The Mise-en-Scène of Modernity

Exposición Internacional del Centenario, Buenos Aires (1910)

in Anthropological Journal of European Cultures
Author:
Nicolas Freeman Goldsmiths University, UK nfree001@gold.ac.uk

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Abstract

This article examines the various stagings of progress as exhibited at Argentina's International Centennial Exhibitions hosted in Buenos Aires in 1910. In preparation for the exhibitions, a wealthy port aristocracy oversaw renovations of the private and public, material and symbolic spaces of the city which transformed the capital into a political theatre. A chronology of the exhibitions (agriculture, industry, hygiene, railways, and the arts) and their accumulated symbols are read as multidimensional sites of encounter where a clash of contradictory interests and agencies interact. The text emerges out of a moment of ethnographic encounter and weaves together the words of my interlocutors with historical and theoretical analysis. In doing so, the article reflects from different angles upon the relationship between the rituals of showing and of spectatorship involved in the State's aesthetic performance of national progress.

In a café bar close to my apartment in Abasto, Capital Federal Buenos Aires, I ordered a coffee and picked up the morning papers. This morning the café was quiet with only one other customer, Bambi, who occupied a large table to himself and who was watching a television that sat on a bracket in the wall. Mendoza (the owner) brought me my coffee and joined Bambi at his table. I was seated at a separate table to their left. During eighteen months fieldwork in the city between 2018 and 2019, I came here most mornings and had developed a friendship with Mendoza, his family and some of the local patrons. The newspapers were discussing the two main stories in the country that week. The first, discussing the preparations in the capital to host the G20 Summit later that week and the other, previewing the second leg of the final of the Copa Libertadores between River Plate and Boca Juniors, which was being billed as ‘the most important game in the history of Argentine football’. Originally the game was due to be played the previous evening, but it had to be suspended when the Boca Juniors team bus was attacked by rival fans as they travelled to the stadium. Several of the players were taken to hospital injured as a result and the match had been rescheduled to be played twenty-four hours later.

Struggling to hear the TV against the hum of the fan, Mendoza, took the remote and turned up the volume. Argentine public television was showing an old archival documentary film about the Exposición Internacional del Centenario held in the capital in 1910. The international exhibition was held to commemorate one hundred years of nationhood and the establishment of the first national government. Black and white images show a symphony of moving bodies streaming through the streets to a soundtrack of triumphant classical music. Speaking over the music a narration tells us:

On the day of 18th May 1910, Buenos Aires was the centre of the world and world leaders were dazzled by our grand European city. Upon waking, the citizen's pulses accelerate, and hope stirs in the masses. Thousands of honourable men and women swarm in a human tide as they move through the city's streets. They have an appointment at the port.

Images capture an amorphous mass moving against each other on the promenade of the port overlooking the vast Rio de la Plata. The narration continues: ‘At around 12pm, a blurred silhouette appeared upon the horizon over the estuary. As the hour progressed, the form of naval frigate, ARA Fragata Sarmiento brought itself into focus against the midday sun’.

As the principal gateway to the city, life in Buenos Aires has been inextricably shaped by the river. For a city that is in a constant process of telling and re-telling itself, the river holds the history of its various past lives, from its founding onwards and from where its people derive the name porteños (port inhabitants). From the outset, Buenos Aires was little more than a village settlement built upon marsh land on the bank of the Rio de la Plata (located at the estuary formed by the convergence of the Paraná and Uruguay rivers which empty into the Atlantic Ocean). The Spanish explorer and colonialist Juan Díaz de Solis (the first known European to cast anchor in the basin in 1516), as the story goes, upon rowing into the River Plate, he and his men were promptly killed and eaten by local Charrúa Indians (Manguel 2018: 160). Only in 1580 was Buenos Aires founded with the arrival and settlement by Europeans in the region. As a territory of the Viceroyalty of the River Plate, it had been an outpost of minimal apparent consequence located at the margins of the Spanish Empire (Sarlo 2007). An urban settlement built upon the mud flats of the river it primarily functioned to administer colonial trade as a strategic threshold enabling the crossing of people and things whilst providing access to the abundant silver mines of Peru and was scarcely populated. Following Independence, the city would slowly establish itself and towards the end of the century experience a great speculative boom that caused it to exponentially develop to outgrow the Spanish grid upon which it was founded.

The film shows the ship as it is received by the Argentine Navy at the port. As it moors, trumpets and horns sound the national anthem and the military march. Then a small figure appears on deck to acknowledge the huge congregation that has gathered at the promenade, it is the Infanta María Isabel Francisca de Asís y Borbón, aunt of King Alfonso XIII. The princess arrived on an official state visit to Argentina as the representative ambassador of the Spanish crown. The next succession of images shows the welcome staged by the Argentine government for the Spanish envoy following their long sea journey. Manuel Güiraldes, the Mayor of Buenos Aires (1908–1910), and director of the celebrations and President José Figueroa Alcorta (1906–1910) arrive on screen to transfer the Spanish delegation by official coach to the Casa Rosada (presidential palace), where they are to hold a reception. The Infanta Borbón and the president share a carriage; they are followed by a fleet of horse-drawn carriages containing the rest of the envoy as they make the journey from the port to the presidential palace.

