Deep in the Volcano

Otto Dix: The Skat Players, 1920
Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin/© 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Otto Dix: The Skat Players, 1920

Between April 6 and October 31, 1913, the city of Ghent in northern Belgium hosted an Exposition universelle et internationale. For this provincial city it was a stupendous effort. The Gent-Sint-Pieters station, still the city’s main railway terminus, and the Central Post Office, with its eclectic mix of Gothic Revival and neo-Renaissance styles, were finished just in time for the festivities. A special airmail service was laid on as a publicity gimmick (a practice pioneered two years before, at the United Provinces Exposition in Allahabad, British India).

Across 320 acres, the architects of the exposition assembled a panoply of national pavilions and themed displays focused on every conceivable product of human ingenuity, from locomotives, telegraph lines, and industrial machines to weapons, artworks, and cigarettes. In the “Rue du Caire,” visitors could immerse themselves in a garish reconstruction of an Oriental bazaar peopled by merchants in exotic costumes. “Old Flanders,” a faux-medieval village, evoked the historical depth of Flemish identity, which was then entering a phase of cultural revival.

This was also the last exposition of its kind to include displays of live humans from the colonial periphery, though in Ghent these were less prominently situated than at the Paris exposition of 1900. Next to the exhibition dedicated to the French colonies was a “Village Sénégalais” in which West African men and women prepared traditional foods using ancestral implements. In an enclosure incongruously located on the edge of “Old Flanders,” Europeans could gawk at fifty-three Igorot tribespeople from Bontoc, in the Mountain Province of the northern Philippines, pretending to go about their daily tasks. (One of them, a twenty-eight-year-old man named Timicheg, died of tuberculosis during the exhibition; today, one of the city’s rail tunnels is named after him). “The Exhibition,” a contemporary Ghentish enthusiast declared, would be

a new and luminous signpost on the road towards progress where humanity halts, gathers itself, reflects, and judges the state of global civilization, in order to advance more surely to new and decisive triumphs.

Among the millions of visitors (estimates range from four to nine million) was the Scottish philanthropist and pioneering town planner Patrick Geddes, who was impressed by what he saw. In the large display dedicated to the Belgian Congo, Geddes recognized a salutary determination to cleanse the country’s public life of the horrors perpetrated under King Leopold, who had died in 1909. He appreciated the exhibition’s artful juxtapositions of past and present, which helped “the best minds” to distinguish “heritage” from the mere “burden” of the past. But most important of all was the exposition’s international purpose, which was to project the “immense importance” of Belgium as a “Key-stone State” whose “very material and military weakness, in the midst of great armed Powers, gives her an…

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