Characteristics of the International Fair


A MONTH has done more than might have been expected to evolve order at the Exhibition, both within doors and without. Yet there are still unfinished, untidy patches in various directions, some of them in very odd ones. For instance, before the east end of the Main Building, the only uninclosed approach in the whole circuit and the only one to which carriages may come, which therefore may properly be considered the principal entrance, there is a bit of rough, ragged ground strewn with all sorts of rubbish, and the more conspicuous in its neglected disorder for lying between the smooth asphalts immediately in front of the building and the gravel roads and soft turf of the park on the other hand. Now that the barrier of vans, wains, freight-cars, and packingcases has disappeared from the base of the Main Building, it is possible to judge of its external effect. It is not handsome nor agreeable, though not positively the reverse; the interminable length of straight line which is so well adapted to the purposes of the interior has that look of mere utility deadly to grace or beauty, not rising here, as it sometimes does, into dignity. At one end, besides the ugly bit of ground just mentioned, a panorama of the siege of Paris has been set up in what looks like a huge gasometer, dull gray instead of black. This and a row of brick tenement - houses spoil the view of the tree - tops rising from below the plateau, and the fine bridges over the river, and lovely slopes of the opposite bank. Towards town the long southern side of the structure is parallel with a wide street lined by horse-cars, hideous, hearse-like vehicles called park or Centennial carriages, drays, carts, and all the unornamental sorts of equipages; the more elegant ones are not often to be seen in that quarter. The farther side of the street presents an irregular façade of hotels and boarding-houses of vulgar aspect, “run up” especially for this occasion; and beyond them, cityward, of brick-kilns, converging and diverging railroad-tracks sunk between ragged embankments, blocks of mean houses standing up amid waste spaces of coarse weeds half-choked with rags, bits of newspaper, rusty iron, broken bottles, old shoes, and hoop-skirts; here and there a monstrous shell of clapboards, or a caravanserai tent squatting over an acre, dignified by the name of hotel, but apparently containing only drinking rooms. The Exhibition cannot be reached in this direction without unpleasant elbowing from low forms of vice, and contemplation of the worst forms of suburban ugliness. The opposite or northern side of the Main Building is divided from the grounds by the convenient but disfiguring railway, which encircles the whole inner area, so that it is only at the western end that the approach to the most important part of the Exhibition — the Exhibition proper, in fact — is not positively displeasing, or marred by displeasing objects. Here grass, the shade of trees, the freshness of an immense fountain, fill the interval between this west front and Machinery Hall, while to the right a wide opening, where the ground falls away, gives a view of smaller buildings, pretty and airy-looking, among foliage, with knolls and hollows and glimpses of water, the leafy branches stretching a net-work of pleasantness over everything. It would be unreasonable to complain that beauty should not be the first and predominant effect in a great industrial show, but it is a real cause of regret in this country — where ancient and abiding forms of beauty are lacking, where ugliness grows spontaneously under the footsteps of man, like those evil weeds unknown to the virgin prairie which spring up after cultivation — that opportunities for gratifying and educating taste should be thrown away or abused; and there are many lost opportunities in the Centennial grounds. One of the most pitiable is the fountains, which are for the most part designed to convince Philadelphians that there is no such thing as a pretty fountain. A beautiful play of water makes a delightful object in the green space of intersection between Belmont and Fountain avenues, but here the gracious element has been mostly left to itself. When one remembers the charming results which can be got from mere water, a sheet, a jet, or a fall, it is more irritating to encounter the scarecrows which seem to have been raised in emulation of those which disfigure our streets and squares. It is only in the Main Building, where they appear as monuments to the virtues of Spa, Vichy, or Kissingen, that one gives a sardonic assent to their fitness.

