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Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851-1939

Through August 19, 2012 the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri will be displaying a treasure trove of objects from around the world that all debuted at a World’s Fair ($8 adult/$5 students/free for members and children under 12). Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851-1939 showcases the talent of artists and manufacturers who reinvented old styles and techniques or invented new ones the world had never seen before – everything from new pottery glaze techniques to new materials like plastics.

The exhibit begins with a larger-than-life screen on which black and white footage of fair-goers walking and riding around a fair. The effect is to make one feel as if they are walking with them back in the past. The effect of the exhibit overall is what I would imagine the fair-goers felt – wonder, excitement and a bit overwhelming.

It was interesting to watch the styles of the objects shift through the years as different trends prevailed. At first, all of the pieces imitated classical imagery and forms. Then, Asian influences became extremely prevalent. Soon Art Nouveau and Art Deco took the world by storm, each country and artist interpreting the styles in their own way. This led to more modern designs  highlighting simple lines, multi-functional objects and lots of glass and plastic.

There are so many amazing pieces on display that you could easily visit the exhibit several times and never be bored. My favorite pieces were a pianoforte made of gilded and laquered papier-mache from England, 1867 and a silk-embroidered screen from Japan depicting waves so perfectly – using 230 different shades of thread – that you could be standing on a boat in the ocean. But there were so many beautiful objects on display that it really was difficult to pick favorites.

This video ‘trailer’ for the exhibit tells a bit about the fairs, the objects created for them, and some behind-the-scenes museum planning:¬†Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts of the World’s Fairs

You can buy tickets online or at the museum.