Paris Universal Exposition 1900


Ron Trevelyan

Two visits to exhibitions held in London last year revived my interest in the major Exposition held in Paris 100 years ago. The first exhibition was at the Royal Academy between January and April and was entitled ‘1900 Art at the Cross-roads’. It presented a cross section of paintings and sculpture made at the turn of the last century and looked back at the Exposition Decennale held within the Paris Universal Exposition. This was the largest international exhibition of contemporary art ever held and was housed in the Grand Palais. The selection of works on display was restricted to those created since 1889 and came from 29 nations including France. My second visit was to the Victoria and Albert Museum where a major exhibition was staged entitled ‘Art Nouveau 1890-1914. This took place between April and July. The Paris Exposition was held when Art Nouveau was at its height and the influence of the designers of this art fashion could be seen everywhere. The V. & A. exhibition portrayed a number of cities where the fashion took hold, including Paris with a mock up of a Metro Station designed by Hector Guimard. I decided to follow up my exhibition visits with a display on Paris 1900 to the Exhibition Study Group Convention in Portsmouth in September 2000 and I thought it may be of interest if I noted down some of the information I unearthed for the display. The momentum for the Paris event, which heralded the new century, was driven by international rivalries and the major Chicago Worlds Fair was a challenge not to be ignored. Paris had one major feature already in place in the form of the Eiffel Tower which had been built for the 1889 Paris Exposition. A giant Ferris Wheel (La Grande Roue) was also constructed emulating the original which was such a success at Chicago 1893. The tower and wheel certainly made their mark on the Paris skyline. When the French President Emile Loubet opened the 1900 event on the 14th April much work had still to be done and the opening ceremonies had to contend with building sites and mud. Eventually the 210 pavilions were up and running and over 40 countries were represented, many of these with extensive colonial interests around the world. The Exposition site covered about 277 acres which represented about a quarter of Paris. The Exposition Commissioner-General Alfred Picard had set out the aims of the event as: Education and Instruction; Fine and Decorative Arts; Technology; Labour; State Welfare and Hygiene. There were also permanent features introduced as a result of the Exposition,1 The city’s first underground line (Metro).2 A new railway station the Gare D’Orsey to accommodate trains powered by electric engines.3 A new bridge the Pont Alexandre III named after the late Tsar of Russia.4 The Grand Palais and Petit Palais both built to be permanent, unlike other pavilions. Public transportation within the Exposition was itself a major attraction and proved a talking point among visitors. An electric train circled the site in twenty minutes and running parallel in the opposite direction a ‘Trottoir Roulant’ (moving pavement) which was over two miles long. This allowed visitors to glide past the various pavilions and attractions and from the comments I have seen on post cards it was a big hit with those who rode on it. It was even divided up into three tracks with different speeds. There were warning signs in many languages in case those carried along became too complacent i.e. ‘Caution: Beware of the trees.’ ‘Put out neither head nor legs’. Electric light illuminations were a major feature of the Exposition and created a fairy tale atmosphere. Every evening at the palace of Electricity 5,700 incandescent bulbs were lit at the flick of a switch. Combined with water cascades (Chateau d’Eau) and the liberal use of glass and mirrors this produced some spectacular effects. With the River Seine flowing right through the middle of the Exposition all the foreign pavilions were ranged on one side along the Quai de Nations. Facing them on the opposite bank was the site for various entertainment’s and attractions. Many of the buildings had an oriental flavour, whilst the British pavilion was modelled on a famous Jacobean Manor House known as ‘The Hall’ at Bradford on Avon. This was designed by Lutyens in the style of the early 17th century and contained furniture by William Morris & Co., and stained glass by Edward Burne-Jones. The building was intended to portray a view of England before the changes made by the industrial revolution. There were major art displays in the Exposition. Apart from the Exposition Decennale I mentioned earlier, the Grand Palais which opened on 2nd May 1900 celebrated French art achievements during nine post Revolutionary decades between 1800 and 1889 at the Exposition Centennale. In addition the Petit Palais staged a survey of French art from the middle ages to the age of Watteau. The French artist Rodin found himself with only two sculptures in the official French sculpture section and organised a major retrospective exhibition of 150 works in a pavilion constructed at the Place d L’Alma which was near the fairground attractions. This exhibition opened on 1st June and was very popular with visitors ranging from Oscar Wilde to the French Minister of Education. The Paris 1900 Exposition is most certainly a happy hunting ground for collectors of postcards, exhibition labels and other ephemera. It is interesting that printing machines were exhibited at the time which produced post cards with a clear and well defined image. The technique used was that of an acid bath machine followed by an ‘etch powdering’ process. The particular post cards were ‘L.L.’ of Paris. There is much useful information about the exhibition labels / poster stamps which proliferated as a result of the Exposition in an article by Charles and Francis Kiddle in the march 2000 issue of the Stamp Magazine. Charles has produced a comprehensive catalogue listing more than 4,000 of these. When the Exposition closed on 12th November 1900 some 48 million people had been to see the sights. This figure was unsurpassed until the 1967 Montreal Exposition. It appears that a small financial loss was incurred, but this has to be set against the permanent features which were left in Paris. Paris also staged the Olympic Games at the same time, but this was regarded as by some as a half hearted affair. It seems that winners were required to pay for their own medals. I shall end my Paris 1900 story on a slightly bizarre note. The Mayors of France were invited to a banquet held for President Loubet at the Exposition. I am not sure whether the organisers knew what they were letting themselves in for, but in the event 20,777 mayors turned up for the feast. They were served on 606 tables and the food was provided by 11 kitchens.Acknowledgements1900 Art at the Cross-roads, Royal Academy catalogueEphemeral Vistas. Paul Greenhalgh

Cinderella Corner. Stamp Magazine March 2000

    © Exhibition Study Group 2001