Güiraldes, a member of the wealthy landowning oligarchy explicitly expressed his desire that the city of Buenos Aires cast itself alongside the leading modern capitals, which he made clear in a note in the official catalogue of the exhibitions:

Paris, the sovereign of the cities of the earth's sphere, your very young sister, hidden until today will present itself to the world in May 1910. You can be proud! Humanity, while contemplating it, engrossed by its superb beauty, will see that it belongs to your same ancestry. It resembles you in every aspect. Only age makes you different. Do you remember when you were little? They called you Lutecia, you were not so beautiful; but now splendid mother, your name Paris, has filled the world. As it will be filled by your sister, Buenos Aires, which as a young maiden, still conserving fresh orange blossom, admires and enchants with its young and radiant beauty. (Chueco 1910)

As with many other world fairs, preparations for Argentina's centennial exhibitions were a catalyst for profound transformational state intervention that resulted in the construction of new modernist architecture and improved urban amenities. In his role supervising the production of the exhibitions Manuel Güiraldes recruited French urban planner Joseph Bouvard to undertake the reforms to assemble the city-stage. Bouvard was chosen because of his extensive experience as an exhibition designer for world fairs 1 as well as conducting large public works in Paris. In March 1907, the French newspaper Le Figaro wrote:

Argentines want their capital Buenos Aires to become in a few months, on the occasion of the Centenary of Independence 1910, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. There is a network of avenues to be opened, a whole series of monuments to be built with a wave of the wand. They need a magician. It is Mr Bouvard whom they call, . . . and who promises to perform this miracle. (Berjman 1995: 37–38)

Bouvard's plan to modernise Buenos Aires would change the characteristic physiognomy of the city by overwriting the foundational colonial square grid by mimicking Baron Hausmann's reforms of Second Empire Paris. Responding to the rationalist and interconnected logic of the existing grid system, Bouvard's design introduced a series of integrated diagonal roads, plazas and parks 2 that would allow for its expansion. The plan was articulated via a swathe of demolitions which erased entire streets to dust. The expansion of the grid was accompanied by the construction of new tree-lined boulevards, statuary, promenades, a district of impressive private residences, as well as infrastructural developments in water, hygiene and sanitation. The reforms transformed the mise-en-scène of the city and set the capital as the stage of the new primal scene for modern life.

The camera registers the newly constructed city as the narrator tells us: ‘With the stage set, the glittering city, in all its pageantry, has been designed to overwhelm the spectator in the marvels of the new world and the freedom which it represents’. Following this secularised form of religious procession making its way through bustling streets, the congregation of public spectators wave Argentine and Spanish flags and the carriages are showered with roses and flowers that rain from above. The narration continues: ‘In the streets you can feel a party atmosphere. The pedestrian crowd lose themselves in the extraordinary collective experience of being together. You can see the warm reception the princess received by the large Spanish community, and which arouses enthusiasm amongst porteños and who talk of “optimism” and “joy” at the arrival of the Infanta’.

It is likely that many of those present shared a regional link to Spain due to the recent arrival of huge numbers of Southern European immigrants (predominately from Spain and Italy). In Argentina the processes of mass migration and modernity were deeply implicated with each other. Those who arrived had come to help construct the railway and develop agriculture and manufacturing in the country. The liberal elites dedicated significant resources to attracting immigration and investment from Europe (Goebel 2011). From the latter half of the 1880s immigration rose exponentially, with the nation receiving an average of 120,000 immigrants each year. Isabel's journey replicated the journey taken by those that had come before her. In the years preceding the centennial, the inauguration of the Hotel de Inmigrantes (operating between 1906–1953), received and processed the paperwork of new immigrants that arrived at the country's shores. In the aftermath of the expulsion of the Spanish from its former colony, a generalised Hispanophobia took hold, though this sentiment had waned by the time of the centennial exhibition. This was a result of several factors, including the new influx of Europeans, the elite's reverence of European cultural products and an affinity with European Enlightenment ideas. All of which had superseded the previous rejection of Spanish colonisation with a broadly defined identification (Gutiérrez Viñuales 2012). The centennial can be read as a moment of reconciliation between the new republic and its former coloniser.

Through participation in the centenary exhibitions, the Spanish government sought to restore a fraternal relationship with Argentina (Boone 2019). A postcard (Figure 1) that was widely distributed during the exhibitions illustrates the re-established fraternity between the two countries. The two nations are depicted allegorically with the Republic and the Monarchy arm in arm as classicist Marianne figures directly borrowing from French revolutionary iconography symbolic of liberty, equality and fraternity. Argentina is depicted wearing a Phrygian cap (another allegorical reference to liberty which also appears on the Argentine coat of arms) to the left, and restoration Spain, with crown to the right, each carrying their retrospective flags. The two nations are portrayed as sisters sharing a single horizontal plane, separated by a body of water and behind differentiated landscapes. The figure representing Spain stands before a modern industrial landscape of factories and smoking chimneys. The Argentine figure stands before an agricultural landscape of livestock; two ships are crossing from Argentina towards Spain (presumably illustrating the agro-export model driving Argentine integration into the international economy based on shipping meat across the Atlantic). The fact that both sisters are depicted as sharing the same ethnic make-up can be understood in relation to the desires of the Argentine intelligentsia who strove to cultivate an image of itself as a population with a predominately European ethnic composition (though these attributes only referred to a wealthy bourgeoisie elite). The reality was that Argentine populace was composed of an amalgam of diverse peoples from Southern Europeans and mestizos with varied customs, languages and religions.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Postcard of the Centenary, Buenos Aires, 1910. (Photo: author).

