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Paris Exposition Internationale 1937 Essay

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Updated: Apr 29th, 2022


“In 1937, the Queen City of Expositions held court for the last time. World War I was scarcely two decades past. The most catastrophic war in the history of the human race loomed less than two years away. Paris, France, Europe, and all nations of the earth seemed poised in the eye of a hurricane, between the winds of World War I and World War II. The Exposition Internationale would be the final European enactment of the ritual of Peace and Progress before the deluge.” (Chandler, 1998)1

The era which the 1937 Paris Exhibition Universelle marked, was that of what the world would soon come to realize as the brink of World War II. There was, without a doubt, hope that the world should never see another absolute war on the scale that they had previously experienced. Unrest elsewhere was still a problem however in countries such as the Soviet Union and Spain. From the end of World War I through to the first of the Nazi uprisings in the mid 1930’s the world experienced extraordinary change in fields of music, economy, art literature and technology.

The light-hearted days of the liberated 1920’s had come to an abrupt end in the United States, with the Wall-Street Crash in 1929; the first sound film was produced; the rise of Freudian psychology and of course, the birth of Surrealism. What this meant for the world of art could not be more intensely recognized as it was at the 1937 Paris Exhibition which brought 52 countries together in an effort to unify the world of t he arts2.

Was it art for art’s sake or was it art of description? In this essay we will discuss the various ways in which aesthetics were used to portray both political climate and national identity of the participating countries. Particular reference is made herein to Pablo Picasso and also the German idealism which vividly annotated the said exhibits. What is also of particular importance is how the artists of these countries (Spain, Germany and France) were influenced by current affairs, and could be seen if not as prophets, then at least as talisman’s to the future of the European continent.

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The ancient Greeks had been particularly diligent in their records and portraits of current affairs in history, richly woven with the seeds of their forbearers. Over time, and in areas where little unrest occurred, different countries experienced a stagnation or sag in their arts. The renaissance was purported to be one of the most valuable periods in the growth of aesthetics across the globe, but the greatest surge of free thought and freedom of expression came only after World War I.

This quantum leap culminated as a result of nations plunged into a war of magnitudes beyond their own understanding. There came a distinct falling away of moral judgment in terms of the arts which was previously accepted as being a depiction of beauty rather than a political statement. The 1937 Paris Universal Exhibition proved to be more of a political showcase for some than a pure, unadulterated celebration of art.

It was by all means a lavish affair, taking up approximately 100 hectares of the Palais de Chaillot and the famous fountains of Trocadero lit by exhibition lights the entire way around3. But against the decadent backdrop was an inherent evil that will become the first of our discussions, that of the German Fascist Movement headed by Adolf Hitler. The architect Albert Speer created for the Expo a thorough rendition of German culture at that time.

“Extravagant national pavilions occupied the heart of the exhibition grounds, the area spanning the Seine River from the base of the Eiffel Tower to the gardens of the Trocadero; most famously, Speer’s neoclassical tower for Germany, with its National-Socialist eagle perching atop a swastika, faced off against Mukhina’s enormous Worker and Collective Farm Woman, striding forth in the name of the Soviet Union.”(Herbert 1995, 96).

That the Expo was intended to describe and portray each nations identity, perhaps Speers tower was most indicative of what was to become of both the Teutonic nation and the nations it came to oppress. It stands to reason then that at this stage, Germany would, in the next two years become the sole antagonist of all other nations present at the Exhibition. The tirade had in fact begun already with the Nazi abolition of what were termed ‘Degenerate’, which included the declination of artists that have become today some of the most prolific in history. Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Edvard Munch, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee were all amongst those unacceptable to the Third Reich.

Clearly visible in Speers tower itself with the Nazi eagle presiding over the Swastika, is the oppression the Nazi regime imposed on most of Western and Eastern Europe. Since the primary artists of the time were not allowed to exhibit as part of the German Reich and their works had to be evacuated in order to preserve them, the Paris exhibition could not claim to be a true indication of German art at the time. Major schools such as Der Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter were not represented to their potential4. The aspect of social control in Fascist Germany belied an underlying artistic freedom cut short. Dada and Surrealism as pertinent movements across the globe were stunted.

“The exhibition, its champions maintained, not only attained geographic comprehensiveness, it also presented the world to its viewers with striking immediacy. Artisanal goods produced in foreign lands, displayed in abundance, served to embody absent nations.”(Herbert 1995, 96).

