Most people remember the 1937 Exposition in Paris as the setting for German and Soviet rivalry. Albert Speer's unmovable, solid structure and Boris Iofan's dynamic, boat-like pavilion not only framed the Eiffel Tower but also our memory of the event. However, their competition wasn't the only manifestation of national and international politics. In fact, the entire exhibition resulted from and manifested nation-wide political debates in France.
Between the first committee meeting in 1925 and opening day of the exposition, the Primer Ministers changed twenty-five times and three Presidents occupied office—it was politically tumultuous to say the least. Protests in 1934 turned bloody and the political polarization reached new extremes. And each party to come and go from power imposed their political ideology on the decorative arts by changing the exposition's funding levels, members of the leadership committees, and land allocation. Governments on the right championed a "traditional" French program: handmade ornament, expensive materials, and rich textiles. Governments on the left prioritized new technology and hygienic discourse.
Ph.D. candidate Kiersten Mounce is currently in Paris, France, doing research on the architect ultimately responsible for more surface area than any other designer—10,000 square meters. René Herbst, whose work had already identified by art critics and government officials as securely leftist. Indeed, he was forward about his progressive ideas and promoted them through an artist group he co-founded, the Union des artistes modernes (U.A.M.). During exposition preparations, he was repetitively removed from and reinstated to his leadership position during preparations for the exhibition. His ultimate success was deeply intertwined with the success of the Front populaire, a socialist-communist coalition that gained power in 1936.
This summer, the Centre Pompidou accomplished an ambitious exhibition on the U.A.M. and provided visitors with an idea of what walking through the U.A.M. pavilion would have felt like back in 1937, complete with an oversized U.A.M. logo and Herbst's tubular steel furniture. Mounce's review of the exhibition will be published in the spring edition of Design & Culture.