Citation: Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, 2; 10.3167/ajec.2022.310206

The presence of the Spanish at the centennial exhibitions was of greater significance than that of the other nations which was only in part because of the strong migratory flow and their previous colonisation of Argentina. Following the Wars of Independence, the Spanish Empire had gradually begun to decline, losing its last Latin American colonies in Cuba and Puerto Rico as well as the Philippines by 1898, the same year as the war between Spain and the United States. The Argentine exhibitions represented an opportunity for Spain to manifest a new imaginary of national identity, to affirm themselves in a modern and dynamic image and to reassert its presence in America (Gutíerrez 2008). The Spanish obtained forty-five thousand square metres to erect their pavilion from the Argentine government (far in excess of any of the other countries). The pavilion reflected a desire to project a dynamic modern image and cultivate a spatial environment distinct from the pavilions of other nations (Gutierrez 2002). In what can be interpreted as a symbolic exchange Spain appointed Julián Garcia Núñez, an Argentine architect trained in Barcelona under the celebrated modernist Catalan architect, Josep Puig i Cadafalch (Gutíerrez 2008). The assignment to represent Spain at the centennial cannot be underestimated when other European nations were sending internationally renowned architects such as Gaetano Moretti (and his assistants Mario Palanti and Francisco Terencio Gianotti) to build their pavilions and the aforementioned Joseph Bouvard's urban transformations of the capital in preparation to host the exhibitions. Nunez's designs would play an important role in the projection of a cultivated contemporary response to modern architecture whilst at the same time distinguishing itself from the academicism that was a hallmark of French architectural descent of pavilions of previous international exhibits. The alignment of Spain with avant-garde architecture can be understood as an attempt to manifest the imaginary of a new modern and forward-thinking nation on the international stage (Boone 2019).

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Postcard of the Daoiz and Velarde sculpture in front of the door of the Spanish Pavilion, Buenos Aires, 1910. (Photo: author).

Citation: Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, 2; 10.3167/ajec.2022.310206

Garcia Nunez's pavilion was constructed with glazed ceramic panels and the decorative forging typical of Catalan ‘modernisme’. In front of the pavilion there was a large open terrace space made as a garden plot with benches, pergolas and the bridge and a large pond. A large monument to Daoiz y Velarde was erected in the hemicycle at the entrance of the pavilion dedicated to Spanish artillery officers who lost their lives fighting the Napoleonic war. This can be understood as an allegory for the Spanish struggle for their own Independence following the Napoleonic invasion. Elisabeth Boone (2019) has argued that the Spanish were attempting to draw an analogy between the parallel struggles of the two nations for their own independence that extends beyond their colonial history.

In another scene of the film we see the infanta laying the cornerstone of what would be the monument to the Magna Carta and the four Argentine regions, the large marble and bronze statue commonly known as the Monumento a los Españoles, at the crossroads of Avenida del Libertador and Avenida Sarmiento. The monument was gifted in a performed display of the reconciliation between the two nations. The narrator tells us: ‘The princess fixes in memory and lubricates the hand of friendship of the peoples from the towns and villages in Spain to the Argentine population’. Designed by the Catalan sculptor Agustin Querol, the monument is an allegory of liberty and a replication of the republic towers on a pedestal. At its base there is a large central frieze standing upon a pool with fountains, as well as bronze figures dedicated to the Argentine constitution and the four regions of the country (the Andes, River Plata, the Pampas and the Chaco). The inscription of a fragment of the Argentine constitution proclaims independence for the country and for anybody arriving to its shores who wishes to call it home, as well as four declarations attesting to Argentina and Spain's kinship.

Exhibitions and the Public Sphere

Following the scenes of the welcome parade, the film tells us that the princess and the most illustrious international guests would be wined and dined by high society, who threw elaborate gala receptions in government buildings and at the Jockey Club in their honour. The camera registers the movement of the bodies of the new bourgeoise class as they enter the private elite spaces of the city. All splendidly dressed, the men are in suits and don cultivated moustaches, top hats and canes, while the women wear elegant dresses and ostrich feather plumes. The film registers one of the grand banquets held in one of the salons of a literary circle and shows an endless stream of servants who carry platters of food to an elaborately set table upon which the infanta princess sits at its head.

Estela Erausquin (2002) noted how the aristocracy and the rest of the population followed very different rituals during the exhibition. Reforms to the urban character of the city created a newly emergent public sphere in which the boulevard, plaza, department store, café and train station became places of public encounter in which the fragmented and opposed social classes entered into contact. Though the elites had sought to establish private enclaves in the North of the city physically separated from the old city (associated with poor housing and sanitation) and founded highly exclusive clubs (such as Club del Progresso and the Jockey Club), the centenary year was one of confrontation that came out of encounters in the contradictory public sphere.

