A suite of allegories surrounded by abundant fauna and flora, this “stone tapestry” of 1,130m2 exalts the riches of the colonies. Completed in less than two years by Alfred Auguste Janniot, a sculptor specializing in monumental works, it was intended to be an illustration of the colonies’ economic contribution to metropolitan France.
The majestic facade of the Palais de la Porte Dorée, with its animated stone decor, attests to an esthetic tendency of Art Deco that draws on the exotic. It is part of the iconographic agenda commissioned from artists for the Colonial Exposition of 1931, with a very clear ideological function: to raise the colonial consciousness of the French people and demonstrate the wealth and diversity of the inhabitants, fauna, flora and products of the colonies.
Alfred Auguste Janniot began the project in his studio, assisted by his students and surrounded by the models posing for the work. He made half-size bas-reliefs in clay that respected the proportions when repeated in stone. The sculptural style of the 1920-1930s is put at the service of imperial propaganda: imposing muscular figures, rampant wilderness and simplified, recognizable ethnic faces respecting the ethnographic codes of the period.
In a profusion of semi-nude bodies, tropical plants and exotic animals, the sculptures of the bas-relief are a catalogue of the Empire’s agricultural and mineral riches, harvested by native populations as colonial rhetoric wished to represent them.
The bas-relief is arranged around a central axis. Enthroned above the doorway, France is represented as an allegorical figure symbolizing Abundance towards whom everything converges. It features the names of the French ports through which products brought from overseas transited, as well as that of the Bourget airport inaugurated in 1919.
Starting with this central figure, the colonies are distributed on each side, following a geographical and symmetrical logic.
The colonies of North Africa and Sub Saharan Africa are evoked from left to right; those of Asia from right to left. On the eastern side appear the colonies of Oceania; on the western side those of America.
All the characters are sculpted in profile with shoulders facing, recalling Egyptian art, except for a France symbolically greeting the visitor with a face in frontal view.
The bas-relief shows an intentionally idealized vision of the economic exploitation of the colonies in which, for instance, tough working conditions are ignored. The historical dimension is absent from this frieze and only appears in the list of personalities who contributed to the colonial conquest inscribed on the western wall of the building. This list goes back to the time of the Crusades and gives a retrospective vision of history that is highly ideological and was already a subject of debate at the time.
Major sculptor of monumental art and decorative arts between the wars, successor to Auguste Rodin, Bourdelle and Maillol, Alfred Auguste Janniot was born in 1889 in Paris and died in 1969. He was entrusted with creations decorating many French edifices, especially in the cities of Paris, Bordeaux and Nice.
The artist’s reputation was largely favored by a veritable proliferation of art and architecture generated by the International Expositions of 1925, 1931 and 1937. Hence for the Universal Exposition of 1937, Janniot was commissioned for the Palais de Tokyo bas-relief, an allegory to the Glory of the Arts.