Ever since the world was sufficiently globalised to allow for a common cultural language of admiration for technology and industry in mid-19th century, there have been expositions which allowed every country to show their might, progress and peculiarity on the world stage.
It all started with the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace of 1851, inside the Hyde Park, which dazzled the inhabitants of the global hegemon of the day with innovations, as well as the range of goods produced. The range is best understood given that it covered everything from Koh-i-Noor to pay toilets, both of which sent the Victorian message of universalism and progress, which are both the staples of the global outlook, even 170 years later.
In those days of the first globalisation, Serbia was fighting for independence from the Ottomans both on the political field and culturally: trying to find its footing both by forging its own specific identity that would bind people from both the Habsburg and Ottoman empires and by looking westwards to join the global tides.
The goal of joining the global mainstream was achieved in 1885, seven years after achieving independence and international recognition at the Berlin Congress, and three years after it became a Kingdom with a philandering and otherwise very worldly King Milan Obrenović at its helm.
It was first invited to exhibits its wares and culture in Antwerp, which showcased both the grandeur of the time, as well as its dark side as it was organised to celebrate the creation of the infamous Congo Free State (under the rule of Leopold II) and featured a model Congolese village, the first de facto human zoo.
Serbia was given a small part of the main pavilion (marked as Siberia), between Spain and Romania and opposite Switzerland.
Serbia’s first pavilion was constructed at the Paris Expo which inaugurated a slightly more famous structure: the Eiffel tower. Organised to celebrate 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille it was boycotted by the largest European monarchies, but was still a major success for France.
In the construction of its pavilion, Serbia leaned into its Serbo-Byzantine heritage, much in line with the era’s obsession with peculiar the exotic: from an Egyptian street to, once again, a West African village.
One of Serbia’s most impressive pavilions in history, shaped like a medieval monastery, designed by Ruvidić and Kapetanović, was presented in Paris in 1900. Serbia managed to attract admiration from the crowds through a hydraulic device which computed differential equations, constructed by the mathematician Mihajlo Petrović Alas, as well as by the monument to the Kosovo heroes, designed by Đorđe Jovanović, which now graces the centre of Kruševac. The exhibition was also an important occasion for the young king Aleksandar I Obrenović to assert Serbian cultural and political power in the West, especially as the Ottoman empire was entering its terminal stage, and as other local powers, like Bulgaria were rising.
Another interesting feature of the 1900 Expo was that Bosnia had its own pavilion, decorated by the famous Czech Artist Alphonse Mucha. It was a way to show the prosperity brought to the country by the Habsburg occupation which started in 1878.
The first showing of Serbia after the brutal deposal of the Obrenović dynasty was at the World Fair in Liege, after it decided not to have a showing at the St. Louis fair of 1904 (of the “Meet me in St. Louis” fame).The country continued the ethno theme in the pavilion, which was once again designed by Kapetanović.
Another interesting feature was that it was next to the Montenegrin pavilion, the first showing for the country.
Turin and Rome 1911
One of the most impressive showings of Serbia at World Fairs was in 1911, when it participated in two fairs in Italy: the International Exposition in Turin and the International Exposition of Art in Rome. The strong showing was partly motivated by the annexation of Bosnia by the Austro-Hungarain empire, and the need of Serbia to flex its cultural muscles.
The exhibition in Turin featured a magnificent pavilion designed by the master of Serbian Art Nouveau, Branislav Tanazević, once again in Serbo-Byzantine style. The exhibition in Rome howwever, was the more memorable one, the pavilion was designed by Ivan Meštrović, a Croatian sculptor who, despite being a subject of the Habsburg empire, designed an exhibition inspired by the Serbian mythology surrounding the 1389 Battle of Kosovo.