There are causes of irritation enough besides the fountains, the overheard questions and comments of visitors, and other provocations which affect one very differently at the beginning and at the end of a long day’s looking. I have not yet been able to discover whether there is a stated time for music, or whether some melodious yet diabolic influence impels the performers at one and the same moment to rush to their different stools, so that as one listens absently but with pleasure to the organ rolling out the overture to the Huguenots the ear is tormented as by a gust with the persistence of “ Il segretto per esser Felice ” from a thin piano, it may be the richest Steinway or Chickering ever manufactured, but poor as heard against the sonority of the grander instrument; and moving off to be out of reach of this, one comes within the range of another organ, and the soul swells and sinks with the chords of the funeral march from Beethoven’s Sonata Eroica. Gradually the notes of the garden-duet from Faust steal through the sublime sorrow of the lament for a hero, and, disgraceful to say, it is not intolerable; but when " motives ” from Martha begin to come in at the other ear, Babel and Bedlam get possession of the senses and brain, and one takes to flight. All around are fellow countryfolk from every part of our wide land, some looking at particular things, others at things in general, a great number only at the people. Other signs apart, they can be classified by their views of the Exhibition: the New Yorkers could have done it so much better, the Bostonians would not have done it at all; the real admirers are the Southerners and Westerners. But in their particular remarks all betray one weakness which may be inherent to human nature, but which I have observed as a characteristic of my country-people— the inability to believe that what is new to one’s self is not new to everybody else. It is confounding to witness the fatuity with which persons whose ignorance might lead them to suspect that others knew more than they, or those whose intelligence and information must have convinced them of it, will announce well-known facts as discoveries of their own. I know few Americans who are not capable of astonishing a Japanese with an account of the practice of harikari.

Turning from my fellow - creatures themselves to what they have achieved, I was struck by the suitability of entering the German department through a recess simulating the inside of a bookshop, surrounded by counters representing the leading publishing-houses, chiefly of Leipzig and Berlin. The arrangement is very good: fine maps and photographs from the great pictures of their national galleries cover the board partitions, and sentences in Greek, Latin, German, and English, on the friendship of books and the solaces of study, form an appropriate cornice. It is a meet introduction to a people whose learning is solid and scholarly. A curious evidence of their slowness, however, and one which no doubt has often been instanced, is that they, the inventors of printing, should be so far behind some other nations in the art, and should not yet have adopted the types which all the lettered peoples of Europe have recognized as the common medium. It is natural also to see Germany make an elaborate display of drugs and pharmacies; but an apothecary’s window, however cunningly arranged, has little attraction for eyes which have seen through purple jars. There is, however, in the neighboring case of dyes, a beauty independent of scientific or industrial purposes. They are principally mineral, and fill the fancy with the splendor of the underground palaces of the gnomes and kobolds; there is a strange, hard, unsympathetic quality in the colors, which one might ascribe to their stony origin; the hues are distinctly metallic, whether presented in the form of powder or of liquid. This hardness runs through a magnificent scale of reds, from scarlet to rose, although they are illustrated by hanks of cotton and gleaming skeins of floss-silk. A superb mountain of ultramarine rests on a pedestal round which are assorted little cups of all the kindred or derivative tints, from this profound, gorgeous blue up to the palest shade of turquoise, where the eye ceases to distinguish the boundary between azure and green, and follows in bewilderment until it meets something as unmistakable as emerald. It is singular to observe, in going through the departments, what becomes of these beautiful colors in the hands of German bad taste. If one averts the eyes from show-cases of silks and velvets which actually hurt them, to the specimens of ornamental needle-work, the pain is transferred to the mind to see the labor and patience, the excellent skill and dexterity, expended on objects so frightful in design and color: even when they are tolerably good, — and in a few instances they are really pretty, — some inopportune bit of black lace, or tinsel, or bead-work spoils everything. And yet Berlin wool gave birth to modern embroidery, and the South Kensington school of needlework, however it may lean and ape after Flemish tapestry or India shawls, really had its rise in canvas and cross-stitch. The Saxons are very strong in linen, where their designs, being strictly limited to imitation of leaves and flowers, are pretty enough, although entirely inartistic. It is a subject of surprise that the last have sent no china; the famous Dresden or rather Meissen manufactories contribute nothing, which is a pity every way, it being the most perfected of their industries, and the one which would embellish the Exhibition most. This is not the only case where one of the most prominent and graceful inventions of a country has been left out of her display. Norway has a native pottery, which judges declare to be fine and full of character; of this peculiar sort there is not a specimen — only imitations of foreign china. The French show is far below what might be expected in this branch. Sèvres itself, that is, the government, shows nothing, nor does Blois, and the rest is unimportant and not remarkably pretty; the handsomest that I saw were the faïences de Gien, a town on the Loire, among which were some dark blue vases with delicate, bright flowers in Japanese style. Among the Limoges faïence were some large jars of coarselycolored ground, with sprays of paletinted flowers carelessly flung over them, the effect of which was better than anything in the finished, finer kinds; and this should not be. Yet it is so throughout, in