Reluctantly Global: “Fifty Years of Modern Art” at the 1958 Brussels Expo

When the Brussels Expo presented the exhibition Fifty Years of Modern Art in 1958, it unintentionally pioneered a more broadly global view of modern art, although not without some friction. This essay charts the curatorial framework and decision- making that led to works from countries outside the West, including Egypt, Japan, Mexico, and the Soviet Union, to be displayed alongside what then constituted the Western modernist pantheon. It also considers discrepancies between inclusion and wider recognition in art historical discourse.

Installation shot from 50 ans d’art moderne (Fifty Years of Modern Art), Brussels, 1958. (Credit: Sadocolor Mounting SPRL, Brussels), published in Virginie Devillez, ed., Expo 58: L’art contemporain à l’exposition universelle (Brussels: Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique and Gent: Editions Snoeck, 2008), 54.

When it opened its doors in Brussels in 1958, the exhibition 50 ans d’art moderne(Fifty Years of Modern Art) was one of the most ambitious curatorial undertakings to have taken place in postwar Europe. Its geographical scope was unprecedented for a curated exhibition, including the Venice Biennale, despite its system of national pavilions. In total, it comprised 348 works by 240 artists from 36 countries, making this a properly “global” art exhibition long before the establishment of the genre decades later.1By comparison, the first documenta in Kassel (1955) contained 670 works by 169 artists, the vast majority of whom were from Germany, France, and Italy. The number of countries represented in Brussels also exceeded that of every single Venice Biennale of the 1950s. Yet the exhibition is nonetheless nearly absent from current exhibition histories, whose narratives often posit a sudden emergence of the global exhibition genre circa 1989.2For example, the exhibition is omitted from Bruce Altshuler’s survey of art exhibitions, Salon to Biennial: Exhibitions That Made Art History, vol. 1: 1863–1959 (London: Phaidon, 2008). The Exhibition Histories series published by Afterall makes an explicit claim about the origins of the global art exhibition in 1989, with two volumes focusing on exhibitions from that year: see Rachel Weiss et al., Making Art Global (Part 1): The Third Havana Biennial 1989 (London: Afterall Books, 2011); and Lucy Steeds et al., Making Art Global (Part 2): “Magiciens de la Terre” 1989 (London: Afterall Books, 2013).

Cover of the exhibition catalogue 50 ans d’art moderne, designed by Julian Key (1930-1999)

This omission can be partly attributed to the exhibition’s non-art context: the Brussels Expo of 1958. This world’s fair, the first of the postwar period, not only showcased advances in technology and industrial production, as its predecessors had been doing since the mid-nineteenth century, it also sought to address new anxieties that such progress had generated after the bombing of Hiroshima and the ongoing nuclear arms race associated with the Cold War. The fair’s motto Bilan du monde pour un monde plus humain (Balance sheet for a more human world) conveyed hope for a more restrained form of progress, one guided by a belief in an essential humanity shared by all—a tenet of postwar culture that was rapidly deteriorating.

General view of the Brussels Expo of 1958, with the Atomium in the background (architects: André and Jean Polak; engineer: André Waterkeyn)

Art played a central role in the articulation of this humanist rhetoric: deemed a universal language that has the power to unite all people, it was seen as a shared activity unique to the human species.3See Paul Davay, Exposition universelle et internationale de Bruxelles, 1958, vol. 5: Les Arts (Brussels: Commissariat général du Gouvernement près l’Exposition universelle et internationale de Bruxelles 1958, 1960). While displays of visual art have been part of world’s fairs since their inception in the mid-nineteenth century, they were mostly peripheral. In Brussels, the initial ambition was to give wide-ranging exhibitions of art a greater role. In the fall of 1955, the International Committee of Fine Arts convened in Brussels with the aim of planning such exhibitions, and by 1956, this committee was significantly enlarged. While its membership was in constant flux, the group quickly decided that two official exhibitions should be organized under the auspices of the Expo: one on modern art of the past fifty years and another, larger and encyclopedic display containing masterpieces from all periods and cultures.

Chart 1: 50 Years of Modern Art: Artists from outside Europe and the North America
Chart 2: 50 Years of Modern Art: Organizing Committees
Pamphlet on the Fine-arts program of the Expo from 1957. It shows the two main exhibitions initially scheduled, L’homme et l’art (Man and Art) and 50 ans d’art moderne (Fifty Years of Modern Art).

