-four participating nations had been completed: those by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, monoliths which faced one another across the newly created Jardins du Trocadéro, as the Eiffel Tower across the Seine provided the backdrop. Eventually, the exposition was ready to open on 25 May.

By 1937 Europe was beset by political crises. The Second Italo-Abyssinian War had taken place between October 1935 and May 1936. The war showed the limitations of the League of Nations, but despite the meagre sanctions the organisation imposed on Italy as it embarked upon the military conquest of Ethiopia, Mussolini still used these sanctions as a pretext to curtail Italy’s alliances with Britain and France, and to move closer towards Hitler’s Germany. In March 1936, the German military violated the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and entered the Rhineland; and by October Germany and Italy had agreed to form an axis which would set the scene for the anschluss between Germany and Austria in 1938. The Spanish Civil War had broken out in July 1936, and would see Germany and Italy support the Nationalist forces against the Republicans, who were backed by the Soviet Union. Elsewhere, Japan was in the process of waging war against China. World War II was just a couple of years away.

In the context of such tumult, the middle of 1937 proved a period of relative repose. Yet most of all the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne is recalled for its political connotations. The Spanish pavilion, organised by the Republican government, was designed by the architect Josep Lluís Sert. For the pavilion’s art pieces, Sert called upon his friends Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Alexander Calder. Picasso’s Guernica was painted for the pavilion. He had been commissioned to paint a mural for the fair at the beginning of the year; but it was only at the start of May, having read accounts of the bombing of the Basque town Guernica by the German and Italian air forces, that Picasso began the work which he would eventually show. Setting to work immediately, he had finished Guernica by early June, and it was on show as part of the Spanish pavilion by July.

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Pablo Picasso – Guernica

While Picasso’s painting – a portrait of grotesque suffering in grey, black, and white – slowly rose to acclaim, the subject would prove popular for other artists. The surrealist poet Paul Éluard, who was particularly close to Picasso during this time, wrote the poem ‘La Victoire de Guernica’ (‘The Victory of Guernica’) the following year. In 1950, Alain Resnais would use Éluard’s poem over images of Picasso’s art for his short film Guernica.

Alongside Picasso’s work was Miró’s The Reaper (or Catalan peasant in revolt), a mural which he painted in situ, directly upon panelling which extended six feet high over the pavilion’s two floors. Describing the process, Miró reflected:

‘I painted on a scaffolding directly in the very space of the building. I first made a few light sketches to know vaguely what I needed to do, but… the execution of this work was direct and brutal.’

However, after the pavilion was dismantled in early 1938, Miró’s mural was lost or destroyed on route to Valencia. Finally, on the ground floor was Alexander Calder’s Mercury Fountain: a fountain in iron and aluminium which pumped mercury instead of water, and which is now on display at the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona, housed behind glass for the safety of viewers.

If Picasso’s Guernica has arguably transcended its immediate context, the 1937 exposition is perhaps best remembered today for the Soviet Union and Nazi German pavilions. The Soviet pavilion was the product of the architect Boris Iofan. Iofan was a Jewish Soviet architect from Odessa, who completed his architectural studies in Rome. In 1932, he had submitted the winning entry for the Palace of the Soviets contest: an international competition to design a vast congress hall, to be built in Moscow, and which was intended to become the administrative centre of the Soviet Union. The site chosen for the Palace of the Soviets was occupied at the time by the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, situated on the northern bank of the Moskva River, planned after Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812, but not completed and consecrated until 1883. Thus in 1931, in preparation for the Palace of the Soviets, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was demolished.

Renowned architects including Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Erich Mendelsohn submitted entries for the contest, but Iofan’s Neoclassical design was the one chosen by a ‘council of experts’, under the guidance of Stalin. Joined by his fellow Neoclassicists Vladimir Shchuko and Vladimir Gelfreikh, upon Stalin’s instigation Iofan’s original designs grew ever bolder. Stalin wanted an edifice taller than the Eiffel Tower, and taller too than the Empire State Building, which had been completed in 1931, becoming the tallest building in the world at 1,250 feet. More, Stalin conceived that the Palace of the Soviets would also serve as a monument to Lenin. From an initial 853 feet (260 metres) proposal, the final plans for the Palace of the Soviets envisioned a building 1,361 feet (415 metres) tall, topped by a statue of Lenin which would rise a further 260 feet.

