I have a long list of historical places and events that I would, time-travel permitting, like to see. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I’d like to go back and live completely in the past, but that it would be great to go back, experience something first-hand, and then return to the present enhanced by that experience. Usually, this is linked with the wish to ‘meet’ people in the past, to be present at certain events and eavesdrop on conversations.
The Paris International Exhibition of 1937 holds a particular place in this wish-list. This is not, of course, because I’d like to loiter afterwards and see the unfolding world war that was forecast in the architectural antagonism of the German and Soviet pavilions as they squared off against each other. Rather, it’s because I’ve spent so much time trying to understand those spaces that I often find myself trying to navigate them imaginatively, writing my way around them with the help of photographs and descriptions from those who did visit in person. Their propaganda content was read clearly by many contemporary observers, but the temporary nature of these buildings that look so strangely solid in photographs and newsreel footage only adds, for me, to their fascination. On the one side, Albert Speer’s austere classicism imbuing the ‘Thousand Year Reich’ with ancient grandeur and on the other Boris Iofan’s stepped modernism providing a launching platform for the giant statues on its roof: the dynamism of Soviet power writ large.
I’d be sure to take in the Italian pavilion as well, with its declarations of the nation’s imperial destiny, and the British pavilion, where a life-size photograph of Neville Chamberlain in fishing waders added to the sense that the British still saw the World’s Fair as a purely trade-orientated event: a chance to sell fishing rods and tennis racquets while everybody else was sending signals about their plans for continental dominance.
And then there would be the Spanish Pavilion – a country in the midst of a civil war still intent on showcasing itself to the world as a place of education, culture, and progress. A building (assembled by the Republican government that right-wing rebels were trying to overthrow) in which photo-montages of workers, volunteer brigades, and schoolchildren presented a face to the world that tried by its very existence to resist the advances of Franco’s troops, their ranks enhanced as they were by the German and Italian reinforcements that were slowly tipping the Spanish scales in favour of fascism. Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ would be there, of course – carefully carried across the city from the studio in the Rue des Grands-Augustins – alongside works by Miro and Angus Calder’s ‘Mercury Fountain’ – a blend of the beautiful and the poisonous all too appropriate for a country being torn apart.
Thanks to the Mayoral Gallery in London’s St James’ we can, until 10th February, make this imaginative journey back in time. Gathering together works by the artists represented in the pavilion, alongside a display on the Paris Exposition itself, material on the incineration of the Basque town of Guernica, and reminders of the subsequent tour that Picasso’s artwork made of England after its Paris debut, the gallery allows the visitor to experience something of the drama within which the pavilion’s contents were made and the sense of urgent resistance with which their creators tried to capture the Spanish crisis.
It is a powerful experience not only to see these works, but to get a sense of the moment in which the creation of art was itself a political act in defiance of fascism. Visiting the gallery on the afternoon of the American presidential inauguration was, for me, a thought-provoking, and ultimately better way of spending a day when ‘history’ was being made than listening in dismay to TV footage of Donald Trump’s rhetoric echoing across central Washington. In the final analysis, thankfully, Art resists dictatorship. At the present moment, we should thank Mayoral for reminding us that this is so.
‘Art Revolutionaries: Homage to the Pavilion of the Spanish Republic, 1937’ is at Mayoral Gallery, London until 10th February 2017. Details may be found here: