1867: Aztec idols at the Paris World Fair

Commented by:  Susana Stussi Garcia

Material description

The engraving Les Idoles au Champ de Mars was published in L’Exposition universelle de 1867 illustrée (Paris, Bureaux d’Abonnements, 1867), a sixty-part publication covering the different events of the 1867 Paris World Fair. The engraving was made from a drawing by Charles Kreutzberger and accompanied an article by an Em. De Leyden titled Les Idoles au Champ de Mars (p. 214-218). The drawing presents together statues and other objects of extra-European cultures displayed at the 1867 World Fair.

Short Summary

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, Paris hosted several World fairs, during which the French capital commanded the undivided attention of the world. These events chiefly celebrated the economic and industrial power of participant nations, but quickly became privileged spaces of scientific exchange (Ageorges 2006, Carré et al. 2012) and of representation of the “Other” (Demeulenaere-Douyère 2010). For its predominantly European public, World fairs became windows to faraway, exotic horizons. Given the importance of the tightly interwoven economic, political and cultural interests at play, these events were largely covered by newspapers, periodicals and special publications which were often richly illustrated. This image is taken from L’Exposition universelle de 1867 illustrée, published under the auspices of the Imperial commission in charge of the organisation of the World fair. It provides detailed coverage of each of the events for visitors. The engraving shows a myriad of sculptures representing the gods and “idols” of extra-European cultures western colonial powers were then coming in contact with. Under a display of ethnographic arms and utensils stand a few African and Oceanian statues. The centre is dominated by a monumental statue of Ganesh, around which are arranged several other Indian divinities. The front section is occupied by Egyptian antiquities while several Aztec statues sit at the bottom.


The 1867 World fair, the second organised in France, introduced a series of innovations, most notably the creation of national pavilions (Vasseur 2005). In order to ensure its economic success, the organisers of the fair allocated sections of the park where participating countries and private exhibitors could build their own stands and present examples of national architectures. These often-quaint pavilions were an instant success amongst visitors, who marvelled at the possibility of visiting the Egyptian temple of Edfou, exploring the Roman catacombs or having ice-cream at the terrace of the Mexican temple of Xochicalco. The World fair of 1867 plays heavily on the exotic, inaugurating the trend of spectacular and gigantic displays in international fairs.

The “idols” in the picture where originally presented at three different pavilions: the Egyptian pavilion, the Mexican pavilion and Evangelic missions’ pavilion. Their arrangement in this image is reminiscent of hunting or sporting trophy cases, with objects placed on different steps forming a tradition pyramidal composition. Furthermore, the objects of each culture are arranged in order of perceived value and importance. Ethnographic objects and statues from contemporary “primitive” cultures are placed at the top and set back behind the Indian gods (Ganesh, Vishnu, a Buddha), which take up the centre-front of the image and reflect the infatuation of the time for all things oriental. Egyptian antiquities, greatly in fashion since Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign, are given an honoured placement on the first plan, while Aztec sculptures are set directly on the floor. Indeed, while the historical value of Aztec antiquities was recognised, they were judged to be of little to no artistic interest. They were certainly more highly regarded than African or Oceanian artefacts but nevertheless inferior to Egyptian and classical antiquities.

The Aztec antiquities presented at the 1867 World fair are worthy of particular interest. Ever since its independence from the Spanish empire in the early 19th century, Mexican cultural heritage was (in theory) protected by strict laws forbidding the export of archaeological artefacts (Fauvet-Berthelot et al. 2007: 6-10). Some collections, however, had made their way across the Atlantic, arousing great enthusiasm among European intellectuals. For example, the musée américain du Louvre, opened in 1850, displayed amongst others the rich collection of Aztec sculpture of Latour Allard (Guimaraes 1996, Lopez Lujan and Fauvet-Berthelot 2005), but its Aztec collections were by no means large. The French invasion of Mexico (1861-1867) presented thus a unique opportunity to enrich French national collections of Mexican antiquities. In 1864, the Scientific commission of Mexico is created by imperial decree (Riviale 1999). Both the military and the scientific enterprises were clearly inspired by the Expedition d’Egypte of 1789. Like its predecessor however, the French Mexican intervention was undisputedly a military failure and the scientific research, while extensive, was only partially used and published (Riviale 1999: 329-336).

At the 1867 World fair, Mexico was thus unofficially represented by a modest archaeological exhibit organised by the Scientific Commission and by the imposing reproduction of the temple of Xochicalco built by architect and amateur archaeologist Léon Méhédin (Demeulenaere-Douyère 2009). Visitors of the pyramid-shaped pavilion were greeted by Mexicans in “authentic” costumes. Inside, Méhédin exposed his vast collection of archaeological photographs and casts gathered during his extensive travels in Egypt and Mexico. According to the commentary of the engraving, the Aztec sculptures were part of Méhédin’s show. Méhédin presented life-size reproductions of the statue of the Coatlicue and the Sun Stone, two of the most well-known Aztec monuments, of which he had made casts at the National Museum of Mexico. Little else is known about the other sculptures represented in the engraving since no images depicting the interior of Méhédin’s temple exist. Some of the correspondents of the Scientific Commission lent pieces from their private collections (Riviale 1999), so this can be assumed to be their origin. They were likely returned to their owners at the end of the World fair.

It is interesting that, despite France’s military intervention and scientific engagement in Mexico, the exhibit of Aztec antiquities at the World fair was largely a private affair. If in the engraving Aztec sculpture is presented alongside other extra-European cultures whose relations to the West were predominantly colonial in nature, Aztec antiquities were presented at the World fair of 1867 chiefly for their scientific value and not as spoils of conquest. Furthermore, once the French military intervention in Mexico ended, the only way for France to enrich its Aztec collections was through informal imperialistic archaeological practices (Diaz-Andreu 2007: 167-185), such as scientific missions or donations by private collectors requiring the collaboration of the very Francophile (afrancesado) Mexican government of Porfirio Diaz

The arrangement of the objects in the image illustrates the value attached to different types of antiquities and ethnographical objects at the time. It also captures the universalist ambition of world fairs, ultimately a microcosm inviting visitors to discover in one place and in one day “all the products of all peoples and of all civilisations”.


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Image source

https://archive.org/stream/lexpositionunive02expo#page/216/mode/2up (page 218)

Cite this article as:
1867: Aztec idols at the Paris World Fair, commented by 
Susana Stussi Garcia, in: Translocations. Ikonographie: A collection of commented image sources on cultural heritage relocations since antiquity, http://transliconog.hypotheses.org/kommentierte-bilder-2/1867-aztec-idols-at-the-paris-world-fair, published 16/05/2018.