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A late drawing for the proposed Palace of the Soviets

Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright  were among those who condemned the plans at every stage. In 1932, Le Corbusier remarked ‘It is hard to accept the fact that they will actually erect that odd thing which recently has flooded all of the journals’; while Wright addressed the First Congress of Soviet Architects in June 1937, and told the Congress ‘This structure – only proposed I hope – is good if we take it for a modern version of Saint George destroying the dragon’. Building work began that year, and by 1939 the foundations of the Palace were complete. But by 1941, in the midst of World War II, the building’s steel frame was being cut and used towards Moscow’s war effort. Iofan continued to modify his designs, but building never resumed, and in 1958 the site was converted into an open-air swimming pool – for a time, the largest in the world. In 1995, work began on the site towards rebuilding the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The new Cathedral was consecrated in August of 2000.

Thus it was with the Palace of the Soviets project ongoing that Iofan was tasked with designing the Soviet pavilion for the 1937 Paris exposition. His structure – encased in marble, and extending back in a series of rectangles which recall the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich – was topped by Vera Mukhina’s Worker and Kolkhoz Woman (Rabochiy i Kolkhoznitsa’). Born in Riga before moving to Moscow, after studying in Paris and Italy Mukhina had developed an artistic style which combined elements of Cubism and Futurism. Worker and Kolkhoz Woman gave her an international reputation as an eminent socialist realist. The sculpture depicts a male and female striding boldly forward, with a hammer and a sickle united in their raised hands. The male worker wears overalls, while the woman is thinly attired about her chest, but wears a long, billowing skirt. The scarf which flows from the man’s waist was introduced to provide both aesthetic and structural balance to the sculpture, adding weight to the rear of the two figures.

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The Nazi German and Soviet Union pavilions at the 1937 Paris International Exposition

Mukhina’s iconic sculpture was adopted as the logo of the Russian studio Mosfilm in 1947. Having produced Sergei Eisenstein’s body of work, Mosfilm would go on to be the studio of Andrei Tarkovsky; Viy, an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s short story which was the Soviet Union’s first horror film when it was released in 1967; Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace; Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala; and Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, which won the 1980 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and was allegedly watched eight times by Ronald Reagan in a personal endeavour to better understand the Russian spirit.

Frank Lloyd Wright met Boris Iofan during his visit to the Soviet Union in 1937. Upon his return to the USA, in August, he wrote an article full of praise for the role afforded to architecture in Soviet life – even if he was far from enamoured with the plans for the Palace of the Soviets. This article was published in Soviet Russia Today and in Architectural Record, both in October 1937; and Wright included the article in full in Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography, first published in 1943. In the article, Wright dubbed Russian cinema buildings ‘the finest good-time places for the people to be seen anywhere in the world’; and extolled ‘this tremendous social construction that is calling upon Architecture for help and direction’. More, he asserted that the West must look towards the Soviet Union and:

‘marvel at her vitality and strength, her heroic growth and richness of expression, and admire especially her colorful individuality, never knowing the secret of such happiness […] Russia may yet give to this money-minded, war-minded, quarreling pack of senile races that make up the Western world the soul they fail to find within themselves – and, I hope, in time to prevent the suicide the nations are so elaborately preparing to commit.’

Wright was far from alone in holding such a perspective on the Soviet Union in 1930s America. In his introduction to Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971, Simon Karlinsky depicts:

‘the groundswell of enthusiasm for Soviet Russia among America’s intellectuals which came just as Stalin was consolidating his power and plunging the country into the worst nightmare in its history. What amazes a person even minimally acquainted with Soviet realities about the intellectual climate of America in the thirties is the almost inconceivable gullibility of the intellectual community, its lack of any meaningful criteria for comparing the situations in the two countries.’

Citing the Sacco and Vanzetti case, which brought a spate of protest in America and demonstrations in cities across the world, Karlinsky does not dismiss the concerns it raised for intellectuals within the United States; but he notes how the case paled in comparison to the political executions carried out by Lenin and Stalin, and the Holodomor which saw millions of Ukrainians die owing to starvation caused by Stalin’s policy of forced collectivisation.

Karlinsky describes how the view of Russia which developed in the United States after the October Revolution of 1917 differed from that held in continental Europe, where Nabokov lived for more than twenty years after being forced to flee Petersburg for Crimea. Throughout their correspondence, Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson would maintain disagreements regarding the complexities of Russian political life prior to the revolutions of 1917, and regarding the true natures of Lenin and Soviet ideology. Yet Karlinsky writes that, upon the Nabokov family’s arrival in the United States in May 1940:

‘It is to Edmund Wilson’s credit that he was able to ignore the widespread anti-emigre prejudice of those days (which had, for example, led to an attempted boycott of the Book-of-the-Month selection of a novel by Nabokov’s friend Mark Aldanov in 1943 on the grounds that an anti-Stalinist emigre had to be an enemy of freedom and democracy) and extend a helping hand to a man who was a virtual unknown in the United States.’