The development of the city did not reach everyone equally, and in the background of the exhibitions there were mounting social tensions with a growing number of irregularly employed immigrant labourers unable to meet their most basic daily requirements and living in poor housing conditions (Scobie 1974). The new immigrant arrivals brought with them traditions of European unionism and anarchism which played a pivotal role in organising the labour movements Federacion Obrera Regional Argentina and Unión General de Trabajadores. In response to the social conditions, there was a growing worker militancy and anarchist movement that was reaching critical peak as the centennial exhibitions were taking place (Munck et al. 1987; Rock 2002). The strongly unionised workers of Argentina declared a unified general strike for May 18 to take place across Capital Federal Buenos Aires which in turn prompted police crackdowns (Rock 2002) and Figueroa Alcorta declaring a state of siege. Despite the attempt to expose the other side of urban life to an international audience, the measure brought in to pacify the multitudes and control the mise-en-scène can be understood as an attempt to portray a stable image on the world stage. The state of siege was supported by ad hoc civilian militia groups (made up of young university students and members of the Jockey Club) who took to the streets and the premises of the newspapers, La Protesta 3and La Vanguardia who were sympathetic to the unionist and anarchist cause suffered arson attacks.

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

‘El circo de Frank Brown’. Caras y Caretas 606 (14 May 1910). (Photo: author).

Citation: Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, 2; 10.3167/ajec.2022.310206

Days before, popular English clown Frank Brown erected his circus tent in preparation for the centennial exhibitions, it was destroyed by arson. The Centenary commission had authorised Frank Brown's circus to install its tent on the corner of Avenida Córdoba and Calle Florida. At its position in the centre of the city and given the celebrity status of Frank Brown and the circus’ prime geographical position, higher foot traffic was assured. The British clown had signed an agreement with the centennial commission to put on free shows during the May festivities. It was thought that the circus would assure a large turnout that would have mass appeal. As described by Benedict et al. (1983), the world fairs of the period had amusement zones that were dedicated to attracting metropolitan populations and the working-class, and which stood in opposition to the rest of the exhibitions. The inclusion of the circus was intended to appeal to popular tastes of the humblest inhabitants of the capital. Within the context of the growing wave of anarchism among the popular sectors, the politics of the clown and his circus and its content were considered non-dangerous by the exhibitory committee. The inclusion of the tent in the exhibition, did however upset the oligarchy who regularly strolled through the area and who were offended by the presence of the circus which they saw as an aesthetic eyesore and offence to good taste (Garlitz 2015).

Both La Razón and La Prensa newspapers bemoaned that the circus would attract the wrong kinds of people onto the centennial concourse and thus distort the aesthetics of the fair (Garlitz 2015). Just after night had fallen on 4 May, a group of upper-class young students torched the tent. They judged that the circus was an affront to the city and to the occasion, especially from the point of view that the circus did not fit with the fair's ornamentation and its dazzling illuminations. It is reported that the gang responsible stayed at the scene impeding the firefighters’ work until the tent was reduced to ashes whilst chanting ‘Viva la patria!’ (Garlitz 2015). The constant strikes were seemingly pacified thanks to the state of siege imposed for the festivities. Attempts of unionists and anarchists to disrupt the opening celebrations appeared almost entirely suppressed until a bomb exploded during a Te Deum mass held in the cathedral in the presence of foreign dignitaries. Influenced by worker traditions in Europe, anarchist groups formed and identified spaces of leisure frequented by the higher social classes. On 28 June during an evening concert at the newly constructed Teatro Colón,[i] a bomb erupted through the stage as the orchestra were performing.

Exhibitory Complex

The exhibitions were redolent of the coming economic order and sought to consolidate the material advances of the young nation alongside the symbolic value of the cultural sphere. The fair consisted of five large exhibitions dedicated to the railway and land transport, agriculture, hygiene, electricity as well as an international exhibition of fine arts. Foreign nations also built their own pavilions displaying their retrospective visual and material cultures through selections of natural and manufactured products, archaeological artefacts and artworks among other things. The pavilions were erected in the exhibitory concourse that ran along the axis of Avenida del Libertador and surroundings in Palermo in the North of the city. Northern and central districts were dedicated to the parade circuits well away from the Southern districts where deprivation was more evident.

The film shows the infanta princess visiting the agricultural exhibition held at the Rural Society. In a display of Hispanismo, she is accompanied by President Alcorta, alongside the Chilean President Montt (1906–1910). Together they watch a showcase at the hippodrome displaying cattle and horses to be sold at auction during the exhibition. They are also captured in the audience of a dressage competition and later at a Roman circus which incorporated bears, zebras, lions, and Bengal tigers. One by one, the animals performed a simulated fight with their tamer who is armed with a long whip whilst the dignitaries applaud. The importance of the exhibition dedicated to agriculture revealed itself to refine the bourgeoisie's liberal ideology in relation to the other exhibitions that reproduced the elite's vision of progress pushing the nation forward. In particular, the Railway and Transport Exhibition presented a vision displaying the modern technologies and industrial production that would facilitate the agro-export model that was the basis for Argentina's export-led integration into the world (Dinari 2010).

The exhibition consisted of twelve pavilions organised in two clusters connected by a tree-lined tramway. All pavilions were prefabricated with the exception of the large building dedicated to the Festival, Post Office and Telegraph. This building is colloquially known as the Centennial Pavilion and is one of only three buildings out of thirty-five buildings erected for the exhibition that remains standing. Today the building exists without access from the street concealed behind a wall of a parking lot belonging to the Palermo branch of the supermarket chain Jumbo. With a cracked dome, falling ceiling, fractured walls through which branches emerge and broken windows, it exists as a mournful elegy for the failed promise of the modernist dream. Under the management of the supermarket chain, the building has fallen into a state of disrepair. At the time of writing, the State has recently presented plans to expropriate the building from the supermarket chain, restore it and open it to the public once again.

