Oui, Je Parle Français! FIU French Language Students Encounter Museum Founder Micky Wolfson

This past Saturday, Modern Languages Professor Maria Antonieta Garcia brought a large group of FIU students and Francophiles to The Wolfsonian for a presentation of French-language materials in the library, and a brief tour of the galleries. Professor Garcia, who also serves as advisor for FIU’s French club, Le Cercle Français, has organized frequent visits to the museum by her students and members of the club.

For this particular visit, Professor Garcia asked us to lay out some rare materials dealing with the topic of France’s overseas possessions and colonies, and items documenting the dark history of the German occupation of France during the Second World War, both subjects for which The Wolfsonian has superb holdings.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Our founder, Mitchell “Micky” Wolfson, Jr., when he is not traveling the world in search of new items to add to our collection, has his home base in Paris. In the last few years, our French language materials have grown considerably.

In the foyer of the library, the students had the chance to see two French artifacts on display in Selling the Golden Leaf, a library installation focusing on tobacco advertising. One item is a viewbook published as a souvenir for the Exposition Coloniale International in Paris, 1931, by the tobacco industry.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The other piece on display is a calendar printed during the Second World War depicting a French woman sharing cigarettes with North African men wearing fezes, thus combining the colonial and world war interests of the visitors.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

The group had the opportunity to see how France represented its colonial possessions at the Paris exhibition of 1900, the Exposition coloniale de Marseille in 1922, and the 1931 Exposition Coloniale International.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised gift

Although the Paris 1900 exposition is largely remembered for its promotion of the popular Art Nouveau style in art and architecture, it also included various exhibitions of French colonies, particularly some of those of Sub-Saharan Africa. Many of the colonial exhibits included samples of products and raw materials, and were staffed by “native” peoples dressed in traditional attire and demonstrating local handicrafts. In reality, the people brought over to populate these “human zoos” were nearly all “assimilated” persons from the colonies. Some were paid to act and behave as “savages” and others to demonstrate the civility they had learned from their humanitarian-minded colonizers. France’s overseas possessions were also represented by pavilions inspired by the vernacular traditions of the colonies, but designed by important and Modernist-minded French architects.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The Exposition nationale coloniale de Marseille in 1922 was actually the fifth colonial exhibition organized in France. Postcards and books published as souvenirs for the exhibition show the importance France attributed to its overseas possession and colonial commodities.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gifts of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Images from one souvenir book demonstrate how native huts and buildings were juxtaposed to modern European buildings in order to reinforce distinctions between “primitive” peoples and their supposedly “cultured” and technologically sophisticated European colonizers.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

Exhibition catalogs and portfolios from the Exposition coloniale internationale held in Paris in 1931 also emphasized France’s greatness as a world empire by picturing peoples of all races under her dominion.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

The fair organizers even erected a museum celebrating the French Empire, designed by Albert Laprade and Léon Jaussely, and covered in bas relief designed by Alfred Janniot to represent the exotic peoples and products of the French empire.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

Visited by 33 million during the six months of the exposition, the Musée Permanent des Colonies still remains, though it has since been renamed the Palais de la Porte Dorée.

Of interest to my French visitors this Saturday was a unique portfolio of watercolor renderings made before the opening of the exposition in 1931. The images show elegantly dressed Parisians strolling through the colonial exhibition to view, if not interact with, the exotic peoples brought to the fair.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

In one plate, France’s technological superiority is implied by an aerial view, designed to remind the viewer that even the highest minaret is dwarfed by the accomplishments of France’s fleet of airplanes.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

Another plate not-so-subtly emphasizes France’s “civilizing” mission by depicting a European woman in a pith helmet teaching Africans gathered in a circle around her.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

Another portfolio with photographic reproductions uses a double-exposure to equate a long-necked native beauty with a tropical palm tree.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

The Wolfsonian holds a strong collection of material documenting the Vichy government established in France under the German occupation during the Second World War. These include propaganda books designed to indoctrinate children in the values of the Fascist-allied regime even as they taught them their ABCs.





The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Many of these books include photographic or illustrative renderings of the “Marechal,” Philippe Pétain. A hero of the First World War, Petain was installed as a figurehead of the collaborationist government after France surrendered to the Germans. As was typical of the times, images show children looking up to their “grandfatherly” leader with love and adoration.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised gift

After deconstructing and critically analyzing the materials laid out in the library, I conducted the group in a tour of the galleries where we most fortunately encountered Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. in the flesh! Several students asked Mr. Wolfson some questions, (in French, of course), and our founder responded in kind.


As the class was next bound for the Holocaust Memorial, we briefly stopped first on the sixth floor to introduce them to our exhibition of the work of the Jewish graphic designer, Julius Klinger.


A successful and prominent commercial artist working in the Modernist style, Klinger’s career was cut short by the German annexation of his Austrian homeland in 1938. Klinger was deprived first of his livelihood, and ultimately of his life, as he and his wife were transported to and murdered in one of the Nazi death camps.

~ by "The Chief" on November 22, 2017.

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