The organisers clearly believed they were representing a global audience, but later in his dissertation Herbert discusses that the real theme of the exhibition was not in fact a celebration of the uniqueness of technology, but something altogether quite different. Already introducing the fact that the global depression following the 1929 stock exchange collapse had caused dented economies across the America’s and Europe, the Expo was also intended to bolster flagging economies (Ibid).

It was not as if there were never artists conducting politics in the past, as could be seen in Francesco Goya’s anti-Spanish Acquisition works, but he too was exiled for his outspokenness. “The title of the 1937 exposition suggests another change in the thinking of the planners, a change as fundamental as the shift from “universal” to “international.” Now “Art” and “Science” no longer exist as absolute values. Art becomes artisanship, science becomes technology.

The value of art and science derives from its social utility, the exposition planners announce at Paris 1937. Application to daily life is the highest measure of worth – this tendency, always present in the philosophy of the Parisian expositions, is now carried to its logical extreme. Science is valued, not as an independent exploration of the unknown, but as a vehicle for social amelioration. Art is not the vessel of immortal truth, whose purpose is to “instruct by pleasing”: it is a decorator of the useful. Both the right and the left wings of political life in the 1930s conspired to confine art and science to these subservient roles.

The philosophy was as congenial to fascist Italy as to democratic France or communist Russia.”(Chandler, 1998)5. So aesthetics became a vehicle for economics rather than a display of beauty. What the difference between universal and international may be that the term ‘universal’ refers more to ideals shared around the world while international pertains to the differences between nations. This difference is seen appropriately in the work of Spaniard Pablo Picasso whose painting Guernica, 1937, took centre stage at the Spanish exhibition.

Guernica was a graphic constitution of the bombing in 1937 of the town by the same name and similar to Goya’s “Disasters of War” selection of 1810 in its context it depicted brightly annotated scenes of the bombing of Guernica. The revolution of Cubist art in itself appeared to be a conscious flouting of the laws of art for arts sake and taking the new age of free thought and freedom of expression to a new level, Picasso represents to the world a very different picture to that of the German anti-Avant Garde position.

There is here, a distinct lack of control in comparison, the Latin nation being profoundly more emotive in their artistic prowess. Picasso describes the meaning of the way in which he executes his subjects in the following quote:”I paint this way because it’s a result of my thought,” Picasso responded. “I have worked for years to obtain this result… I can’t use an ordinary manner just to have the satisfaction of being understood!”6

At the time though, The Spanish Civil War was under the dictatorial thumb of General Franco who sympathised with both Mussolini and Hitler and the aversion of the public to this stronghold was obvious at the Paris Universal Exhibition for which Picasso painted this work. At the entrance to the Spanish pavilion stood a plaque, together with a picture of Republican soldiers, it read as follows:

“We are fighting for the essential unity of Spain.

We are fighting for the integrity of Spanish soil.

We are fighting for the independence of our country and for

the right of the Spanish people to determine their own destiny.”7

The artistic right given to Picasso was also joined by other artists depicting the oppression of the Republicans by Franco. Those that contributed to this political expose included Miro and Calder, both influential and iconic artists today. Picasso also sold postcards named the The Dream and Lie of Franco, which turned the exhibition into more of a political rally than aesthetic fest. It was probably due to the universal nature of the exhibition and the enormous amounts of visitors it encouraged, that Spanish artists saw it as the perfect opportunity to alert the world to the nature of Socialism and impending doom surrounding the success of Hitler’s power.

Passed of as a crazed and dream riddled ‘madman’ shortly after the Exhibition took place, those unsympathetic to Picasso’s prophecy8 were soon to retract their judgement with the culmination of World War II. Artists hold a powerful medium by which they are able to manipulate the public. This is due, in part to their imaginative and poetic freedom, but they are often dismissed as being futile and air-headed in their portrayal of the world surrounding them.

Picasso was asked to submit a piece for the Exhibition under its theme was to be about modern technology, Picasso felt the effects of his native countries violent decade to be too heavy to ignore. Picasso as a person avoided politics and since the Exhibition was meant to boost the economy with bright views of the future, Guernica was rather a shock. “On April 27th, 1937, unprecedented atrocities are perpetrated on behalf of Franco against the civilian population of a little Basque village in northern Spain.