regard to china, always excepting the Eastern departments. Sweden has some, very simple household pottery, large crocks and jars of a dark brown color, absolutely without effort or pretension in design, which are very satisfactory to the eye. Spain shows common red pottery of the very coarsest kind, but of the most admirable forms, recalling Etruscan; and some delicious cream-colored earthen-ware of exceedingly curious and graceful shapes, with a shell pattern like rough embroidery encrusted over it, which suggests a Moorish origin. Undoubtedly both sorts are very old; there is not a trace of modern thought or taste about them. Russia, too, has some pale yellow and brown pottery which is pleasing. Remembering that Frederick the Great almost destroyed the Meissen manufactories, carrying off men, materials, tools, and models, that Berlin might have as fine china as Dresden, there is a satisfaction for those who do not worship the High Hand in seeing how uninteresting the array of porcelain from Prussia is. In Germany, also, the common pottery strikes one more than the costlier kinds; there are shelves of stone - ware, big and coarse, yet of the best shapes, and cool gray, brown, and dark blue colors, which with all the difference of date, style, and finish recall the old Nuremberg ware, dear to antiquarians, which is also there, with its droll designs and pewter handles and covers, fit to deceive anybody but an expert. It is wonderful what an honest, wholesome tone the combination of that, particular blue, gray, and brown produces; and the effect of the homely shapes with their legends inscribed on bowl or brim is very old-time and friendly. There is something in the genius of the Germans which appeals peculiarly to that corner of our microcosm where the feelings and imagination meet; they excel in delighting children, and it is this quality which produces the Kindergarten, our favorite fairy - stories, and the toys which captivate as no French or English ones can. There is a sentimental pleasure in looking at the toys, among which Nuremberg keeps her time-honored preëminence; they are funny, grotesque, yet have a touch of that genial German humor which distinguishes them from all other playthings, however pretty and ingenious; they speak to one’s humanity. Some of them have a quaint poetry, as the stork carrying the baby in a bundle, — in German nurseries it is the stork that brings a little brother or sister, — or Krisskringle figured as a Lapp with a sledge and four-in-hand of reindeer. The German dolls are not so irresistibly lovely as the English wax doll baby, but they look as if they were meant for children, and have not that horrible aspect of cocottes which those in our shop-windows have worn for years past. German bad taste, whatever it comes from, does not come from corruptness. Yet it is amazingly all-pervading; it has crept through Austria into Bohemia, and stamped the glass. In the large display of that celebrated manufacture there is hardly a piece one would be willing to admit into one’s rooms; the plain white or combinations of green are the least objectionable. The only articles which could be called pretty were a pair of vases of a cool, opaque aquamarine ground, with garlands of fragile white wild-flowers. It is strange how much better this ware looks in Prague, whither it comes direct from the great glass-works in the heart of the Giant Mountains. There are some very elegant chandeliers of clear and opaque glass, but these belong to the jurisdiction of upholstery; the only artistic glass in this department appeared in a few specimens, hardly enough to judge by, of church windows from the Tyrol, rich and deep in color, with a semi-lucent amber ground of a peculiar, ridged surface. The German bronzes are very poor (nor are the French much better, except in execution), and the want of variety in the figures is ludicrous; the favorite subjects are Frederick the Great and the present Crown Prince, on horseback, on foot, in uniform, in armor, idealized, apotheosized. This stern folk can work only in iron, apparently. There is a small but fine collection of wrought iron, copies or imitations of the antique, casques, shields, vases, and platters; the workmanship is admirable; there is one specimen just from the mold, dull and with particles of earth adhering to it; there is as much difference between it in this stage and when finished and polished, as between a statue in the clay and in plaster; in the last process the plastic or malleable look is lost. The tokens of the only fine art in which Germany holds supremacy are unfortunately mute witnesses without a skillful interpreter. Some of them are comically ugly; among the brass instruments there is a many-mouthed monster like a sort of musical octopus ; among the pianos a curious new species, long, with around end, which bears the same relation in size to the grand piano that the upright does to the square, and about the same relation in volume and tone. The zitherns and mandolins have forms to match their pretty names, but the soul of the musical instrument abides elsewhere than in its body, and informs it only to the ear. Wandering northward through the German department one comes upon an immense mass of amber, in every stage from rough pebbles to rosin; it is enough to spoil one’s enjoyment of everything made of the exquisite substance, even the fantastic little chandelier of the clear and clouded amber in the Austrian section, which might have been made for an archduchess’s baby-house. In the gross it looks like a great heap of chemicals in a crude state, with here and there a bit of soap. It is a strong example of how apt precious things are to lose their quality if seen in too great quantity. One feels this constantly in going through the Exhibition, as to ivory, as to the malachite and lapis-lazuli tables of the Russian department, — although the great single block of rough malachite is fine, — even as to jewels; the unset, uncut opals, sapphires, etc., might just as well be any shining pebble one finds on a beach or in a brook, the diadems and necklaces might as well be stage ornaments. When the costliness depends not on rarity in the material but on delicacy and perfection of workmanship, this doubt and disgust do not ensue; one does not weary of acres of Japanese virtu, and the countless folds of Brussels lace convey a sense of the refinement and excess of luxury which is by some recondite and complex process pleasurable, and which the sight of a yard does not produce.

