From the Rue des Nations to the Rue aux Lèvres: The 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition Parody of the 1889 and 1900 World Fair Cityscapes

Lauren Walden

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The International Surrealist Exhibition of 1938 is viewed as a foil to the fin de siècle world fairs of 1889 and 1900, which created taxonomies of nations, promoting colonial exoticism. The cosmopolitan tenet of perpetual peace was present at the latter events but this was subordinated to an imperialist agenda. Surrealist subversion of world fairs stems from the exhibition La Vérité sur les Colonies, a riposte to the official Exposition Coloniale of 1931. I argue the 1938 surrealist exhibition goes further to subvert the entire legacy of the world fairs as an unwanted fin de siècle hangover rather than bolster traditional views that envisage surrealism as a postmodernist precursor to installation art. Indeed, the political teleology of surrealism and the Expositions Universelles is completely polarised but both exhibitions employ similar themes and techniques of sensory immersion. The 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris concocts a prolifically photographed cosmopolitan cityscape brimming with culturally-hybrid scenography and artworks. Marcel Duchamp creates the space of La Ville Surréaliste with suggestive streets such as the Rue des Lèvres. Leaves, flowers and sand are strewn on the floor creating a multi-sensory appeal alongside fetishized mannequins, furniture and ponds. This is a potential parody of the 1889 World Fair, which created the Rue des Nations and similarly functioned as a miniature town. A Rue de Caire was also constructed to promulgate stereotyped oriental sexualities of belly dancing. Similarities between architecture, dance, mannequins and the domestic space are explored. Ultimately, the Exposition Universelle emphasises alterity for colonial gain whilst the surrealist exhibition employs curatorial cosmopolitanism to injure the impending threat of fascism.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9-18
Number of pages10
JournalMDCCC 1800
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jul 2017

Bibliographical note

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License (CC BY 4.0)


  • World Fairs
  • Surrealism
  • Avant-garde Exhibitions
  • Colonialism
  • Cosmopolitanism


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