- Paris 1937: Worlds on Exhibition
In his 1935 essay “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” Walter Benjamin wrote of the imminent demise of the Universal Expositions, the great phantasmagoria of mass culture that had been, since Prince Albert’s 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, the most spectacular form of economic and cultural competition and a crucial barometer of national identity among Western European countries. As Benjamin argued, the true nature of these “sites of pilgrimages to the commodity fetish” had been disclosed early on in the work of the nineteenth-century satirist J. J. Grandville, whose cartoons covertly parodied the exhibitions’ implicit “enthronement of merchandise.” 1 By Benjamin’s day, such spectacular displays of capitalism could be seen as ruins, reduced to “residues of a dream world,” thanks in part to the revelatory power of such movements as surrealism: “Balzac was the first to speak of the ruins of the bourgeoisie. But only surrealism exposed them to view. The development of the forces of production reduced the wish-symbols of the previous century to rubble even before the monuments representing them had crumbled.” 2
In his thought-provoking and ambitious new book, James L. Herbert offers a penetrating analysis of the last of the Paris Universal Expositions, the 1937 Exposition internationale des arts et techniques, and five contemporaneous museum installations and exhibitions that either complemented or parodied it: the permanent exhibitions at the Musée des monuments français and the Musée de l’homme, the Chefs-d’oeuvre de l’art français (Masterpieces of French art) at the Palais de Tokio, the Maîtres de l’art indépendant (Masters of independent art) at the Petit Palais, and the Exposition internationale du surréalisme (International exposition of surrealism) at Georges Wildenstein’s Galerie Beaux-Arts. The strength of Herbert’s study is that it seeks neither simply to illustrate the failure of these exhibitions to display the world nor to polarize the surrealist exhibition against the other state-sponsored shows. Rather, it aims to demonstrate how, taken together, the exhibitions in fact presented a surprisingly cohesive and complementary series of images: “Indeed, the claim of each display to its own disciplinary competence depended essentially on the set of differential definitions of various fields of knowledge achieved only through the juxtaposition of each against the others” (5). To the extent that it focuses less on the antagonism of the surrealist show toward the others and draws attention to the less apparent correspondences among them, Paris 1937 provides an engaging alternative to Benjamin’s exposé.
More than just demonstrating how each show depended on the others for its own internal logic, Herbert’s book indirectly points to and elaborates upon an important element missing from Benjamin’s critique, namely the accumulation of surplus value that the display of fetishized commodities implies. The thesis of Herbert’s book is that, despite their effort to display a balanced world, these six exhibitions “inevitably promulgated their own shortages, [and] engendered their own mismanagement” (xiii). In attempting to present the “real” world as an [End Page 176] array of manufactured, ethnographic, historical, and aesthetic objects and images, these installations ultimately proved to be both “insufficient” and “excessive” (5): insufficient in that they lacked the plenitude of the real world, excessive because they offered not fragments of that world but rather abstractions and duplications of it.
Herbert’s conception of surplus is by no means an orthodox one, and his loose application of the term is certain to encounter some opposition. He identifies in turn commercial surfeits, anthropological abstractions, plaster copies of French medieval architecture, the national heritage implied by displays of French art, and notions of individuality and internationality projected by the surrealist installation. The failure of the exhibition organizers to “reinvest” these surpluses, he argues, reduced the sites of display to mere “stages for the interplay of redundant figures for that lost world” (158). Nonetheless, according to Herbert, those sites, and the vast excesses they generated, produced a uniformly transcendental view...