World Exhibition

16 May 2019 - 3 Nov 2019

Let us begin with a mysterious painting. It depicts a massive “wigwam” (an “Indian tent”) within a glade cradled by the surrounding forest. People, some of them probably Turks and Arabs, are seated at coffee tables in front of the tent. They are served by black waiters in white livery.

Adolf Menzel painted this picture at the 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna. It depicts an innocuous café with which the nascent United States chose to represent itself to a global audience. The café seems anything but harmless to us today. With its entangled display of Native American material culture (yet no Native Americans) and African American service; the scene offers a clear view into the abysses of the 19th century – abysses like genocide (as the systematic extermination of indigenous peoples might be called) or the nascent nation’s already long history of slavery.

The major world exhibitions in London, Paris, Vienna and Chicago aspired to be both microcosm and total work of art. Like mass media today, these exhibitions shaped and restructured the views of their millions of visiting spectators. In these exhibitions the world was subjected to unreserved stereotyping, dressed up and marketed as a commodity – in other words – arranged, classified and presented according to Western standards.

As the powers that have fueled a Eurocentric perspective of the world dwindle, a dull sense of loss and threat emerges. And yet, the cultural stereotypes that grew out of the imperialist and colonial structures of the 19th century prevail, independent of any apparently antagonistic realities.

These stereotypes and structures, or social forms seemingly have lives of their own, which continue to resonate to this day. World Exhibition is an attempt to capture these forms and their uncanny lives through the means of art – a medium which knows how to handle form.

Rather than draw on identical notions of “nations”, “epochs” and “cultures”, the Johann Jacobs Museum’s World Exhibition aims to bring into focus the interspaces and interdependencies at the heart of historical and contemporary objects, films and works of art – as well as a number of things that actually elude identification altogether.


Title image: Work detail of Adolf Menzel, Indian-Café at the 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna, Gouache on Paper, 1873. Collection of Johann Jacobs Museum.