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Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World's Fairs, 1851-1939, opens at the Nelson-Atkins
René Jules Lalique, French (Paris), 1860– 1945. Brooch, ca. 1903. Gold, glass, enamel and sapphire. 3 1/4 x 5 1/4 in. (8.1 x 13.3 cm). The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Acquired by Henry Walters, 1904, 57.943.

KANSAS CITY, MO.- 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, opened at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. 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.

“Many of the objects touch upon multiple themes in their form, in their decoration or in the way they were fabricated,” said Catherine L. Futter, the Helen Jane and Hugh “Pat” Uhlmann Curator of Decorative Arts at the Nelson-Atkins. “But the overarching theme is innovation. Every object was the newest, most modern work of its time.”

The exhibition was co-curated by Futter and Jason T. Busch, Curatorial Chair for Collections and the Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at Carnegie Museum of Art.

From international museums and private collections, Futter and Busch 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.

“Decorative arts selected for our exhibition were the physical manifestation of progressive ideals embodied in the fairs,” said Busch. “They are among the only surviving elements of these ephemeral events, and technological triumphs in their own right.”

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 SaintGobain manufactory from the 1937 Paris fair.

“We take some of these things for granted,” said Futter. “Chromolithography in ceramics was new in 1867, but remains one of the most popular methods of decoration in ceramics production today.”

World’s fairs became global marketplaces where artistic and industrial advancements from around the world were gathered and shared with artists, designers, manufacturers and consumers.

“With greater contact among India, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa as well as Europe and the Americas, designers and manufacturers exchanged ideas, fabrication techniques and styles for an increasingly sophisticated, knowledgeable, and curious public,” said Futter.

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.

“The epic period explored through Inventing the Modern World was one of exciting design globalization, fostered through international display at the fairs,” said Busch. “This democratization of design is seen with the objects in our exhibition.”

Nationalism, often literally illustrated before the 1900s, became more and more abstract in the 20th century. Shown at the 1867 Paris and 1873 Vienna fairs, the Tennyson Vase depicts the death of King Arthur in a sculptural and narrative fashion. A Fabergé tiara looks like a royal crown but is actually based on traditional textile headdresses made in provincial Russia.

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.

“In their designs, methods, and materials, these singular objects represented artistic and scientific achievements of their era,” said Busch. “They signaled a better and brighter future.”

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.

A full-color catalogue, with essays written by international scholars of 19th- and 20th-century decorative arts, and co-published by Skira Rizzoli and Carnegie Museum of Art, will accompany Inventing the Modern World. After Kansas City and Pittsburgh, the exhibition travels to the New Orleans Museum of Art from April 14 to Aug. 4, 2013, and The Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC, from Sept. 21, 2013 to Jan. 19, 2014.

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