Stereographs from the 1931 Colonial Exposition in Paris.
"Colonization is legitimate. It is beneficial. These are the truths that are inscribed on the walls of the pavilions at the Bois de Vincennes."
Marcel Olivier, Delegate general to the 1931 Colonial Exposition
It was the last, and if size means anything the greatest colonial exposition, and it was in Paris in 1931, which was fitting because the French had really invented the idea of the world fair devoted to colonial power and all that entailed; civilization, power, human zoos. Spread across the 1000 hectares of the Bois de Vincennes, Parisians called it Lyauteyville after Marshall Hubert Lyautey, who ran the whole show and knew a bit about colonialism having served in Algeria and Indochina, led the 1902 invasion of Madagascar and been Governor of Morocco for some thirteen years. The nickname is revealing. Outside of the military Lyautey was considered as something between an imperialist throwback and a megalomaniac. He never hid his political belief; he would die in three years but not before boasting he was on the verge of overthrowing the socialist government with his cadre of young fascists. You could say he was the perfect man for the job of running the exposition.
The key to success for any world’s fair lay in its architecture. It was the expression of everything the event stood for. Pushed for time and money, the directors of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago made the sudden decision to render all the buildings white. Knowing nothing of their motives, visitors were astonished at how modern and visionary everything looked. Each expo had to have its centrepiece, the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, the Eiffel Tower at Paris in 1889 and the Colonial Exposition would have its own, a seventeen metre high cascading fountain built of steel that was soon labelled ‘le cactus’. That single nod to the 20th century aside, Paris’s leading architectural firms were called on to built faithful copies, of grand monuments such as Angkor Wat but mostly more traditional structures such as a Buddhist temple, a mosque or a street in Tunisia. You can come up with a few reasons why that was but you can’t discount lack of imagination. The effect wasn’t that different from the claims made for early stereographs; you didn’t have to go to Senegal or Laos to experience it. Of course you couldn’t smell Senegal or feel the tropical heat of Laos but you weren’t going to catch blackwater fever either.
By 1931 colonialism was a disreputable word across Europe. You could thank King Leopold of Belgium for that; no other single person did so much to stain the concept, but World War 1 had also made a lot of people aware of how rotten the heart of the aristocracy was, and now the international economy had collapsed it didn’t take complicated arithmetic to work out that the loudest supporters of empire were also responsible for the mess the continent was in. The French Communist Party reasoned it could respond to the Expo with its own it called La Verité sur les Colonies. It turned out to be only a little more popular with the general public that it was with the authorities. That may have been because instead of fake Asian temples, exotic dancers, food stalls and bars it would run a series of panels and lectures dedicated to racism, slavery and other forms of exploitation. What humour the left had was provided by L’Humanité, the only Parisian newspaper consistently critical of the expo. It published heavy handed cartoons showing Lyautey on display in a cage and a circus woman standing over the expo entrance, a guillotine. The African and Asian students liked the idea of an alternative expo but the government jailed most of their leaders until the real one was over. Another problem was that La Verité sur les Colonies was getting a lot of its funding from the Soviets so it was inclined praise the workers’ paradise while ignoring reports of Siberian labour camps. All up it was dismissed as a failure, except by a group of African and Vietnamese students who came away convinced that the future for their countries lay in Marxist theory.
Meanwhile back in the real world, or what passed for that in the Bois de Vincennes, the architects had discovered that it wasn’t so easy to build faithful replicas. Size was an issue; some great monuments – Angkor Wat was one – would have swallowed up most of the park grounds while others couldn’t be accurately reproduced without resorting to construction methods that were either lost to time or required such attention to detail that the buildings wouldn’t be finished until long after the expo had also faded from living memory. In the end it would become a compromise; sun baked mud replaced with quick drying plaster and intricate sculpturing with readymade moulds. It wasn’t a complete disaster. The Tunisian village was given a careful patina of decayed and crumbling brickwork and if the Parisians let themselves they could just about imagine they were in North Africa; just about because as every architect knows a city is made of people and the Tunisians in this village were for display purposes only.
One of the visitors during the opening weeks was the Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, there with his parents and his girlfriend who constantly moped because he was more interested in sketching than paying attention to her. As Hergé, Remi was barely known outside of Belgium but his second Tintin adventure, Tintin au Congo, was just weeks away from publication in Le Petit Vingtième. It was too late then for any claims the expo had any influence on Tintin au Congo but it would have its effect for years afterwards. The sketches weren’t a waste of time. As Tintin flew around Asia, the Middle East and Africa they would provide the basis for street scenes and buildings, Hergé instinctively knowing we’re inclined to recognize something authentic in the fake while the real often disappoints.
In the 1970s Hergé would confess his depictions of Africans were naïve (not in time to stop the book being banned in British libraries) but after June 1931 any French or Belgian boy visiting the expo had his impressions of Africa from Tintin au Congo confirmed.
For Lyautey and his committee the expo was intended to be proof that colonialism was a mutually beneficial transaction. We took the minerals and the agricultural products but we gave back education and modernization. That was an argument the communists could have shot down without trying, but they wouldn’t necessarily win public sympathy. Colonialism might have brought to mind images of slavery but empire was a word that could still get people standing to attention with their hands over their hearts. You can see all of that in the cyanotype stereographs taken of the expo at night. They transform ancient ruins into 20th century monuments; Had Angkor Wat ever looked this spectacular? For sure, nobody who actually lived there ever saw it lit up against a backdrop of searchlights.
One another thing about these photos: according to reports the expo was pulling in crowds of 60 000 a day. So where are all the people?
|1931 Colonial Exposition, Paris|