In his 1937 article, Frank Lloyd Wright reserved kind words for Iofan’s pavilion and Mukhina’s sculpture, which he had witnessed in Paris earlier in the year. Describing the pavilion, he wrote:

‘the Paris Fair building is a low, extended, and suitable base for the dramatically realistic sculpture it carries, whereas the Palace of the Soviets itself is a case of a thoroughly unsuitable, badly over-dramatised base underneath realistic undramatic sculpture.’

He concluded that the Soviet Union pavilion was ‘the most dramatic and successful exhibition building at the Paris Fair’.

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Architectural drawing for the Soviet pavilion

Against the backdrop of Hitler’s anti-Slav rhetoric and their differing allegiances in the Spanish Civil War, The Soviets and the Germans felt the weight of competition even before their pavilions came to face one another across the Jardins du Trocadéro. Hitler had initially considered withdrawing Germany from the exposition, but he was close to Albert Speer, who he had made chief architect of the Third Reich, and Speer convinced him to participate. Speer had designed between 1933 and 1934 the plans and many of the buildings for the Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg; and he conceived too the ‘cathedral of light’, comprised of 130 anti-aircraft searchlights shone into the night sky, which became the visual emblem of the Nuremberg Rallies. The rally grounds were notably captured on film in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, a chronicle of the Nuremberg Rally of 1934.

For the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Speer modified Werner March’s design for the Olympiastadion, adding a stone façade. Over these years, Speer extended the concept of ‘ruin value’: the idea that buildings should be designed with a view to their deterioration and eventual collapse, so that the ruins they ultimately leave behind retain aesthetic and symbolic value. While Speer gave the concept a name, the principle had a long precedent, beyond the drawings of John Soane and the Romantic exaltation of ruins. In Speer’s memoir, Inside the Third Reich, he explained his theory:

‘Hitler liked to say that the purpose of his building was to transmit his time and its spirit to posterity. Ultimately all that remained to remind men of the great epochs of history was their monumental architecture, he would philosophize […] Naturally, a new national consciousness could not be awakened by architecture alone. But when after a long spell of inertia a sense of national grandeur was born anew, the monuments of men’s ancestors were the most impressive exhortations. Today, for example, Mussolini could point to the buildings of the Roman Empire as symbolising the heroic spirit of Rome. Thus he could fire his nation with the idea of a modern empire. Our architectural works should also speak to the conscience of a future Germany centuries from now.’

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Architectural drawing and floor plan for the German pavilion

Speer was to design the German pavilion for the 1937 exposition. On a visit to Paris several months prior to the exposition’s opening – at which point the site of the Soviet and German pavilions had already been confirmed by the French organisers, headed by chief planner Jacques Gréber – Speer ‘stumbled into a room containing the secret sketch of the Soviet pavilion’. Upon this good fortune, he designed a pavilion which was intended to firmly counteract the assail of Worker and Kolkhoz Woman. While Iofan’s ascending base and Mukhina’s sculpture were full of horizontal movement, Speer created an indomitable vertical mass, capped by an eagle perched atop the swastika. In Speer’s words:

‘A sculpted pair of figures thirty-three feet tall, on a high platform, were striding triumphantly toward the German pavilion. I therefore designed a cubic mass, also elevated on stout pillars, which seemed to be checking this onslaught, while from the cornice of my tower an eagle with the swastika in its claws looked down on the Russian sculptures. I received a gold medal for the building; so did my Soviet colleague.’

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Worker and Kolkhoz Woman being assembled in Paris by crane

Though Speer’s theory of ‘ruin value’ meant a preference for stone with regard to permanent projects, this temporary pavilion was in fact a construct of steel. A surface of Bavarian granite masked a structure comprising three-thousand tons of steel; the granite rose in pillars with mosaics; and inside the pavilion, the floor was coated in red rubber. The Soviets sent a team of specialists to assemble Mukhina’s stainless steel sculpture – which had been fixed around a wooden frame and welded in Moscow, at the Institute of Steel and Alloys, before being sawn apart and shipped in sixty-five pieces to Paris. Once they had arrived, a crane was used to hoist the pieces of the sculpture into position; and the whole process took only thirteen days. However, to build the pavilion itself, the Soviets had relied on French workers. This was in contrast to the Germans, who sent a thousand-strong team of builders to construct the pavilion which Speer had designed.