Whilst the other exhibitions attracted few visitors, the Railway and Transport Exhibition received by far the most public attention. The pavilions exhibited the impressive modern apparatus fuelling the nation's acceleration into the future: engines, carriages, wagons and automobiles of national manufacture, as well as early aviation and air transportation. The major attractions for the public were the large Ferris wheel with views over the city and the ascent of hot air balloons for the visiting public which was personally supervised by Jorge Newbery (the Argentine airplane pilot and aviation pioneer). At the time, Newbery was an extremely popular figure (a precursor to the modern celebrity) and Argentina's first non-political figure (Larra 1975) which contributed to the institutional articulation of power as disguised as aesthetics, described by Tony Bennett as ‘instruments for their stupefaction’ (Bennett 1995).

At the entrance to the pavilion stood a sculpture by Walter Lenck commissioned by the German council depicting Jason Taming the Bulls of Aeëte, based on the Greek mythological hero Jason who tames two fire-breathing bulls in his quest for the Golden Fleece. The monument can be understood as an allegory for man's mastery of, and dominion over nature. It won the Grand Prize for monuments at the exhibition. When the exhibition closed, the Argentine authorities tried to buy the piece, but the Germans declined the proposal, and today it stands in the Leipzig Zoo. In the main hall of the pavilion, the dining carriage of the president of Argentina was displayed with plated silver imported from Sheffield, wine glasses from the Waterford Crystal Company of Dublin and lush fabric curtains imported from Europe. The dining carriage was symbolic of the strong commercial ties between Britain and Argentina and reflected the advances that Britain made possible in the River Plate region in material form.

The official postcard of the Railway and Land Transport Exhibition depicts a billowing locomotive with its orange lights shining outwards into the night. The stream train is advancing towards an Indian from Argentina's interior who is at the foreground of the image and stands looking towards the oncoming lights of a train with his spear in hand. This postcard illustrates how the conditions of the agro-export model were established with the expansion of the railways into new territories therefore providing access to the extensive and fertile land, Argentina's one great resource, enabling the extraction and transportation of natural resources to the port. In nineteenth-century Argentine cultural history, the Pampa was understood as a space beyond the border, a territory of barbarism opposed to the civilisation that presided in the capital. Following Independence, the city established itself and progressively extended towards the prairies that lay beyond its limits encroaching on the territories of the Indigenous people (Gutiérrez 2002). The expansion of railroad lines began in tandem with the processes of ‘national organisation’ clearing the territories of the Pampas, Patagonia and the Chaco of their native inhabitants as new towns and settlements were established. The guiding principle of the governing elites was to develop a national project directed towards turning Argentina into an Enlightenment model of progress – based on the great empires of Western Europe and North America. This meant eradicating what they perceived as the internal threat posed by those located in the interior of the country to that image. The privileging of the city over the rural traditions of the interior (namely the caudillo, gaucho and the native who contended for possession of the land) and required their expulsion from the territory.

Figure 4.
Figure 4.

Postcard for the International Railways and Land Transport (Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

Citation: Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, 2; 10.3167/ajec.2022.310206

At one point in the film the narrator tells us that ‘Princess Isabel wanted to have an adventure in the Argentine countryside’, and we see the princess boarding a locomotive before arriving to an estancia in the Northern Pampa where she observes another showcase of livestock. We are told by the narrator that ‘she is received in a very civilised way without any sign of the traditions of the gaucho’, then he adds the reflection, ‘from the pain of the past the patria advances to the freedom of the future’. This declaration of the distant horizon of a past now superseded, which has melted into thin air and which is not to return, reflects a broader narrative of history being promulgated at the exhibition and which found particular expression in the international exhibition of fine arts.

International Exhibition of Fine Arts

The International Exhibition of Fine Arts opened in August in the pavilion designed by French architect Albert Ballu for Argentina's participation in the Universal Exhibition in Paris (1889). When the Paris exhibition closed, it was dismantled before being shipped to Argentina where it was re-assembled in Plaza San Martín in Buenos Aires to house the international fine arts exhibition. Speaking at the inauguration of the exhibition, Dr. Ernesto Pellegrini (of the Centennial's National Executive Commission) expressed his admiration for Europe's distinguished artistic tradition and spoke of how the inclusion of Argentine art alongside the European masters was ‘a manifestation of our aspiration towards the highest culture’ (Kraft 1910). Pellegrini went on to acknowledge that in contrast with the long-established aesthetic traditions of the Old World capitals of Europe, Argentine fine arts were at a formative stage. The staging of the exhibitions allowed the young republic to join ‘the artistic movement that puts its stamp on the most advanced civilisations’ (Kraft 1910). Argentina received hundreds of paintings and sculptures shipped by sea to its port capital. The work of European masters representing their nations included Rodin, Renoir, Vuillard, Monet, Bonnard, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Raphael, Dürer, Poussin, Zuloaga and Gainsborough among others.

