The Peaceful World of Burlington House: Displaying Art, Cooperation, and Internationalism in the 1920s and 1930s

Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:20 PM
Iowa Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Ilaria Scaglia, Columbus State University
Individuals and institutions involved in art were among the most important transnational actors who sought to influence international relations in the twentieth century.  Since the early 1920s, when the League of Nations established “international cooperation” as one of its technical branches, culture played an essential role in fostering the League’s internationalist agenda.  Art in particular worked as an “international language” and provided opportunities for “practical cooperation” among those who were involved in its study, collection, preservation, and display.  This paper focuses on a series of cultural events, namely the Flemish, Dutch, Italian, Persian, French, and Chinese exhibitions, which were hosted at Burlington House (the home of the London Royal Academy) in the 1920s and 1930s.  This paper argues that a large number of transnational actors, including museums, associations, and art collectors from various nations, staged an international event in which individual nations shined as proud heirs of their cultural traditions, while various countries (and the authorities that ruled them) peacefully interacted with one another.  To be sure, as Francis Haskell pointed out, these exhibitions were staged to “flaunt national prestige;” at the same time, this paper emphasizes, these events celebrated national heritage in the framework of international cooperation.  At the end of the 1930s, with the radicalization of political tones and the outbreak of open hostilities, the ideals and practices inaugurated by these exhibitions did not disappear.  On the contrary, increasing tensions only reinforced the argument that all possible means needed to be employed in order to avoid a second Great War.  More than ever, nations needed to make an effort to treat one another with respect.  In the second half of the twentieth century, displaying art to foster peaceful relations became a normative practice in international relations, although its 1930s roots were soon forgotten.