Russia is not ready yet, which seems unreasonable, as so many larger departments are in order; it is not likely, however, that the empty cases will contain anything but varieties of objects already exposed, among which are a number of exceedingly rich and beautiful furs made into wraps fit for the empress; strange, rare skins of arctic fox and wolf and other animals, whose superb peltries seem as if they were wasted on those icy solitudes. Some of the Russian bronzes struck me as having merit, — at least that of presenting unhackneyed subjects and groups; the rough moujik, the military Cossack, are good figures for the material. The life of the steppes has picturesque incidents and accessories. But French taste, imperfectly apprehended, is the ruling influence in their productions, with the most wretched results. The most characteristic objects they have to show are those of enameled metal, Oriental in form, design, and color, yet, I believe, peculiar to Russia; they are salvers, cups, coffee-pots, and various vessels of national origin and use, and the style has been applied to the thousand knick-knacks of modern fancy, toilet and writing table appointments. The effect is chiefly that of gold or fine brass, variegated with bold, bright colors, which follow elaborate patterns of meeting and interwoven lines and bands, less intricate than most Eastern designs, but of the same complex and original tendency. The shapes, though sometimes flattening out into fine breadth, or arching into long-necked slenderness, have the bulbous disposition which is also Oriental; however new the present specimens, they carry the mind back past czars to khans. But those looking for antiquities in the northern countries will be most gratified by the little collection of ancient relies in the Swedish or Norwegian department, among which is a heavy gold chain, handsomely and curiously wrought, which may have hung round the neck or the helm of Olaf Trygvesson, and a gold - mounted drinkinghorn on wheels, worthy of a place on the board at the bouts of Valhalla. The old carved wooden chests and sideboards, with their show of old brass, will also attract our new guild of bric-à-brac hunters. But in wood-carving, as far as I have seen,—and nobody can be sure that to-morrow will not reveal something overlooked to-day,—Belgium excels, showing some of the skill of those famous old Flemish masters whose works one makes pilgrimages to behold. There is splendid tapestry from Mechlin (an art I had thought lost in the land of Arras), although these modern productions differ from the old ones and fall below them, in the same way as new stained glass compared with old, the attempt to approximate to painting destroying the happy effect of mere color to be found in the archaic figures and scenes of old windows and hangings. Nowhere in the Exhibition has the occasional illusion of being in Europe possessed me so strongly as in this department; the familiar names of Turnhout, Ypres, Courtrai, Ghent, Alost, Spa, Verviers, succeed each other so closely that it seems as if the stations were flitting by the window of the railway - carriage, or the guard shouting them aloud. Then in Belgium all one’s purchases are either linen or lace, and here one goes from case to case of the more useful or more exquisite fabric, each a triumph of manufacture in its way, just as one idled past the shop-windows in Brussels or Antwerp on the way to the Cathedral or the Hôtel de Ville. This momentary deception is sometimes very strong in the French department, the arrangement of the wares is so perfectly Parisian. There are singularly few things in the department which one covets or would care to own; there is a second-rate look about most of them which classes them with French things sold in Broadway and Chestnut Street rather than in the Rues Rivoli and Castiglione; but the arrangement is so attractive, the simple show-cases of black wood and thin, clear glass, with their plain, slim, gold lettering, have such a native elegance, that the eye ranges or rests among them with pleasure and contentment. The gaze is gratified even in passing by the colors of the dry-goods, the style of the ready-made apparel; the bronze, glass, china, and the whole family of petits objets, though individually rather trashy, are spread in seductive array. These people possess the secret of taste, and it adorns whatever they attempt, outside the realm of art, where higher laws prevail. I do not mean to deny them artistic perception, but only to distinguish between the gifts; the latter comes out strongly in the beautiful reproductions of the old fabrics, damask and brocade, which, though mere mechanical achievements, strike me as better than the laborious performances of the South Kensington school of needlework, while the heavy tapestry curtains from Nimes are really magnificent, and, although draping a partition of the carriage section, call up the most romantic thoughts of old château life.

