Pe urmele “Belgiei Orientului.” România la expoziţiile universale sau internaţionale de la...

TitlePe urmele “Belgiei Orientului.” România la expoziţiile universale sau internaţionale de la...
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsHariton, Silviu
Author(s) of reviewed materialVlad, Laurenţiu

book. Title translated: On the paths of ‘Belgium of Orient.’ Romania and the universal and international exhibitions of...

PublisherBucureşti: Nemira
ISSNISBN 973-569-659-2
Review year


Full Text

In the 1990s, the Annales school had a great impact on Romanian historiography. This cultural fertilization resulted in a “new history” of French inspiration largely based on the concepts of “mentalities” and “imaginaire.” While the former concept covers sensibilities and attitudes shared by groups of people, the latter one deals with a large palette of representations on ideologies, symbolic geographies, myths, etc., that shape people’s mentalities. Laurenţiu Vlad’s efforts to document the Romanian representations of national identity at the French and Belgian international and world exhibitions can be seen as part of the latter kind of explorations. World and/or international exhibitions may be valuable case studies to comparatively approach the cultural politics of representation chosen by one participant (usually states) in a certain context.

Pe urmele “Belgiei Orientului.” România la expoziţiile universale sau internaţionale de la Anvers, Bruxelles, Liège şi Gand (1894-1935) is a sequel to Vlad’s previous excellent research on the Romanian participation at the Paris world exhibitions of 1867, 1889, 1900 and 1937 [1]. This time, the author revisits a previous attempt to survey the Romanian participation at the Belgian world exhibitions [2], offering a case study that is parallel and at the same time complementary to the Parisian one. Adding more information and partially revising his argument, Laurenţiu Vlad realizes an interesting album that includes, on the one hand, the images of the Romanian self-perception as the “Belgium of Orient” and, on the other hand, the reception of this discourse in the Francophone Belgium at the world and international exhibitions of Anvers (1894), Bruxelles (1897), Liège (1905), Gand (1913) and again Bruxelles (1935).

Belgium’s recognition of independence in 1839 in an international context dominated by the conservative powers of the Holy Alliance has represented a strong model for the Romanian political elites since the mid-19th century in their efforts to create a modern independent Romanian state in an area dominated by the political interests of the Ottoman, Tsarist and Habsburg empires. Dominated by Wallonians throughout the nineteenth century, Belgium was seen in the symbolic geography of the Romanian political and cultural elites as another ‘small Latin sister’ of France. The Belgian constitution was considered as the best solution for political stability in a newly born state and it represented the main source of inspiration for the Romanian constitution of 1866, while the Romanian throne was initially offered to Philip of Flandre, the brother of the Belgian king Leopold II, before being given to Carol de Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen.

Belgian influence in Romania was very strong in the last decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th one. Since the 1880s Belgium became the second most important importer of the main Romanian export article, grain, and even the most important importer of the Romanian grain and oil in the first decade of the 20th century. Compared with the participation in the Parisian exhibitions, dominated by propaganda aims, the main characteristic of the Romanian participation in the Belgian exhibitions from Anvers (1894), Bruxelles (1897) and Liège (1905) seems to be purely economical, mostly emphasizing the opportunities awaiting Belgian investors. The number of participants was modest, with two in 1894, seven in 1897 and only eleven in 1905 while the reception was in the same line. In Anvers the Romanian engineer Anghel Saligny was largely appreciated for the Cernavoda Bridge, at that time the longest steel bridge in Europe, and for the grain silos made out of a special concrete from Braila and Galati. In 1905 oil represented the most important advertised article and for the first time a special pavilion was designed by Grigore Cerchez using as its model the popular civil architecture of Wallachia during the reign of Constantin Brâncoveanu.

The international political context has to a great extent influenced the options of the Romanian authorities for a more careful organization and a more complex ideological message with the occasion of Gand (1913). The context of the Balkan Wars made the Bucharest authorities attempt to individualize Romania in the eyes of the Belgians by displaying ‘national’ embroideries, popular costumes and several other pieces that were supposed to hallmark a country’s identity at that time. The myth of ‘Belgium of the Orient’ was also largely used by the Romanian authorities to underline the common features of the two countries: Latinity, family connections between the two royal families, etc. As in the case of the previous exhibitions, this project was not extremely successful, Romania being treated rather as a part of the Balkans, together with Bulgaria, Montenegro, Serbia and Greece.

The Romanian participation in the 1935 exhibition was also an exercise in national propaganda, this time for emphasizing the legitimacy of Carol II and his positive role in the cultural flourishing of 1930s Romania. Unique archeological pieces, religious and peasant art like embroideries and painted icons, over a hundred sculptures and tens of paintings of the most known Romanian artists and hundreds of books and albums were brought to Bruxelles in order to offer an image both complex and positive of Carol’s Romania. The number of participants was higher than ever and the number of prizes and diplomas as well. Still, from what Vlad shows in his documentation, one gets the sense that while the Romanians insistently relied on the stereotype of them being the ‘Belgium of the Orient,’ the Belgians, on the other hand, used it rather politely and somehow more in deference to the feelings of Romanians.

In his analysis, Vlad uses the Romanian archives in order to analyze the intentions of the Romanian authorities and the Belgian archives, reviews and newspapers with the aim to understand the reception. Still, in spite of the high number of references, the main body of the text is rather short, almost half of the pages being taken up by the sources presented in the appendix. These are extremely valuable, though it would have been preferable to integrate them into the narrative of the book. Last but not least, with many details on the organizational parts looking dispensable in terms of the analysis, one gets the feeling that Vlad tends to remain descriptive and that there would have been more room for providing a more extended interpretation of Romanian cultural references.

Overall, Pe urmele “Belgiei Orientului" reveals the differences and similarities in the Romanian authorities’ strategies of cultural representations for the French and the Belgian contexts, and these variations will probably be enriched by other case studies on the Romanian participation at the exhibitions from Vienna (1873), St. Louis (1904), Milano (1906), Roma (1911), Barcelona (1929) and New York (1939).

[1] Laurenţiu Vlad. Imagini ale identităţii naţionale. România şi expoziţiile universale de la Paris, 1867-1937 [Images of national identity. Romania and world exhibitions of Paris] (Bucureşti: Editura Meridiane, 2001). An online review of this work.
[2] Laurenţiu Vlad. Propagandă şi identitate. România la expoziţiile universale belgiene, 1897-1935 [Identity and propaganda. Romania at the Belgian world exhibitions] (Editura Cris, 2001)