The art exhibitions supplanted the staging of the material and technological advances of the nation. The development of its own cannon was considered as an aspect of the combining of politics and aesthetics and performance of Europeanness. The establishment of artistic tradition was perceived to constitute a necessary indicator of Argentina's new position amongst the educated nations and permitted the telling of narratives aligned with the universal project of modern civilisation (Uslenghi 2016). The Argentine section of the exhibition was organised by the Sociedad Estímulo de Bellas Artes (Society for Stimulating the Fine Arts), a national art school that was founded around 1876 (and nationalised in 1905) and closely associated with the cosmopolitan ideals of the Argentine ruling class especially those emerging from the Generation of ‘80. The primary objective of the salon was to cultivate a distinguished aesthetic tradition based on national characteristics (Dosio 2011). The national exhibition represented the opportunity to showcase the nation's artistic development and the work of numerous prominent artists associated with the salon, including Pío Collivadino, Ernesto de la Cárcova, Eduardo Sívori, Reinaldo Guidici and Eduardo Schiaffino. Following the nineteenth-century traditions commonly taught in European academies, the selected works primarily focused on the national symbols of virtuous civic heroes, courageous soldiers, and epic battles of Argentina's military past as connected to the Independence period and the founding of the modern State.

There was also an emphasis on the interpretation of local costumbrista themes (particularly informed by French, Spanish, and Italian traditions), a re-imagination of the indigenous subjects and Hispanic elements, notably the gaucho at the same time as depicting the metropolis in construction (Dosio 2011). Critics have argued that through the evocation of the past as a subject in the construction of the Argentinian school, it was able to archive the disappearance of presences which by the time of the centenary had largely disappeared. That is to say, the nation had been able to quell the threat of the obdurate and hostile elements that stood in the way of the promise of a modern future (Bravo 2006; Uslenghi 2016). Through the relegation of these original presences of the past, the nation legitimatised itself as a stable investment and signalled that there lay vast the natural riches of the extensive prairies waiting to be exploited.

In the final scenes of the film, we see the opening ceremonies of 25 May 1910 (the anniversary of the deposition of the Spanish viceroy in 1810). The opening ceremonies had been declared a national holiday and drew huge crowds of the public onto the city's streets and boulevards (the film tells us fifty thousand): ‘The stage is set to dazzle the population with the glittering spectacle and the promise of a prosperous future of liberty and equality’. The film captures the large parade that was held between the congressional square and the Plaza de Mayo. The parade was led by the organising committee, many floats carry members of the military and naval circles, veterans of the Paraguay war (1864 to 1870) and the conquest of the desert (1870s–1884). They were followed by thirty thousand school children who upon arrival to the Plaza de Mayo, laid the cornerstone for the Italian monument to Christopher Columbus, a gift from the Italian government to the country to mark the occasion of the centennial. The city's fire department follow the parade showing off shiny new modern fire engines. The spectacle was watched over by dignitaries from their official boxes in the Casa Rosada whilst public are seen on rooftops balconies and treetops.

At this point, Mendoza who had been creaking his neck upwards to watch the television slaps his hand down on the table and says: ‘What a beautiful day that must have been. It's a beautiful city that we have. At that time Argentina was well seen in Europe. When the republic was still a world power and thriving. Now look at us. We were another country then, a serious world power, prosperous and full of hope’.

Bambi replies: What crap! No leaders came, only their assistants. What leaders came here for it? The Infanta Borbón was the only notable public figure that came from Europe. Europe was the centre of the world power then, not us.

M: European royalty did not attend because they were at the funeral of the king of England. But all the countries were invited, and their representatives participated in the congresses and exhibitions.

B: The highest hierarchy that came was the infanta, all the rest were second-class delegations. Not even bordering countries sent their presidents.

M: You must remember it was 1910, it was not that easy, people were not as mobile. We were thriving and Buenos Aires was at the centre of the world. Before the 1930s Argentina was glorious, not only did we rub shoulders with world powers, we were one.

B: We were a rich country, sure, but the unfortunate thing is that most of the population lived in abject misery.

M: I don't think it was like that. If so, why so much European immigration came at that time? Was it because we were such a disaster, as you say, that hundreds of thousands of immigrants came to our country?

B: Immigrants were escaping misery in their own countries. Here they were promised gold and land, but they ended up in crowded tenement houses. You have to see all reality, all that glitters is not gold.

M: That is a lie. At that time hundreds of thousands of European immigrants arrived as they now do to the United States, why did they come? Because in Argentina there were only rich? The middle class was constantly expanding, and education and public institutions were world-class, we have thousands of historical examples of the progress of our country from that time. The reality is that back then Argentina was among the best countries in the world.

B: Okay, yet the rich constituted a tiny fraction of the population, the rest were poor. If we were a world power, the people did not know it.

M: And you think the rest of the world at that time was different?

B: Personally, what the rest of the world does doesn't matter a damn.

M: The majority of those immigrants with a lot of personal effort worked. Their children studied in the public school and ascended socially to form a solid middle class, then with the passing of the decades, already the history was another. As I said before, the truth is that Argentina was one of the best countries to live in.

B: Where did you get that fallacy? What beautiful times when workers were exploited by the oligarchy. A moment to return, no doubt. And a solid middle class? I think not.

M: Who had a bad time? In a very short time immigrants were living here prosperously.

B: Is that your personal assessment? The immigrants who came seeking salvation from Europe, they were hungry, and here they were exploited by oligarchical families pushed further and further into poverty. Many came tricked with the false promise of having land.

M: Yes, thousands of French, Italian and Spanish workers came here to work, and they earned almost double what they earned for equal work in their country. Could you explain that to me? Where did they have it better? In Europe and the USA? They came to a country without wars for centuries without killing, without famine, without hurricanes or typhoons, without volcanoes. The centennial was the manifestation of the arrival of a European reality, which was seeing more progress than the United States. Remember, Harrods chose to open its only overseas store here on Florida and Córdoba 4 and not in New York. You speak as if we were not all the children of immigrants. Our ancestors came to this country escaping war, famine, and lack of opportunities in Europe. Do you think that if all had been well over there, they would have left their families, their culture, and their idiosyncrasy to come to an unknown land? Those who wanted to grow, if they worked, you could grow. If you expect everything to be gifted, you get stuck.