Most Americans are so familiar with the limited varieties of Swiss wares that the examples of them here are less interesting than less pretty things. The commissioners’ office is a fanciful little châlet, only too like the pretty dens of thieves which line the promenade of Interlaken beneath the great walnut-trees. There is apparently a most excellent display of material for the whole range of educational and scientific courses. The same thing is to be noted in Holland’s department, with fine maps and plans of public works; but these are specialties which belong to the province of a really educated observation, and not to that of the mere sight-seer. So do the carefully and most gracefully prepared botanical specimens, the samples of rare woods, of minerals, of cereals, to be seen in many of the departments. There is a natural desire, moreover, in many nations who are somewhat behindhand in their industrial development, to display their progress in the manufacture of kerseymeres and false teeth. Only manufacturers or dealers in such articles can be expected to show an intelligent interest in these, though their presence is significant in such non-productive countries as Mexico and the South American republics. In all these countries of Spanish or kindred origin, there is a healthy, vigorous artistic vein running through the articles of common use. The Mexicans have no pottery worth mentioning (though there are a few curious bits, undoubtedly of very ancient shape), but large wooden dishes and platters painted with flowers, very gay and pleasing in design and color. Brazil has some very handsome hammocks, interwoven and decorated with many colors, with gold and silver and gaudy feathers. They are extremely ornamental; they seem to betray a savage instinct of taste; one generally ascribes all decoration found in these regions to a Moorish origin, but here the Indian finger can be seen. There are also exceedingly handsome stamped leather saddles and housings; a horse could not be more nobly caparisoned than in such trappings, which are not so elaborate as to encumber the action or hide the form. Besides these, and a most brilliant but ephemeral trophy of feather-flowers, butterflies, and beetles, there is really nothing in the gorgeous fane Brazil has erected for herself; but Dom Pedro is so deservedly popular just now that we are inclined to regard the latter as symbolic of his desire to expand the resources of his empire rather than as an empty boast. There is something about it, however, cognate with the conception of herself which Spain expresses by the huge triple portal through which her vacancies are approached. That is almost imposing in its preposterous size and ugliness; there is haughty simplicity in the decorations, — medallion portraits of De Soto, Pizarro, and others who conquered for their country empires of which neither they nor she could keep an inch. Except the pottery, of which mention has been made, and some beautiful fabrics from the colonies,—cotton goods with the splendid colors of Madras, and bandana handkerchiefs, and fairy-spun grass and piña cloths, — there is nothing to see in the Spanish department but Andalusian saddles inferior to the Brazilian, and a small but marvelous collection of iron and steel ware,— shields, weapons, caskets, and vases. They belong by right to the Abencerrages and the Alhambra; the symmetrical, unique forms, the extraordinary intricacy of the arabesque patterns inlaid in gold and silver, graceful as the tendrils of the vine but subtle and abstruse as a problem of the Arabic philosophers, the combined minuteness and freedom of the workmanship, are the fruits of a glorious school of art. One connoisseur, probably the finest in this country, discerns in these scanty materials the possibility of a grand artistic development. He says the ideas embodied are vigorous and unworn, their audacity noble, their bad taste barbaric, not perverse, corrupt, effete. He discovers in the showy crockery and gaudy cloths a fine, free point of departure which may lead Spanish artists and artisans into new paths towards beauty and magnificence.