Ephemeral City: the1893 world’s Columbian exposition as Gesamtkunstwerk

Zoe Ritts

“Whether we look upon this spectacle by day, under a blue sky that is clarified by the reflection of the limpid waters of Lake Michigan; or by night, when fretted with fires that out-spangle the vault of heaven, with flying fountains bathed in floods of rainbow lights, and overlooking domes bejeweled with glittering crowns…we feel that the dream of hope has come true….Nowhere else in the modern world have the skill and genius of sculptor and architect been so prodigally bestowed.”1

In 1891, on the muddy southern shores of Lake Michigan, construction began on an almost-city. Not Chicago, just down the shoreline, but the site of what would open, in 1893, as the World Columbian Exhibition. In those two short years, white pavilions, gleaming and gargantuan, emerged on the landscape of what would later be Chicago’s Jackson Park. Yet it wasn’t only the speed with which the exhibition emerged but the scale of its features, some structures breaking historical records of size and interior volume, dimensions previously unimaginable in the nineteenth century.2  Housed within each of the hundreds of buildings on fair grounds were a similarly unimaginable and never before seen quantity and breadth of displays. Even the most abstract statistics give one an idea: twenty seven million visitors came to see the displays by the host nation and of eighty six participating countries,such as fourteen concerts a day, or a library of over 7,000 books, including forty seven translations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin alone. 3

This essay will argue that the totally immersive and overwhelming environment of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair can be understood as a total work of art, or a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. This term can mean a synthesis of all the arts, which certainly applies to the Columbian Exhibition, but can also be understood to describe situations in which an audience is so sensorially engaged in an experience that the line between art and life becomes obscured. Nineteenth century German composer Richard Wagner pioneered this term; while his writings on the Gesamtkunstwerk total work of art remain the foundations of the concept, contemporary art is rife with mutations and interpretations of the idea, from installation art to performance art. Particularly in the latter, artists test themselves through endurance or through situations where their personal lives become an artwork – art becomes life, life becomes art, though, importantly, only for a distinct period of time. The artistic phenomenon of Happenings, which emerged in the 1960s and were championed by Allan Kaprow, are helpful in explaining the Gesamtkunstwerk. A Happening is a time period or situation meant to be understood as art, even if it is only the repetition of a mundane, everyday act. Kaprow stated that “The Happening is performed according to plan but without rehearsal, audience, or repetition. It is art but seems closer to life.”4 This sentiment can be reversed and applied to the Columbian Exposition as a Gesamtkunstwerk: it was life but seems closer to art.

To understand the phenomenon of the World’s Columbian Exposition, it is helpful to explore the popularity behind world fairs generally. Especially in the nineteenth century, when modes of mass travel were becoming increasingly available, and into the twentieth century world fairs were extremely popular in the eyes of both fair-goers and host-states. The wildly successful 1889 exhibition in Paris, for example, left its permanent mark on the city in the Eiffel tower, designed for the fair. The United States participated in the 1889 fair, but its efforts were “dismissed as coarse, unsophisticated, or at best derivative products of a rough-and-ready nation with no cultural heritage to call its own.”5 To host a world’s fair only four years after this embarrassment was therefore to remedy and enhance the global reputation of the United States. Their effort was not unambitious: “with the addition of Washington Park [to the original site at Jackson Park] the total [area of the fair ground] was 1,037 acres – nearly three times the space of any previous expositions.”6 The 1893 fair also held deeper historical national significance than other European fairs: the Chicago fair was also a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ journey to America. Due to delays in construction, the opening of the Fair was six months late and thus happened in 1893 instead of 1892.7 Among the displays related to Columbus was a full scale replica of the La Rabida, a monastery in Spain that he visited before setting out on his expedition.

The nationalist ideology behind the 1893 Chicago fair focused not only on the cultural heritage of the United States, but also on successes of its industry and technology. The Columbian Exposition thus held the even greater aim of representing, via the narrative of the discovery of America, “the entire progress of human history, with American civilization as its culminating triumph.”8 It also displayed American industry as the future of global business. In this sense, the cutting-edge atmosphere of the exhibits suited Wagner’s theory that the Gesamtkunstwerk represented and revealed the future of art.9 This patriotism extended to the notion that citizens, driven by a genuine, American “desire for self-improvement,”10 wanted to educate and cultivate themselves. “Education, going hand-in-hand with nationalist propaganda, was a central theme of the fair from its planning stages…to expose America’s own citizens to improving exhibits.”11 The desired refining effect on visitors was not intended to be only knowledge for its own sake, but was perceived as a way to improve moral character and overall societal betterment. In the fair’s exhibits, “American apostles of culture strenuously labored to inculcate the Victorian virtues of character – moral integrity, self-control, sober earnestness, industriousness – among the citizenry at large.”12  Most nineteenth century Chicagoans were working class, and the majority of the population was of foreign parentage.13 The controversial decision to keep the fair open on Sundays reflected a sensitivity to Chicago’s working class population who would only be able to visit on that day.14 Through didactic exhibits, the Exposition aimed to unify in citizens recent and old a refined, distinctly American cultural heritage. One can understand the desire for improvement through education as an aspect of the nationalist essence of the Exposition, which can in turn be seen as the core idea in the work of art.
The Official Guide to the Columbian Exposition ensured that: “To him who enters upon an examination of the greatest of World’s Fairs a liberal education is assured.”15 The breadth and sheer quantity of information on display supports this statement. Exhibits were displayed in the fourteen Great Buildings constructed by the United States, displaying American as well as international pieces. The amount of information and products on display within the buildings is suggested by the size of the buildings. The largest of all Great Buildings, and largest of all buildings on the site, was the Manufactures and Liberal Arts building covering a staggering, and rare for its time, 1.3 million square feet.16

