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Byzantine Imagery and the French Modern Beholder: The 1931 Exposition internationale d’art byzantin in Paris

Francesco Lovino, Center for Early Medieval Studies, Summer Fellow 2018–2019

I began working on my research project on the reception of Byzantine imagery and culture in France during the Third Republic (1870–1940). I focus specifically on the Exposition internationale d’art byzantin, held in 1931 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The Exposition was the first attempt to give a total overview of Byzantine art: late antique ivory diptychs, Coptic tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, post-Byzantine icons, all gathered together next to Western and Islamic artifacts related to Byzantium and its art. Besides its cultural value, I was particularly interested in the social network of connoisseurs involved in the Exposition, especially private collectors and art dealers—often a soft distinction. Their involvement represented the peak of an art market devoted to Byzantine and general “oriental” and exotic artifacts that developed in Paris around the 1900s. I also explored press reactions to the exhibition. Besides the unanimous positive reviews, it was particularly interesting to note how reports on the Exposition appeared not only in cultural bulletins and art historical journals, but also in popular newspapers. This point revealed how French audiences were familiar with Byzantine imagery, or at least with a stereotyped version, thanks to the fame reached by Victorien Sardou’s Théodora and other Byzantine-inspired creations.