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  • Indochina, ‘Greater France’ and the 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris:Angkor Wat in Blue, White and Red
  • Marco R. Deyasi (bio)

In 1931 the newspaper Le Figaro published a special issue of its illustrated magazine to celebrate the newly opened colonial exhibition in Paris. Entitled ‘Scènes de l’époque coloniale’, it showcased the centrepiece of the exhibition, a monumental reconstruction of the ancient Cambodian temple of Angkor Wat (Fig. 1). The temporary structure was vast and superbly detailed (Fig. 2). The care, attention and money spent on this pavilion indicate that Angkor had become a powerful symbol for the French colonial regime. Wanting visitors to see Angkor as a patriotic symbol, the organizers of the exhibition bathed the pavilion in blue, white, and red lights and flew the tricolor from its uppermost spire.1 Some commentators claimed that the five towers represented the five ‘nations’ of Southeast Asia – Cochinchina, Annam, Tonkin, Cambodia, and Laos – united under French guidance as the Union Indochinoise.2

While the exterior of the building celebrated the ancient past, the interior promoted the imperial future: inside was an exhibition of art produced by students of the new Fine Arts School of Cambodia (l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts du Cambodge), as well as didactic displays detailing French educational reforms in the colony.3 The new art produced under French guidance was presented as a triumph of colonial power, linked to France’s archeological knowledge of the Khmer culture of Angkor. The interior and the exterior of the Angkor pavilion worked in concert to promote the colonial messages of the exhibition: France’s intimate knowledge of Indochinese culture and the beneficent guidance that preserved and renewed it.

The popular illustrated weekly, L’Illustration, went still further: the Angkor pavilion proved that, ‘we are – we French of Asia, we Western pacifiers of the Far-East – the legitimate inheritors of the ancient Khmer civilization’.4 For this commentator not only was Angkor a French possession, but France itself had become an Asian nation – not simply helping Cambodians to revitalize their art and culture, but the direct inheritor of that civilization. While this claim may sound strange to a twenty-first-century reader, the 1931 colonial exhibition promoted the empire as a racial [End Page 123]

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Fig 1.

Paris Colonial Exhibition in the Bois de Vincennes, 1931. Policemen watch a painter sketching the replica of Angkor Wat during its construction.


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Fig 2.

Paris Colonial Exhibition in the Bois de Vincennes, 1931. View of the decorative details of the replica of Angkor Wat with other exhibition buidings in the distance.


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union between France and its territories, providing ‘a new definition of what it meant to be French’.5 As Herman Lebovics has pointed out, we tend to forget how much the colonial authorities worked to convince the metropolitan population to accept their ‘destiny’ as colonial masters.6

This essay explores one aspect of colonial culture: the state propaganda aimed at a domestic population in the metropole and the ideological assumptions that underlay it, part of the larger pattern of ‘selling the colonies’. While this is a well-known feature of colonialism in general, the specific example of the Angkor pavilion reveals the depth of the cultural interrelation between colony and metropole, a depth that is easy to overlook in our twenty-first-century moment. Our post-colonial culture is shaped in part by these earlier efforts. Indeed, the example of Angkor pavilion in 1931 helps to demonstrate the mutually-constitutive relationship between colonizing and the colonized cultures in the modern period.

In what follows, I argue that the figure of Georges Groslier is emblematic of French efforts to develop a colonial interpretation of Khmer culture. Groslier began his career as an artist and later became a powerful colonial arts administrator, founding an institution that embodied his thought and life’s work, the Fine Arts School of Cambodia. His ideas helped ensure that Angkor Wat was transformed into an over-determined signifier of France’s colonial mission in Indochina, ultimately becoming a symbol of France itself.7 Groslier’s knowledge of the ancient...


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