This second exhibition, Man and Art, was never realized. Seeking to demonstrate the “fundamental unity of human sensibility that lies underneath all the different art forms,” it was directly inspired by André Malraux’s popular essay “Le Musée imaginaire” (1947), which was repeatedly cited by the organizers.4Florence Hespel, “Bruxelles 1958: Carrefour mondial de l’art,” in Expo 58: L’art contemporain à l’exposition universelle, ed. Virginie Devillez (Brussels: Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique and Gent: Editions Snoeck, 2008), 18–19. Instead of following the conventional division according to periods and cultures found in encyclopedic museums, the objects would be grouped according to universal themes such as birth, death, work, war, and religion, re-creating in the gallery space the sort of cross-cultural comparisons that abound in Malraux’s writings. While the humanist fiction of a “universal” art was enticing on paper, it became untenable when confronted with the realities of organizing a large loan exhibition. The project was officially shelved in late 1957 due to “certain events of international politics” that remain unspecified.5Maurice Lambillote, Exposition universelle et internationale de Bruxelles, 1958, vol. 8: Synthèse (Brussels: Commissariat général du Gouvernement près l’Exposition universelle et internationale de Bruxelles 1958, 1962), 20.

As a result, Fifty Years of Modern Art was the only major art exhibition under the auspices of the fair, and thus bore the sole responsibility of conveying the universalist-humanist message behind Man and Art.6The other exhibition organized by the Expo was dedicated to contemporary Belgian art and significantly smaller in size and scope. Yet this was a difficult task for an exhibition narrowly conceived as a retrospective of Western modern art, in the model of the first documenta in Kassel (1955) and the lesser-known L’Oeuvre du XXe siècle (Work of the Twentieth Century) in Paris (1952). The cancellation of Man and Art thus revealed a deep contradiction, not only in the fair’s visual arts program, but also in the mainstream art history and criticism that underpinned it: while all countries and cultures were to be included in the universal Man and Art, the operative definitions of modern art at the time were entirely Eurocentric. In other words, the celebration of a diverse and multicultural past had a flip side: the envisioning of the present (and, implicitly, the future) as entirely belonging to the West.

Page spread from the exhibition catalogue 50 ans d’art moderne (Fifty Years of Modern Art), showing works by Aleksandr Laktionov, Semyon Chuikov, Isaak Brodskii, and Tetyana Yablonska.

This problem first manifested itself on the organizational level. Scholars and critics from outside the major Western centers were included in the steering committee
for the exhibitions, in hopes they would lend their ancient treasures—Egypt being a case in point. When Man and Art collapsed, these same people insisted on the inclusion of their own, non-canonical twentieth-century works in Fifty Years of Modern Art.7This could explain the inclusion of four artists from Egypt—Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar, Mohamed Nagy, Sayed Abdel Rasoul, and Gamal el-Sagini—as well as Theophilos Chatzimichael and Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas from Greece. In addition, the Expo’s balancing act with regard to the two Cold War superpowers—both of which had some of the largest pavilions on the grounds— was also transposed to the fine arts committee, in which both American and Soviet specialists were very active. As a result, the exhibition included (for the first time in a European exhibition of this scope) a significant number of American works from the first half of the twentieth century, alongside better known works of Abstract Expressionism, thus assigning American art a larger role in the history of modernism than before. More curiously, Fifty Years of Modern Art also featured a great number of oversize Socialist Realist works by Soviet artists. The presence of such staunchly anti-modernist works was a result of a negotiation: Soviet authorities agreed to loan famous modernist works from the Shchukin and Morozov collections, which had not left Russia since 1917, on the condition that contemporary Soviet works accompany them.8A large number of works by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and van Gogh were sent by the Hermitage and Pushkin museums, along with Socialist Realist works by Aleksandr Gerasimov, Vera Mukhina, Isaak Brodskii, Aleksandr Laktionov, and others.