B: Only large landowners grew at that time. Those who came to build the country had a bad time.

M: That's bullshit, papi. What about the immense number of immigrants of whom we are the grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren? They came down on their luck and many of them progressed. Logically it was not an absolute success, and there was a lot of sacrifice, but they built everything where there was nothing, or very little.

B: My parents arrived in those times, but the great majority of immigrants lived crammed in subhuman conditions, exploited by the powerful of the time. Of course, coming from the last misery that were the continuous European wars any horizon was better. And the beginning of the struggle for rights as workers, we owe it to many immigrants who gave their lives for those ideals, which were not precisely liberal.

M: Exactly, that's what it is about. Not everything was rosy even for the oligarchy, among them there were different positions such as the generation of the centenary and its anti-British nationalist positions given the agricultural export model.

B: Imagine being a poor or an immigrant, those did have a bad time. You are very naive, defending those who persecuted the workers. You lack respect for their memory. The centennial was a total patriotic fraud. Our country was always full of cipayos, 5 that's why we are as we are, a vocation of colonial servants.

M: What the political leaders did in those years was to build a country. The facts are that in those years the railways, agri-business, communications network, industrialisation, and our central institutions were built. Not to mention the immigration we received. You can think what you want of the morality of it, but they had a clear vision of development.

The final images of the film show the ship leaving the port in the direction that it came as the infanta embarks back to Spain: ‘As the years go by, they will remember her with emotion as she will remember everything she witnessed during her stay in the country’.

Afterword

This article put ethnographic encounter in dialogue with a set of historical narratives and myths of origin which have been generated about this modernist city, which is always overloaded by ideas about the city and its histories that condition the set of encounters within it. The ethnographic dialogue between my interlocutors acts as a temporal bridge between the present moment and the time of the centennial whilst at the same time illustrating how the contested narrative of nation still echoes in the contemporary present.

Of the two major stories in the country that week being discussed in the media (Buenos Aires’ hosting of the G20 Summit in 2018, and the Copa Libertadores final), both demonstrate the need to be seen and recognised as stable continues to be an abiding concern for the nation. The Staging of the G20 Summit had been perceived as an opportunity to showcase a strong and dependable Argentina on the world stage. Due to the fragility of the nation's international reputation, a good presentation to its international partners was considered to be of significant importance for the government of Mauricio Macri (2015–2019) with what international credibility it maintains in danger of being lost. As the Summit approached, anxiety grew amongst the political class about what kind of Argentina would be portrayed to the world? Fearing that the mobilisation of Argentina's social movements may interrupt proceedings, the government announced an enormous security operation in an attempt to control the mise-en-scène. The Summit was held in a state of siege in everything but name, a public holiday was announced in the city to coincide with the conference, during which time all city trains and subway services were suspended, whilst the major bus terminals in the city were closed. Twenty thousand police and federal agents (composed of national, regional, city police and the Argentine military formed anti-riot groups to maintain law and order, and it was announced that three security rings would come into effect around the location of the Summit. Twelve kilometres of roads in the city were blocked and a huge perimeter fence secured the downtown district where the Summit was taking place. With the city locked down, the Summit took place without major incident, but after several attempts to stage the Copa Libertadores final, further incidents sparked the announcement that the match would be played in a neutral zone outside Argentina. It was played in Madrid the following month.

Notes

1

Notably he was the designer of the French Pavilion in the World Exhibitions of Paris of 1878 and 1889, the Directeur des Parcs et Jardins at the Paris Exhibition, 1900, as well working on other international exhibitions including Brussels (1897), Amsterdam (1913), Chicago (1893), Anvers (1894), St. Louis (1904) and Melbourne.

2

French landscape designers Eugenio Courtois and Carlos Thays envisioned new parks and plazas to mirror those found in Paris, and these would host the exhibition complex.

3

The newspaper of the Federación Obrera Regional Argentina.

4

Key shopping area of Buenos Aires.

5

Ciyapo – Used as a colloquial pejorative expression in Argentina (and other Latin America countries) refers to individuals considered as serving foreign interests, as opposed to serving their own country. Derives from the term ‘sepoy’ used to describe an Indian soldier serving British or European rule.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bennett, T. (1995), The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London: Routledge).

  • Berjman, S. (1995), ‘Proyectos de Bouvard para la Buenos Aires del Centenario: Barrio, plazas, hospital y Exposition’, in Documentos de Arquitectura Nacional y Americana 37/38: 4153.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Boone, E. (2019), The Spanish Element in Our Nationality: Spain and America at the World's Fairs and Centennial Celebrations, 1876–1915 (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bravo, F. A. (2006), ‘Celebraciones centenarias: Nacionalismo y cosmopolitismo en las conmemoraciones de la Independencia (Buenos Aires, 1910–Rio de Janeiro, 1922)’, in B. González-Stephan and J. Andermann (eds), Galerías del progreso: Museos, exposiciones y cultura visual en América Latina (Rosario: Beatriz Viterbo), 331372.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chueco, M. (1910), La Republica Argentina en su Primer Centenario (Buenos Aires: Compañía Sudamericana de Billetes de Banco).