Chosen for bombing practice by Hitler’s burgeoning war machine, the hamlet is pounded with high-explosive and incendiary bombs for over three hours. Townspeople are cut down as they run from the crumbling buildings. Guernica burns for three days. Sixteen hundred civilians are killed or wounded.”9 Joan Miro also known to act upon his feelings of horror faced by the Guernica bombing used the figure of the Catalan peasant to depict his idea of the Spanish nationality in his 1937 painting The Reaper.

Stanley Meisler writes about the painters Picasso and Miro: “Incensed by the German air raid that Gen. Francisco Franco had ordered to destroy the Basque town of Guernica, Picasso painted what is probably the best-known political painting of the 20th century. Turning once again to the Catalan peasant as his model, on six masonite panels, 18 feet by 12 feet overall, Miró painted El Segador (The Reaper), a portrait of an anguished but defiant farmer.

After the fair closed, this symbol of oppression was dismantled and shipped to Valencia, the wartime capital of the Spanish Republic. It was never found again.”10 The painting by Miro and also the work exhibited by Fernand Leger for the French pavilion were both either destroyed or never found again. Implicating the politics of Art and War according to the Nazi stronghold that fell upon the continent shortly after the exhibition closed.

Picasso himself chose Expressionistic methods to depict the scene rather than what he calls “Realist and Romantic” methods, because thought changes constantly while the painter is painting.11 Horrified by the stark remnants of his native land, he needed little inspiration to complete his work. The visual becomes a portal for the real; the past, a warning of the future. Due to the availability and tactile nature of artistic works, they formed a supportive voice to the people of Spain, in the same way as Speer’s tower became an icon of the future of the world and what it would have been should Hitler have won the war: A great German Eagle watching his minions.

But Hitler’s crusade against “Degenerate” art stretched its fingers towards Picasso himself after the shock Anti-War Guernica was displayed: “When the German Luftwaffe bombed the Basque town of Guernica in April 1937, the world was horrified at the destruction and loss of innocent civilian lives. Picasso took this opportunity to show the world what he thought and in Guernica, his greatest painting, he used symbolic forms to demonstrate his loathing for all that Fascism represented, though he characteristically denied this afterwards in an interview with Jerome Seckler. Picasso was not disposed to giving any of Guernica’s secrets away.

In the same year as a part of Hitler’s programme against ‘degenerate art’, Picasso’s paintings, as well as those of many other well known modern artists, were subjected to ridicule, destruction and widespread public denouncement. Such art was considered by the Nazis as damaging to the moral fabric of their society.”12 So Picasso became a victim of Nazi attack insomuch as his work became blacklisted in German occupied countries.

As far as National identity is concerned, two very different traits are struck at this Exhibition. On one side there is the Spanish civil union desperately fighting for democracy and the German public relinquishing their democracy to Hitler. Yet other countries were already raising their hackles against Nazi politics, Fernand Leger for example also outwardly protested what was termed “Socialist Realism”. The Frenchman’s photomontage Travailler, 1937, was also not without a jibe against the German and Soviet Pavilions.

“Léger’s experimental, dynamic approach to producing work can be seen to resist and disrupt the dominant views of representational forms embodied in the art championed by both the Stalinist and Nazi states.”13. There arose much debate surrounding whether or not realism serves to expand a nation or to stagnate it. The French Communist Party searched for the best possible means to represent themselves in such a way as to oppose Fascist practice, chose not to conform to realist standards.

Leger’s own interest in geometry, shape and colour became the forerunner for freedom of artist expression. Stalin had already compounded Realism as the way into the future for the Soviet Union14, as had Hitler, but thought had not in itself change for Socialist Germany. This was a last ditch attempt to prevent the Aryan race from changing or becoming contaminated by another form of social growth. Leger vividly interpreted the theme of the Exhibition, not by denouncing change or technological advance, but by embracing it. His montage consisted of panels representing machinery in such a way as to allow the viewer to interpret it themselves.

This was very different to the dictated thought of Nazi idealism. France being the bastion of cultural development enhanced and encouraged this technological growth, not allowing to displace art, but to influence it. “If we now go back to the 1937 Universal Exhibition in Paris it becomes clear just how much Léger’s montage practice was at odds with the general cultural production of the time. By the mid 30’s the Communist Party, who by this stage ‘caught a cold every time Stalin sneezed’, dominated the Popular Front and put forth the line of socialist realism as an effective method to resist fascism.”15

The works exhibited by the Soviet Union were not particularly noteworthy for their enterprising nature, in fact they were in tune with classical art, not modern, but they did denote the national identity in terms of current affairs. The bronze sculpture towering outside the Soviet Pavilion constructed and created by artist Vera Mukhina was titled The Worker and the Collective Farm, 1937, not surprising considering the Communist climate in the Soviet states at the time.

