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France at the Crystal Palace: Bourgeois Taste and Artisan Manufacture in the Nineteenth Century.

Given the recent conclusion of the 1992 World's Fair in Seville, Whitney Walton's study of the French presence at the very first World's Fair, held in London in 1851, is not only timely but welcome. None of the visitors to the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, otherwise known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition, could have foreseen that this exhibition would be the first in a series of gigantic displays of art and industry between 1851 and 1939 that reflected the growing international rivalries and tensions culminating in the Second World War.

Rather than attempt yet another encyclopedic study of that already well-documented exhibition, Walton wisely limits her scope to French exhibitors and what the French showed the rest of the world about themselves. Her sources are impressive, drawing on extensive holdings in the Archives Nationales in Paris, the official report on the Crystal Palace Exhibition made to Napoleon III by the Commission francaise sur l'Industrie des Nations, the popular French press and novelists from Flaubert to Zola. Also included are a number of rare and well-chosen illustrations of the Crystal Palace and contemporary French interiors and manufacturing processes. Walton traces the development of industries including wallpaper, cabinets, fans and silverware to show how craftsmen helped form a distinctly French sensibility in the decorative arts. The one industry curiously lacking from her analysis is lace manufacture, where the French held an undisputed advantage over the rest of the world for generations.

Walton dutifully and for the most part profitably consults the most authoritative sources in the history and art history of the period, including Theodore Zeldin, Pierre Bourdieu, Patricia Mainardi, Linda Nochlin, Walter Benjamin and T. J. Clark, and yet her citations rarely engage these critics in substantive dialogue. Too often she tends merely to relate official accounts such as that of the Commission francaise without acknowledging that such reports were intended to advise Napoleon III, who was busily preparing France's own first Exposition Universelle in 1855. It would be no exaggeration to say that planning for France's entry into the Exhibition race began on May 1st, 1851 when Queen Victoria officially opened the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park.

Official reports give us only a small, generally uncritical picture of what the Exhibitions were really like. A fuller picture requires more critical readings of novelists of the period and closer examination of the popular French press. Both these "high" and "low" sources were generally skeptical when not outright hostile to the whole notion of World's Fairs, for their obsessive ordering of mechanical and artisanal productions and particularly the granting of literally thousands of prizes for inventions and works of art that ranged from the truly sublime to the truly ridiculous. The comices agricoles or agricultural fair scene in Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857) is not only perhaps the most deliciously satirical passage in all of French literature but a pointed criticism of the whole culture of Exhibitions. Official reports such as the Commission francaise reflected the growing embourgeoisement of French society that revealed itself in an enthusiastic and yet always decorous approval. Subsistence-wage craftsmen and artisans correctly saw their own livelihoods about to be extinguished; painters, writers and musicians saw mass-produced articles churned out by thundering machines belching smoke and responded with the cult of "the Beautiful" and "Art for Art's sake." Walton paints a vivid if at times perhaps too uncritical portrait of this crucial moment in the economic and aesthetic history of modern Europe.

Michael J. West Carnegie Mellon University
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Author:West, Michael J.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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