  • Clemenceau, G (1911), Notes de voyage dans l'Amerique du Sud. Argentine, Uruguay, Brésil (París: Hachette).

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Sarlo, B. (2007), The Technical Imagination: Argentine Culture's Modern Dreams (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press).

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Contributor Notes

Nicolas Freeman is a researcher whose work explores the relationship between art and anthropology. He is a CHASE-funded doctoral candidate at Goldsmiths University of London where he is currently completing his thesis which explores the interconnections of visual art, literature, and ethnography to think about questions of modernity, modernism, and disappearance in Capital Federal Bueno Aires through the retrieval of various fragmentary archives. E-mail: nfree001@gold.ac.uk. ORCID: 0000-0003-3285-2948

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Anthropological Journal of European Cultures

(formerly: Anthropological Yearbook of European Cultures)

  • Figure 1.

    Postcard of the Centenary, Buenos Aires, 1910. (Photo: author).

  • Figure 2.

    Postcard of the Daoiz and Velarde sculpture in front of the door of the Spanish Pavilion, Buenos Aires, 1910. (Photo: author).

  • Figure 3.

    ‘El circo de Frank Brown’. Caras y Caretas 606 (14 May 1910). (Photo: author).

  • Figure 4.

    Postcard for the International Railways and Land Transport (Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

  • Benedict, B. et al. (1983), The Anthropology of World's Fairs: San Francisco's Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915 (Berkeley: Scolar Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bennett, T. (1995), The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London: Routledge).

  • Berjman, S. (1995), ‘Proyectos de Bouvard para la Buenos Aires del Centenario: Barrio, plazas, hospital y Exposition’, in Documentos de Arquitectura Nacional y Americana 37/38: 4153.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Boone, E. (2019), The Spanish Element in Our Nationality: Spain and America at the World's Fairs and Centennial Celebrations, 1876–1915 (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bravo, F. A. (2006), ‘Celebraciones centenarias: Nacionalismo y cosmopolitismo en las conmemoraciones de la Independencia (Buenos Aires, 1910–Rio de Janeiro, 1922)’, in B. González-Stephan and J. Andermann (eds), Galerías del progreso: Museos, exposiciones y cultura visual en América Latina (Rosario: Beatriz Viterbo), 331372.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chueco, M. (1910), La Republica Argentina en su Primer Centenario (Buenos Aires: Compañía Sudamericana de Billetes de Banco).

  • Clemenceau, G (1911), Notes de voyage dans l'Amerique du Sud. Argentine, Uruguay, Brésil (París: Hachette).

  • Dosio, P. A. and H. Macartney (trans.), (2011), ‘Exchanging Glances: Art in the International Exhibitions in Argentina (1882–1910)’, Art in Translation 3, no. 4: 401432.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Erausquin, E. (2002), ‘La construcción del Otro: identidad e inmigración en la historia Argentina, Amérique Latine Histoire et Mémoire’, Les Cahiers ALHIM, 4.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Garlitz, V. M. (2015), ‘Under the Bigtop: Una posible fuente para el Circo Harris en Tirano Banderas de Valle-Inclán’, Anales de Literatura Española Contemporánea. Anuario Valle-Inclán XIV, 40, no. 3: 4371.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Goebel, M. (2011), Argentina's Partisan Past: Nationalism and the Politics of History (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press).

  • Gutiérrez, R. (2002), ‘Buenos Aires a Great European City’, in A. Almandoz (ed), Planning Latin America's Capital cities, 1850–1950 (London: Routledge).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gutiérrez, R. (2008), ‘El Pabellón Español en la Exposición del Centenario Argentino’, Quintana 8: 4557.

  • Gutiérrez Viñuales, R. (2012), ‘Arte argentino en tiempos del centenario: Hacia una modernización posible’, in J. Luzón and R. Gutiérrez Viñuales (eds), Memorias de la Independencia. España, Argentina y México en el primer centenario (1908–1912) (Madrid: AC/E) 114135. ISBN: 978-84-15272-35-9.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kraft, G. (1910), Inauguración de la Exposición Internacional de Arte, julio 12 de 1910 (Buenos Aires: Discursos).

  • Larra, R. (1975), Jorge Newbery (Buenos Aires: Schapire Editores).

  • Malharro, M. (1910), Los pintores uruguayos en 1910 (Buenos Aires: Athinae).

  • Manguel, A. (2018), Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions (New Haven: Yale University Press).

  • Matos, P. F. de (2014), ‘Power and Identity: The Exhibition of Human Beings in the Portuguese Great Exhibitions’, Identities 21, no. 2: 202218.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Munck, R., R. Falcon, and B. Galitelli (1987), Argentina from Anarchism to Peronism: Workers, Unions, and Politics, 1855–1985 (London: Zed Books).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rock, D. (2002), ‘Racking Argentina’, The New Left Review Sept./Oct. 5586.

  • Sarlo, B. (2007), The Technical Imagination: Argentine Culture's Modern Dreams (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press).

  • Scobie, J. R. (1974), Buenos Aires: Plaza to Suburb, 1870–1910 (Oxon: Oxford University Press).

  • Uslenghi, A. (2016), Latin America at Fin-de-Siecle Universal Exhibitions: Modern Cultures of Visuality (New York: Palgrave Mcmillan).

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