France’s Overseas Empire on Display

This past Saturday, eighteen French conversation and grammar students from Florida International University arrived at The Wolfsonian for a guided tour of the galleries and a special presentation of French-language materials in the library. The group of Francophiles, organized by Professor Maria Antonieta Garcia, was led by Gaby Ibanez and Saniya Pradhan, the presidents of the FIU French Club and the French Honor Society.

Once the group gathered, we first deconstructed, critically analyzed, and historicized some artifacts representing French colonialism in the fifth and seventh floor galleries. These works of art included a painted plaster maquette for a sculpture created by Arthur Dupagne to adorn the Belgian Congo Pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques held in Paris in 1937. The scale model, La barre à mine (Mining bar) depicts an African wearing only a loincloth as he is using a primitive iron bar to break rock. While the mock up celebrates the musculature and physical strength of the native miner (whose hands and feet were deliberately enlarged to emphasize his role as manual laborer), the artist shrunk the head of his subject ever so slightly so as to imply that while the colonial peoples supplied the brawn, the colonizers would need to supply the brain power.


A painting from the same fair hangs on the wall behind this figure depicting colonial pavilions built along the Seine to represent France’s overseas empire. These modern architectural interpretations drew upon the vernacular vocabulary of the indigenous colonial peoples to demonstrate and celebrate France’s super-national dominions. Hundreds of thousands of visitors to the fair would have been exposed to these and other artifacts of colonial propaganda created to justify European colonialism and cloak their political and economic designs under the guise of humanitarian “civilizing” missions.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

A painting from another gallery also generated lots of excitement and discussion, as the students examined a Parisian portrait painted by Anja Decker in 1934. Many colonial troops from Africa were brought to Europe to fight alongside the French in the First World War, and some of them—along with a number of African-Americans remained in France after the war. The student visitors pondered the significance of the title and the depiction of the Strange Couple, and debated whether the artist was sympathetic towards the interracial pair, or was implying something more ambivalent or sinister about the power dynamics of their relationship.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The group made a quick foray into the Art Deco exhibition on our seventh floor gallery to look at a poster designed for the 1925 Exposition internationale des arts decoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris that represented a beautiful nude indigenous woman lifting a curtain to reveal herself and the backdrop of a North African city.


After discussing the colonial and gender implications of this poster, the students regrouped in our rare book and special collections library to view a display and presentation of rare materials related to France’s overseas possessions and colonies. Thanks to the generosity of our founder, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr., who resides in Paris for much of the year, the Wolfsonian Library possesses an extraordinarily rich collection of rare books, periodicals, portfolios, pamphlets, postcards, and other printed materials. Many of them document France’s 19th and 20th colonial adventures or relate to the representation of their colonies at various world’s fairs.


The library, for example, holds a bound edition of supplements published by Petit Journal during the Exposition universelle celebrations in Paris in 1900. Many of the issues have color chromolithographic illustrations depicting some of the indigenous peoples who were transported to the fair. These natives populated “human zoo” exhibits designed to educate Parisians and other fair-goers of the races, cultural traditions, handicrafts, and natural products brought under France’s global sphere of influence.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The collection holds some important items from the Exposition coloniale de Marseille in 1922, including this poster picturing indigenous women from across the globe intended to represent France’s far-flung colonial empire.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The vast majority of our French colonial collections, however, were published and printed to document the 1931 Exposition coloniale internationale de Paris. The library holds numerous books, portfolios, postcards, pamphlets, souvenir viewbooks, and even a children’s coloring book describing the fair and the importance to the metropole of her far-flung colonies.

Several of the portfolios provided images of a pavilion designed by architects Albert Laprade and Jaussely, and decorated with bas relief designs by Alfred Janniot.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

Details of the bas relief sculpture on the side of the building presented the millions of visitors to the fair with images of the flora, fauna, and natural resources of French colonies around the world, as well as exoticized and eroticized images of the native inhabitants.




The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

The Musée Permanent des Colonies still remains, though it has since been rechristened, Palais de la Porte Dorée. Other buildings representing the indigenous architecture of French colonies were built and positioned in the fairgrounds to reinforce the contrast between native “primitivism” and metropole “modernism.”


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection


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

The temporary and ephemeral examples of native buildings were always intended to give way to the more durable “sophisticated” structures of the Parisians.


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

 Perhaps the most interesting image published in a portfolio for the 1931 colonial exposition is a photographic image of a group of indigenous women, presumably brought to the fair to show off their native dress and customs to the visitors. A photographer captured an image of three such women wearing an innovative and beautiful blend of African and Parisian haute culture perhaps as they prepared to leave the fairgrounds for a night on the town.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

We hope our virtual visitors enjoyed their tour as much as our FIU francophile visitors did.

~ by "The Chief" on November 27, 2019.

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