The first expo after the great war and the creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1919, was a major chance to show the new country’s rebuilding efforts and power. However, as the country was from the start burdened with many internal tensions and vying between various local elites (in Belgrade, Ljubljana and Zagreb) for prestige, the pavilion was chosen hastily. The committee, presided by Tanazević suggested that either the Slovene starchitect Jože Plečnik (who was kept busy at the time with the redesign the Prague Castle and refused), or Croatian Stjepan Hribar design the pavilion. There was some kerffufle as a Serbian architect, Miroslav Krajček, tried to elbow in with an eclectic deign in national style, however it fell on Hribar to create the architectural representation of the somewhat dysfunctional Kingdom.
He created a modernist structure with a bare, almost classical exterior, while the interior was where various parts of Yugoslavia were shown through their produce and art.
In addition to the main pavilion, the Kingdom also built a “Bosnian kiosk” to accompany the main structure, which was designed by Branislav Kojić. With its modernised oriental design it tried to bring the atmosphere and tastes of a kafana to Paris.
The previous disagreements between Belgrade and Zagreb cultural scenes came to a head when the Kingdom, was invited to build a pavilion in Philadelphia, for the exposition to celebrate 150 years of the US. Although a neo-Byzantine deisgn by a sibling architect duo of Petar and Branko Krstić was chosen to represent the country it was never built. Budgetary constraints and ensuing suggestion of recycling of the art displayed in Paris the year later (which was primarily made by Croatian artists) incensed the artistic circles in Belgrade and in the end, nothing came of the pavilion.
One of the most striking Serbian/Yugoslav pavilions was presented in Barcelona in 1929 and was the work of Dragiša Brašovan. Following the Art Deco obsession with steamships, it was designed as a ship’s pram and made completely out of wood. The ingenious black and white facade gave the structure some dynamism, while the rich modernist interior gave it a luxurious look.
Bračovan was once again chosen to represent Yugoslavia in 1931 in Milan. The pavilion was much less innovative compared to his design in Barcelona but it once again showed Yugoslavia’s commitment to modernism and was much more representative of the “Belgrade modern” style of buildings like BIGZ and the Belgrade Fairground.
The last pre-WWII Expo in Paris went down in history thanks to the artistic and architectural rivalry it inspired between Stalin’s USSR and Hitler’s Germany, or, rather, between Boris Iofin and Albert Speer.
Yugoslav pavilion, designed by Josip Seissel, was a good attempt to integrate the country’s traditional art and modernism. Seissel, a member of the surrealist Zenit movement, designed a evocative building with very different interiors which showcased Yugoslav diversity. For that he was awarded the Grand Prix and made a member of the Legion d’Honneur.
Yugoslavia was also represented with a “Bosnian house”, a wooden pavilion made in the shape of a traditional Dinaric house. It was made out of wood donated by Šipad logging company and designed by Vojta Braniš. The little cottage was donated to the city of Paris and was moved to Bois de Boulogne. I am not sure if it survived to this day.
New York 1939
The World’s Fair in Queens was the last one before WWII, and already some of the countries which signed up and had pavilions there, ceased to exist. Indeed, according to Slavs in New York blog, the Czechoslovak pavilion was completed, despite the fact that country was dismembered by the Munich agreement, and served as a symbol of resistance to Nazi Germany (which refused to participate).
The Yugoslav pavilion was opened by the mayor of New York City, Fiorello la Guardia, who had the special connection with the country as he was a diplomat in Rijeka and spoke Serbo-Croatian. In his speech he said that:
The people of Yugoslavia are generous, kindly and peace-loving. Whenever there is trouble in the Balkans, look for the reason, and it will be found to come from without and not from within. Let the strong and big nations leave the Balkans alone and peace will prevail there.
The pavilion was designed in the modernist style but tried to impress New Yorkers with the traditional architecture and art of Yugoslavia. The interior had replicas of Serbian monastery frescoes, Dalmatian churches as well as motifs from Miroslav gospel. The display also highlighted the successes of famous Yugoslavs in the the US, such as Pupin, Meštrović and Tesla, who was invited to attend, but could not due to illness.