Within the Agriculture building alone were housed an immense variety of flora and fauna, including an even-scale models of a Japanese garden and a Mexican desert.17 Each of the main buildings housed such a selection; to describe the exhaustive displays, scholars tend to overuse the term “known to man.” The architecture alone – the neoclassical behemoths, as well as the diverse structures designed by contributing countries – would have been enough of a marvel, regardless of their similarly magnificent interiors.

These overwhelming displays, buildings, and overall cohesive design of the city-sized Exposition surely create an immersive environment in the Wagnerian sense.18 Wagner wrote:

To [a] complete art all the separate art-varieties must contribute: the plastic arts of architecture, painting, and sculpture, and especially the arts of man: dance and poetry and music. Also all the senses are enlisted, primarily the higher ones of vision and hearing, but by implication, those of touch and smell as well.19

In the sense that a Gesamtkunstwerk engages all senses, the Exposition succeeded: it engaged “more than just the mind and eye. New sounds assaulted the ear at every corner. African drumming, the creak of metallic joints in the Ferris Wheel, and the constant blare of contraptions called phonographs.” Thus, sounds, tastes, new experiences were all-pervasive – even smells, “from the fresh, humid breeze off Lake Michigan to the earthy odor of animals in the stock pens.”20
Educational exhibits alone were not responsible for engrossing fair-goers in the Gesamtkunstwerk of the fair. Some of the most popular and fantastically immersive exhibits of the Columbian Exposition were in fact ‘unofficial’ exhibits. In contrast to the pristine main fair grounds, other displays and shows could be seen at the “…anticlassical, and nonpristine underbelly [of the Exposition], the Midway Plaisance.”21 The Midway, essentially a sideshow of foreign products and less didactic displays, “had been kept grudgingly as a concession to public taste. The split reflected the distinction of Chicago’s custodians of culture and genteel critics at large between the arts that refined and those that merely amused.”22  Such scandalous displays on the Midway included a “genuine” belly-dancer in Little Egypt, whose hip-swaying was considered indecent and provocative, but was very popular nonetheless.23

Many foreign nations who had space or pavilions in the main fairgrounds also had Midway exhibits where food, crafts and amusements were sold. Displays were meticulously constructed to realistically represent each country’s cultural traditions and included “Turkish bazaars, South Sea island huts, Irish and German castles, and Indian tepees.”24 The “Laplander Village” consisted of twenty four Laplanders, from modern day Finland, “most from one family, [who] traveled to Chicago with nine reindeer, a number of dogs, sleds, hunting and fishing gear and personal effects.”25 This display not only obscured the boundaries between performance and life, but similarly obfuscated the role of the audience. Though the Laplanders were only recreating their daily routines, by doing so in an environment of performance and being watched by an audience, they became performers and their acts became a show. By interacting in the daily lives of the Laplanders, the audiences of the Laplander Village also became part of the artwork. The Laplander in particular is an important example of a Gesamtkunstwerk because it especially blurred the distinction between life and art. In his treatise on the artwork of the future, Wagner writes that when experiencing the total work of art, the “public, that representative of daily life, forgets the confines of the auditorium, and lives and breathes now only the artwork which seems to it as Life itself, and on the stage which seems the wide expanse of the whole World.”26

The experience of the Columbian Exposition was surreal in its scale and magnificence. It is hardly surprising then that in order to describe it, contemporaneous visitors and reviewers resort to divine language. Chicago artist W. Hamilton Gibson “even went so far as to say that the exposition was a realization of what the sons of Adam had fancied as the “Heavenly City,” a nickname that stuck.27 Accounts of initial experiences of the fair speak of visiting the fair as a semi-religious experience. Steamers from downtown Chicago’s harbour carried most visitors down the shoreline past “a miles-long collection of warehouses, stately residences, factories and sky-cleaving towers and steeples along the shore and inland.” Then,

suddenly, almost like a mirage, the White City would appear – at first an indistinguishable mass of gleaming white structures. Slowly, as passengers strained to focus, the largest palaces and towers would single themselves out, creating a stark panorama often likened to a New Jerusalem.28

These heavenly associations of transcendence and surreality given to the Exposition by visitors only underline the strength of the environment of illusion the fair created. A crucial component of this illusion, like any performative art work, is its temporary nature. The Exposition grounds appeared seemingly out of nowhere in part because of speed of their construction. The Exposition was intended to be temporary, but this is in part because it simply could not have physically existed permanently. Of over 200 ‘grand’ buildings and pavilions built, only the Art Building was fire-proof, to protect valuable artworks, and made of stone. All the other buildings were not made from marble, as they appeared to be, but instead of staff, “a compound of plaster and fibrous binding, clothing, wood and steel.”29 The Exposition owes its grandeur to this material, which allowed architects to indulge in “‘a magnitude never before attempted; [staff] made it possible…to reproduce with fidelity and accuracy the best details of ancient architecture, to erect temples, colonnades, towers, and domes of surpassing beauty and of noble proportions”30 affordably and quickly.