Collectivity was infinitely more important than individuality in communist Russia. The problem with the Soviet Pavilion was that, pertinent to its economic state, they had not advanced technologically, having come out of a Civil War themselves and still very much under the grinding hammer of Stalin. Although beautifully executed, the sculpture bears a sad resemblance to the status of the Soviet Union and also incongruous to the artistry surrounding them at such a fair. As mentioned earlier, this kind of Realism existed as a means to prevent contamination by the Western world. Social identity being proudly coveted by leaders and civilians alike, it stands to reason that the culture they wished to preserve did not last.

Interesting too in its argument is that of Herbert in his chapter: “View From the Trocadero”16 where he describes the effects of “Frenchness” as viewed from the Exhibition at every possible angle but obstructed by the ever prominent Eiffel Tower. It becomes obvious then that the so-called celebration of the arts and modern technology became more of a competition as to who was more able to out-do the other. “

“Nothing is spared in order to persuade the passerby that each country is the greatest in the universe,” complained d’Espezel as he sensed a battle formational “superiority” pitched somewhat above the tenor of peaceful competition.”(Herbert 1995, 107) Needless to say the various countries represented at the Exhibition were not meant as comparative measures and without subsequent variables, they should have been viewed as each to their own.

Instead it appeared that the Soviets, by all accounts the largest of the nations, along with the Germans had the largest and most imposing of the Exhibits. “France had started the friendly international tournament of the Exposition, but it didn’t quite know what to do with nations such as this that played dirty to win.”(Ibid.) The political implications of art in the 1930’s were relatively widespread, including works by cartoon artists such as David Low: “Low was especially appalled by what he called the “Government’s supine attitude to foreign intervention in Spain” during the Spanish Civil War. Low’s cartoons criticizing Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini resulted in his work being banned in Germany and Italy.

After the war it was revealed that in 1937 the German government asked the British government to have “discussions with the notorious Low” in an effort to “bring influence to bear on him” to stop his cartoons attacking appeasement.”17 Artists were already becoming functionally literate in the world of propaganda anyway so it came as little surprise that those such as Low and George Grosz. “’No other German artist so consciously used art as a weapon in the fight of the German workers during 1919 to 1923 as did George Grosz. He is one of the first artists in Germany who consciously placed art in the service of society.

His drawings are worthwhile not only in the present but also are documents of proletarian revolutionary art.’” Grosz himself being an anti-Nazi propagandist suffered the consequences again similarly to Goya and Kandinsky. Art was indeed used in politics between the wars and served its purpose in creating visual artefact by which the general public were able to identify themselves either as the antagonist or the victim. This is profoundly more powerful in its inception than any other propagandist media of that time. Most importantly at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1937 was the sense of doom created by the various nationalities in question.

Spain, Germany, France and The Soviet Union all created for themselves very different sketches of how they perceived the world at that time to be, all of whom displayed varying degrees of unrest. It didn’t serve the German party to be as overtly graphic as it did the Spaniards. In Czechoslovakia at the time too, cartoon and Surrealist pictures were made to jibe at political reasoning with artists such as Adolf Hoffmeister and Antonin Pelc giving their celebrated opinion surrounding Stalinism and Nazism. The latitude of the new-wave political-wing art obviously stretched as far across the globe as The United States and even today the Asian continent.

The Surrealist influence is also particularly noticeable in the confines of the Official Guide to the Exhibition and the copy of Vendre in which the Expo was cited. There is a dramatised departure from conventional Realism into the Expressionistic which offers a voyeur into the mind of the individual as opposed to the collective and is depicted by Vendre magazine. Here is an anachronistic parallel formed between the Stalinesque bronze by Mukhina and the truly defiant Surrealist art of that time.

The difference lies between the collective being without face and without individuality and the Surrealist intrigue over the complexities of the human mind. Thoroughly Freudian in its concept the eye of the Expo surrounded by lashes that weave into the lids, portrays the purpose of the Expo itself. This purpose was intended to draw the attention of persons from around the globe to the uniqueness and universality of every nation on its own.

