"You might call it 'Globalization, Act 1,' " curator Keith Wilson said of the new attraction at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Japan Goes to the World's Fairs: Japanese Art at the Great Expositions in Europe and the United States, 1867-1904" fills a large portion of the museum's Japanese pavilion with historic objects designed to transform traditional Japanese crafts into Western-style fine art -- and persuade shoppers to buy Japanese.
You also might call the show "Japan Sells Out to the West" or "Art in the Service of Commerce." But there's no denying that late 19th and early 20th century world's fairs were crucial venues for the international exchange of information about industry and the arts. The fairs had an enormous economic and cultural impact on nations that made the most of the opportunity to raise their profiles and push their products.
"When the fairs started, people didn't travel," Wilson said. "Unless you were a diplomat or a soldier or maybe a very rich businessperson, you didn't go abroad. For many people, the fairs offered the first opportunity to see exotic things."
The notion of going to a fair to be dazzled by technological breakthroughs and aesthetic wonders seems quaint today, when information flies on the Internet and international art fairs proliferate from Miami to Shanghai and Reykjavik. But a coincidence of exhibition timing indicates that old-fashioned world's fairs have a legacy in the up-to-the-minute contemporary art world -- in the form of the Venice Biennale, which opens today.
While "Japan Goes to the World's Fairs" offers insight into a fascinating aspect of art history, the 51st edition of the Venice Biennale carries on a tradition of presenting contemporary art under national banners. The Italian exhibition has changed a great deal over the years, but -- unlike younger counterparts that present an international melange of new art -- the 110-year-old Biennale has retained a core of national pavilions. Some countries have permanent buildings in a large garden; others rent spaces all over town.
"The national pavilions make the Venice Biennale different from other big international exhibitions," said Donna De Salvo, an administrator and curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York who helped Linda Norden of Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum organize the show of Edward Ruscha's work in the U.S. pavilion. "It's the only one that is organized on that 19th century model. It's a kind of world's fair."
Fairs as world forums
World's fairs got their start in 1851 at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London. Dreams of world peace and world trade -- and intense curiosity -- brought more than 6 million people to see exhibits from 28 nations in the immense Crystal Palace. Designed by architect Joseph Paxton, it was erected on a 26-acre site in Hyde Park. Not to be outdone, Paris staged a fair in 1855 with a separate building for fine arts. London hosted its second international fair in 1862, Paris in 1867. Then came many other cities.
The fairs introduced the Eiffel Tower, the Ferris wheel and components of the Statue of Liberty, along with false teeth, electric lighting, the hydraulic elevator, iced tea, nylon stockings and the rocking chair. Visitors also saw tour-de-force artworks such as those at LACMA, including a 3-foot woodcarving of a monkey, a landmark of Japanese 19th century art; a gilded porcelain incense burner in the form of an elephant; and a tortoiseshell platter decorated with a lacquer and ivory scene from Japanese literature.
European artists also used fairs as forums for their ideas. At the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, French architect Le Corbusier unveiled his "Machine for Living," a model residence intended to prove that standardized design could produce functional and appealing environments. At the 1939 New York World's Fair, Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dali created his "Dream of Venus," a cave-like emulation of an underwater hideaway adorned with erotic imagery and female bathers milking a cow.
"The first Japanese involvement in the fairs was in 1873 in Vienna," Wilson said. And they seized the moment with remarkable energy and determination. "The Japanese story is special because they were emerging from the Edo period and opening up to the West at exactly the same time as the exposition era," he said. "Japan promoted itself at the fairs to an astonishingly successful degree, essentially within the space of two decades.