Imagini ale identităţii naţionale. România şi expoziţiile universale de la Paris, 1867-1937

TitleImagini ale identităţii naţionale. România şi expoziţiile universale de la Paris, 1867-1937
Publication TypePublication review
Author(s) of reviewed materialVlad, Laurenţiu
Title in EnglishImages of National Identity. Romania and the Universal Exhibitions in Paris, 1867-1937


PublisherBucharest: Editure Meridiane
ISBN Number973-33-0442-5
Review year


Full Text

A case study of the Romanian participations at the Universal Exhibitions organized in Paris in the years 1867, 1889, 1900 and 1937, this book depicts how the Romanian Principalities, and later Romania, chose to represent and advertise themselves, as well as their perception in the French cultural milieu. The images promoted by the officials in Bucharest are identified by the author in the pavilions' architecture, in the display of representative historical and folkloric vestiges and in economic statistics, and each of these, in turn, strives to attest to the connection between Romania and the European civilization and help legitimise the political regime.

The study devotes a separate chapter to each exhibition in which it systematically introduces themes such as the event's general characteristics and its specific philosophy, the arrangements made for Romania's participation, the political and economic profile of Romania in the given period, the conceptualisations of the national past and their responses from the French part. Furthermore, the work contains additional information on the objects selected by the Romanian part to be shown, on the awards received and the various rankings in these four exhibitions, as well as a comprehensive bibliography of the Romanian official propagandistic documents and of the French textbooks responsible for the emergence of "public opinion" on Romania and its culture in the 19th century.

Images of National Identity opens with an overview of the master narratives which lay behind the galas: whilst the industrialised societies of the 1860s, 1870s endorse a vision based on scientific, technological progress and its globalising effects, the twentieth century exhibitions advance specific societal and political projects subordinated to nationalism. Chapter II, presenting the exhibition of 1867 under Napoleon, the Third, shows the myth of a country whose European identity is provided by its connection with Roman civilization, recognizable in the customs of the Romanian village, and with the Byzantine one through the style of the churches. In addition, Romanians claim defending Christianity against Islam `"la tâche (...) de lutter pour la civilisation" in support of their Europeanness. The French on the other hand, puzzled by the paradox of a Latin country committed to Orthodox Christianity, locate Romanian culture in a space of exoticism, where the ignorance is masked under catchy façades. Chapter III, dealing with the festivities which mark the centenary of the Revolution of 1789, depicts a Romania whose narrative is centred on the theme of the most Western country of the Balkans. The propagandistic discourse reiterates the illustrious Roman roots and the Byzantine influences in culture, and appeals to the audience by bringing to forefront the conviviality of Romanian people. The French perceive this construction as a world in between, which is neither the primitive Orient anymore, nor the most civilized country in the Balkans yet. For them, it is the Orient of Europe. Chapter IV, focusing on the event of 1900 which was conceived as a synthesis of the 19th century, deciphers the attempt of legitimising the King, who was of an old German princely family, as ruler of Romania, as a part of the strategy meant to affirm the country’s European identity. At the same time, officials in Bucharest provide an analogous case in the local political development to the concept of the dynasty of foreign roots, suggesting that Charles, the First was the direct successor of the Romanian voievozi of the Middle Ages. The French set Romania as a precise political and cultural entity at the confines of Europe, whereas its people are frivolous, snobbish and idle. Chapter V, reflecting the expo of 1937 which thematised modernization, exhibits the ideology of the "New Romania" as an organic society based on authentic rural values, which under its ruler, Charles, the Second, "on retrouve l`influence et l`autorité dans tous les domains de la vie nationale." This time the French seem convinced by the propaganda efforts of the Romanians, and acknowledge the charm of a patriarchal world ready to embrace European modernity.

A useful instrument in the study of the mental representations employed in the course of Romanian nation-building, Images of National Identity has its strengths and weaknesses. In the former category one should include the attention paid to the French deconstruction of the myths advanced by the Romanians, and particularly to the formation via textbooks of stereotypes with respect to Romania`s place in Europe (p. 152). A kind of shortcoming is the author`s tendency to advance hypotheses without arguing for them sufficiently. Yet, some of his remarks are potential topics for further study. One example is provided by the observation on the similarity of the visual representation created by the Romanian and the Polish pavilions in 1937 to present the regimes of Carol, the Second and of Piłsudski in a favourable light (p. 114; illustrations no. 15, 21). Moreover, the excessive amount of figures in the body of the work render inutile details rather than emphasize (as intended) the economic progresses or the ideological stances undertaken by Romania in the intervals between the fairs. Lastly, there are some facts mentioned in the study whose significance for the specific context is not considered. The striking illustration is supplied by the information that, at the Exhibition of 1900, A. C. Cuza was the representative of Romania as a member of the international awarding committee in matters of higher education (p.80). The author does not refer to the intriguing complexity of Romania eagerly asserting its Europeanness through a personality who was a manifest opponent of the emancipation of Jews in Romania.