As for the Guide Officiel (Official Guide), Herbert writes as follows: “A void of uninked cream paper gives the appearance that France, including the meridian line bisecting the country, has been completely excised (in a chauvinistic gesture, the line is the Paris Meridian, which the French had only conceded to the Greenwich standard in 191 1). In its place, a tricolor ribbon encircling the globe symbolizes the nation: France has been displaced off the surface of the sphere.

Beyond sails the unmistakable ship of the Parisian city seal, as if it were the head from whose shoulders the arms of France emerge to encompass the globe. In a redundant gesture, a second tricolor banner seemingly wraps around the catalogue itself, like an old fashioned school-child’s bookstrap. France embraces the world twice – the world represented by the globe, the world

represented by the exhibition represented by the catalogue – while maintaining its difference from that world.”(Herbert 1995, 99) This seems to be a rather protracted gesture by the French whose attitude was pontificated as the lover of all nations and the mother of peace for the duration of the Expo. Granted, the intentions may have been good but the outcome certainly was not what was expected. The French peace-loving portrayal was sadly soon to be decimated by Hitler’s occupation of Paris in 1941 where he is photographed standing at the same place at the Palias De Chaillot where the Expo was intended to bring celebration of peace and success.

To conclude, it appears that the real purpose of the Expo itself became a portal by which nations were able to preserve and display their opposition for one another or to denounce the oppression of other nations. The outspokenness of artists related a valuable tool by which social messages and practices can be made available and visible to the public. The upsetting nature of Picasso’s Guernica and its moral implications served itself well in the Spanish fight for democracy while Miro’s The Reaper delicately implied the steadfast unity of the Spanish heritage in his use of the preferred Catalan peasant weeping for the dead and dying in Civil War Spain.

The Communist Manifesto of the Soviet smiled ingratiatingly at the public eye with an almost smug invention of Marxian theory that in fact went horribly awry. Neo-Classicism, the Aryan purity professed to be the only true form of art whose perfection denied the works of foremost artists such as Klee and Munch the right to freedom of Expression. The towering eagle of Fascist Germany ironically prophesied what the world could have been like had Hitler won the war.

The menacing Swastika that threatened extinction of some of the worlds most fascinating cultures, performed its duty as banner to the German rule. The French contribution was more docile and concise in its judgement of the theme, but still did not give in to the dominant agenda of the impending invasion. Whether or not art should be about politics or about nationality remains a question that only the artist can answer. Once seen as an artists duty to record history and current affairs, the artist is constantly aware of the importance of his/her work. In the end The Paris Universal Exhibition of 1937 may have been successful in marking the end of yet another era of world history. For the art of a non-political creator it can be assumed that nothing and no one is without personal or patriotic views.


Chandler, Arthur. 1998. “Confrontation: The Exposition Internationale Des Arts Et Techniques Dans Le Vie Moderne, 1937.” Web.

“David Low”. Spartacus. 2008. Web.

”. 2005. Teachers Guide To The Holocaust. Web.

“Leger V Social Realism.” 1994. Untitled. Web.

”. Stanley Meisler.com. 2008. Web.

”. The Artchive. 2008. Web.

“Guernica: The Spanish Pavilion.” Treasures of the World. 2008. Web.

”. Treasures of the World. 2008. Web.

Herbert, James. 1995. The View of the Trocadero: The Real Subject Of The Exposition Interantionale, Paris 1937. pp 94-112.

“Picasso and the German Occupation.” Harris 1996. Webforum. Web.

“Politics and Art.” 2006. DIES RAE. Web.

“Picasso. Tradition and Avant-Garde Exhibition Extended”. 2006. ArtNews. Web.


  1. International Exhibition of Paris 1937 – Congress of Sacred Music.
  2. 2 countries, 31053700 visitors from around the globe.
  3. See footnote 2 for reference.
  4. Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) – A teachers guide to the holocaust.
  5. See footnote 1 for reference.
  6. Pablo Picasso in “Geurnica…the Spanish Pavilion.”
  7. See above footnote for reference.
  8. See footnote 6 for reference.
  9. Geurnica – Testimony of War.
  10. Stanley Meisler – For Miro Poetry and Painting Were the Same.
  11. See above footnote for reference.
  12. Picasso and The German Occupation, Mark Harris 1996.
  13. Leger Versus Socialist Realism.
  14. See footnote 12 for reference.
  15. See Footnote 12 for reference.
  16. Published in Assemblage , No. 26 (1995) pp94 – 112.
  17. Spartacus – David Low.
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