If the whole of Speer’s conception was derived from a surreptitious look at the Soviet Union’s plans, in one point of detail Iofan was spurred equally by the Germans: it was on learning of the granite with which Speer intended to encase the Nazi pavilion that Iofan opted to cover his pavilion with marble. Speer had ensured that the German pavilion would surpass the Soviet Union’s in height – so that its eagle would indeed gaze down upon the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman – but Gréber persuaded him to limit the original scope of his design, for the sake of the other pavilions and to better cohere with the Palais de Chaillot, with which it shared the use of columns and a Neoclassical sensibility. At night, the German pavilion was lit from underneath and from within its pillars, via a lighting system designed by Zeiss-Ikon. The architectural professor Danilo Udovički-Selb has described the effect of these concealed lights as producing ‘the ghostly appearance of a photo-negative’. Udovički-Selb has subsequently viewed Speer’s pavilion – alongside other instances of crystalline architecture in Nazi Germany – within a context of medieval German mythology.

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The Soviet and German pavilions lit up at night

Despite their ideological differences and their engagement on opposite sides in Spain, two years later, on 23 August, 1939 – with the Soviets hesitant regarding British and French motives, the Germans requiring raw materials, and both parties eyeing political gain – the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany would sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. A treaty of non-aggression, the pact also contained  a secret protocol which sought to divide up much of Eastern Europe. The pact would hold until Hitler’s decisive invasion of the Soviet Union, which commenced on 22 June, 1941.

Meanwhile, towards the end of the 1930s, Speer focused on completing the grand New Reich Chancellery in Berlin. With Hitler setting a tight deadline, the building was finished by January 1939. Costing 90 million Reichsmark, it included a gallery 0f 480 feet: twice as long as the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. The chancellery was damaged during the Battle of Berlin, and torn down by the Soviets at the end of the World War II.

Prior to the onset of war, Hitler had Speer develop plans for an extensive rebuilding of Berlin. At the centre of these plans was the Prachtstrasse (‘Street of Splendour’): a grand and extraordinarily wide boulevard, which was to run three miles long in a straight line between north and south. The boulevard was to bear all of Germany’s ministry buildings and embassies. As with so many of these grandiose architectural projects, there was an impetus to dwarf the great works of other cities. And Hitler continued to conceptualise his new Berlin – which Speer would later refer to as ‘Germania’ – in the early days of the war. He was inspired again by the example of Rome, which he had visited in May 1938; and by Paris too, whose architecture he toured in the days following the fall of France at the end of June 1940.

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A model of the proposed Volkshalle

Although such opportunities for sightseeing served to advance his vision, and while he handed responsibility for the details of the rebuilding to Speer, Hitler had pictured some of these proposed structures as far back as 1925. Towards the southern end of the Prachtstrasse was to be a triumphal arch, based on the Arc de Triomphe but three times as tall. Then at the northern end  of the boulevard was to stand an enormous Volkshalle, rising to 950 feet and covered with a copper dome, and shaped after Hadrian’s Pantheon. Hitler envisioned a completed Volkshalle serving as the centrepiece of an International Exposition which he hoped to host in Berlin come 1950.

Speer continued to work up his plans throughout the early phase of World War II, but he was quick to appreciate that while Germany was engaged in such a war, there could be no large-scale construction. Stalin, already impressed by Speer’s pavilion in Paris, received in late 1939 images of Speer’s models for the rebuilding. He desired that Speer take a trip to Moscow to discuss his work – but Hitler refused Speer permission to make the visit, fearing that Stalin would not allow his prized architect to return to Germany.

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Johnson, D. L. ‘Frank Lloyd Wright in Moscow: June 1937’ Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Vol. 46, No. 1 (1987)

Karlinsky, S. Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971 (University of California Press, 2001)

O’Donnell, J. P. The Bunker (Da Capo Press, 2008)

Rayward, W. B. ‘The International Exposition and the World Documentation Congress, Paris 1937’ The Library Quarterly Vol. 53, No. 3 (1983)

Speer, A. Inside The Third Reich (Phoenix, 2009)

Tate.org.uk, ‘A Hymn of Freedom’

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