‘Inventing the Modern World’ brings world’s fair art to NOMA

Exhibition features 182 objects from eight countries 

Photo provided by NOMA -- Vibrant imagery finds its place in 'Inventing the Modern World' in pieces such as Eugène Feuillâtre’s enameled copper peacock flask. Peacock: Eugène Feuillâtre, French, 1879–1916. Peacock Flask, ca. 1900. Enameled copper. H.: 7 7/8 in. (20 cm). Private Collection, Courtesy of Sinai and Sons Ltd. London.
Photo provided by NOMA -- Vibrant imagery finds its place in 'Inventing the Modern World' in pieces such as Eugène Feuillâtre’s enameled copper peacock flask. Peacock: Eugène Feuillâtre, French, 1879–1916. Peacock Flask, ca. 1900. Enameled copper. H.: 7 7/8 in. (20 cm). Private Collection, Courtesy of Sinai and Sons Ltd. London.

World’s fairs long have been places for the brightest minds from around the globe to showcase their takes on innovations in science and art.

But while new scientific concepts join the mainstream, objects of art have been scattered and distributed to collections the world over -- until now, that is.

Co-organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Penn., and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., a massive collection of such items has been gathered from 13 foreign and 27 domestic lenders.

This collection, “Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851-1939,” will be on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art from Friday through Aug. 4.

The exhibition will feature 182 objects from eight countries shown at world’s fairs from the London exhibition in 1851 through the New York fair in 1939.

“The curators really traveled all over Europe to try to source this material, to find it, because the vast majority of the objects in this show were the objects that were shown at the fairs. It’s not a Tiffany lamp like one shown at the fair, it was shown at a specific fair,” said Lisa Rotondo-McCord, NOMA’s deputy director of curatorial affairs.

“Each object was selected with several criteria. It had to show innovation, it had to embody a technological advancement and that it … demonstrated cross-cultural impact and also a sort of nationalist trend,” McCord said.

Catherine Futter, exhibition co-curator, Helen Jane and Hugh “Pat” Uhlmann, curator of decorative arts at Nelson-Atkins, have been preparing for this exhibition for more than 15 years.

Futter said she has loved world’s fairs since she attended the New York World’s Fair as a very young child in 1964.

“I’ve grown up around world’s fairs and loved going to them ever since I was a little girl,” Futter said. “They are places where people come together and they learn about other cultures, they learn about technology, they learn about the future, and I think they are exciting and usually very optimistic events.

“They are competitive, but in a way that projects a very harmonious vision of the future,” Futter said. “They’re really about how we all can live together and about how we are making the world a better place.”

Pieces such as intricately carved wooden and metal furniture, gem-studded pieces of jewelry, and captivating and colorful glassware comprise the collection and represent highly recognizable artists and design houses including Tiffany & Co., Louis Cartier, and Fabergé.

Each item reflects intricate beauty, national pride and uniqueness representing a distinct time and place.

There’s a Tennyson vase by Henry Hugh Armstead, a silver and gilded silver piece influenced by Tennyson’s poems on the legends of King Arthur and his knights.

Vibrant and bold imagery finds its place in the exhibit as well, exemplified by pieces such as Eugène Feuillâtre’s enameled copper peacock flask, while objects such as Gustave Herter’s wooden Gothic bookcase remind viewers that beautiful and dainty are not necessarily synonymous.

Alongside the collection of objets d’art comprising “Inventing the Modern World” will be an exhibit of eight life-sized black-and-white photos titled “Spectacle and Spectator: Joshua Mann Pailet’s Photographs of the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans.”

“I think even though the ‘Inventing the Modern World’ exhibition ends in the 1930s, having a tie-in with the 1984 World’s Fair is very important for this community,” said Russell Lord, NOMA’s Freeman family curator of photographs. “It reminds us that in fact the world’s fairs did continue and that we hosted the very last one that the U.S. was involved in.”

Joshua Mann Pailet, photographer and chief of A Gallery for Fine Photography at 241 Chartres St., New Orleans, began documenting the transition of downtown New Orleans for the World’s Fair in 1980, capturing images monthly, then daily, for the entirety of the six-month fair, and even after.

The project, in total, resulted in five years of work and thousands upon thousands of photographs.

“This fair had remarkable detail in terms of the architecture, the lighting, the color scheme, and that’s one reason why these black-and-white images that were selected for this show were kind of interesting,” Pailet said.

Pailet’s exhibition will be on display in NOMA’s Great Hall through mid-June.