Embedded within a retrospective of modern art, this was one of the largest exhibits of Soviet Socialist Realist art to be shown in the West during the Cold War— otherwise a rare sighting before 1956, when the Soviets returned to the Venice Biennale after a twenty-year hiatus. Indeed, the odd method of “curating by committee” eventually made Fifty Years of Modern Art more like the Venice Biennales of the 1950s than its more direct inspiration, documenta.9While not explicitly stated in the sources, the first documenta must have influenced the decision to hold a similar exhibition in Brussels, since the organizing committee was convened soon after documenta closed in 1955. In his analysis of the Brussels exhibition, German art historian Will Grohmann directly compares Fifty Years of Modern Art to documenta: see Will Grohmann, “L’Exposition 50 Ans d’art moderne,” Quadrum: Revue Internationale d’art moderne 5 (1958): 61–64, 94. During the decade, the Biennale grew significantly in scope, as artists of increasingly diverse backgrounds and styles were shown alongside the established modern masters. Nonetheless, visibility did not mean recognition: reviews and accounts of the Biennales at the time habitually omitted the pavilions from Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East, despite their proliferation.10See André de Ridder, De levende kunst gezien te Venetië: XXIV Biennale 1948, XXV Biennale 1950, XXVI Biennale 1952, XXVII Biennale 1954, XXVIII Biennale 1956 (Brussels: Paleis der Academiën, 1958). Despite its meticulous detail and length, this contemporaneous account barely mentions pavilions outside Europe and North America. The same largely applies to later studies: see Lawrence Alloway, The Venice Biennale 1895– 1968: From Salon to Goldfish Bowl (London: Faber and Faber, 1969); and Nancy Jachec, Politics and Painting at the Venice Biennale, 1948–64: Italy and the Idea of Europe (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).

Page spread from the exhibition catalogue 50 ans d’art moderne (Fifty Years of Modern Art), showing works from the “naïf” section, by artists Ivan Generalić, Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas, Theophilos Chatzimichael, and Krsto Hegedušić.

In both Venice and Brussels, non-European works were reluctantly included due to the changing geopolitics of the postwar era, but they were not integrated on equal terms in the discourse on modern art. Yet, though the decentralized nature of the Biennale did not mandate a consistent narrative and allowed for a looser association of the exhibited works, 50 Years of Modern Art aspired to a cohesive history of recent art, in which the new, non-canonical works were integrated. This did not quite happen, however: the catalogue listed and reproduced all the works along with every artist’s biography, but the long essay by the Belgian art historian Emile Langui that accompanied them did not even acknowledge their presence, focusing instead on the established artists of the Western modernist pantheon.1150 ans d’art moderne (Brussels: Palais international des beaux-arts, 1958). Langui, the director of fine arts at the Belgian Ministry of Education and the chair of the fine arts committee, organized his narrative along the familiar succession of “isms” of Western modernism: fauvism, cubism, futurism, etc. Works from Egypt, Turkey, as well as the periphery of Europe (Portugal, Yugoslavia, Greece) were summarily relegated to the category of “naïfs,” despite the fact that some artists, such as Paris-educated Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas from Greece, who would have been better classified as a cubist, fit neatly into the predetermined categories of Western modernism.12Similarly, the Egyptian artist Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar was classified as naïf, while today he is usually considered a surrealist. Again, inclusion in the exhibition did not mean integration into the art history that underpinned it—a problem that has often persisted in exhibitions of global modern art since.

In the private deliberations of the committee, a defiant Langui resisted the inclusion of works from what he called “young nations,” refusing to “make this exhibition a sort of tribunal of rectifiers of injustices against the ‘petites littératures’ because they have been suppressed by a thousand reasons.”13For a detailed account of the committee debates based on the available archival material, see Hespel, “Bruxelles 1958,” 20–28. While it is tempting to seeFifty Years of Modern Art as an early attempt to expand the modernist canon, it was only reluctantly, even obstinately so. Still, the exhibition gains new historical significance from the contemporary vantage point. It appears to first have confronted some of the same questions that we still face today in the now institutionally enshrined field of the history of global modernism: issues of inclusion versus integration, the role of exhibitions in the expansion of the canon, and the tensions between quality and equality in these new, broader canons. If Fifty Years of Modern Art afforded an early, partial glimpse into what an exhibition of “global” modern art could look like, it also revealed the enduring challenges of such an undertaking.

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