This inherent ephemeral nature of the Exposition was not lost on visitors in 1893. The American novelist Walter Besant wrote “I observe that most people…set down their tears to the evanescent nature of the show. ‘Three months more,’ they say, ‘and it will be gone like a dream. The pity of it!’ Nay, dear friends, but the Vastness of it!”31 Not only could the Exposition grounds, or the ‘White City’, as it was also known, not sustain itself financially, since the electricity used to illuminate the fair at night was three times as much as the city of Chicago used per night,32 but it would have ceased to be so miraculous. This innate paradox also informs an understanding of the fair as a Gesamtkunstwerk. Had it been a permanent part of Chicago, constructed to last, it would have become part of daily life. Like a Happening, the 1893 Exposition needed an end in order to have meaning and in order to be art.

The Columbian Exposition was a major triumph for the United States. The fair brought millions of visitors to Chicago, and carries the legacy of being among the most lavish ever,even by contemporary standards.33  Not only did the fair inspire a generation of artists and architects, such as a young Frank Lloyd Wright, and provide major jobs in Chicago, it also engendered greater public access and exposure to art, architecture, and other cultures.34 It was also the grand celebration of Columbus it intended to be, and “symbolized the shift in political, social, and economic sway from the East to the West. In that shift lay the basis of America’s emergent national unity, while simultaneously locating it on the global stage.35

Beyond celebration and promoting cultural interest “[the] success of the exposition was threefold…success of unity, of magnitude, of illusion.”36 To experience the magnitude of the White City and all it had to offer would be to participate in the ultimate sensorial artwork. It is difficult from our current era to understand how rare it then was to experience such a place – the sheer scale, the volume of information and exhibits, the surreality of this temporary site. It is best understood as a phenomenon, or a Gesamtkunstwerk; it was a heavenly dream that only existed for a short, incredible moment.


1. David F. Burg, Chicago’s White City of 1893 (Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1976), 90.
2. Ibid., 97. “Or perhaps it was enough just to know that the Manufactures Building was the largest roofed structure ever erected.”
3. Kiri Miller, “Americanism Musically: Nation, Evolution, and Public Education at the Columbian Exposition, 1893,” 19th-Century Music 27 (Autumn, 2003), 3.; Burg, Chicago’s White City of 1893, 89.; Ibid, 172.; Ibid, 174.
4. Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Thirteenth Edition (Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2010), 793.
5. Miller, “Americanism Musically,” 2.
6. Burg, Chicago’s White City of 1893, 83.
7. Miller, “Americanism Musically,” 4.
8. Ibid, 2.
9. Wagner Library, “Richard Wagner, The Art-Work of the Future,” www.users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/wagartfut.htm (accessed January 21st, 2010).
10. Miller, “Americanism Musically,” 7.
11. Ibid., 4.
12. John F. Kasson, Amusing the Million (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 4.
13. Burg, Chicago’s White City of 1893, 66.
14. Ibid., 90.
15. Miller, “Americanism Musically,” 4.
16. Norman Bolotin and Christine Laing, The World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago: The University of Illinois Press, 1992), 11.
17. Ibid., 84.
18. Ibid., 17.
19. Edward Arthur Lippman, “The Esthetic Theories of Richard Wagner,” The Musical Quarterly 44 (Apr., 1958), 3.
20. Bolotin, The World’s Columbian Exposition, 82.
21. Judy Sund, “Columbus and Columbia in Chicago,” The Art Bulletin 75 (Sep., 1993), 13.
22. Kasson, Amusing the Million, 23.
23. Bolotin, The World’s Columbian Exposition, 82.
24. Kasson, Amusing the Million, 24.
25. Bolotin, The World’s Columbian Exposition, 126.
26. Wagner Library, “Richard Wagner, The Art-Work of the Future,” Web.
27. Burg, Chicago’s White City of 1893, 113.
28. Bolotin, The World’s Columbian Exposition, 31.
29. Kasson, Amusing the Million, 18.
30. Burg, Chicago’s White City of 1893, 152.
31. Ibid., 113.
32. Kasson, Amusing the Million, 21.
33. Miller, “Americanism Musically,” 3.; Kasson, Amusing the Million, 17.
34. David Gebhard, “A Note on the Chicago Fair of 1893 and Frank Lloyd Wright,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 18 (May, 1959), 2.; Burg, Chicago’s White City of 1893, 320.
35. Ibid., 333.
36. Ibid., 176.