This exhibition is drawn from the in-gallery show Universe of Things: Micky Wolfson Collects. Exploring our founder Micky Wolfson’s history of collecting and singular commitment to preserving the material of modern life, A Universe of Things: 1939 examines the highs and lows of this pivotal year in the 20th century and The Wolfsonian itself.

Installation view, Universe of Things by Lynton Gardiner, photographer, 2019The Wolfsonian–Florida International University


For a museum collection defined partly by chronology—1850 to 1950—time is a useful organizational tool. Selecting objects from a single year yields unexpected finds and reveals connections that span continents. Consider Wolfsonian founder, Mitchell “Micky” Wolfson, Jr.’s birth year, 1939. New York and San Francisco each hosted a world’s fair, television broadcasts began in the United States, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz debuted in theaters, and Germany invaded Poland, triggering the Second World War. By turns optimistic and ominous, objects from 1939 present the kaleidoscopic reality—technological progress, social turmoil, mass spectacles, ideological conflict, and war—of this pivotal year.

Autachia IRR line (c. 1939) by Fortunato Depero (Italian, 1892-1960) and Ditta Riccardo SaniThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Italian Futurist artist Fortunato Depero created this chair for a ski lodge in the Italian alps using a new material, buxus, made from resin-infused paper. This new material was championed in response to developed autarky, a program of economic self-sufficiency championed by dictator Benito Mussolini. Designers replaced exotic woods with buxus after sanctions were levied by The League of Nations following Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

Fortune magazine cover (1939) by Herbert Bayer (American, b. Austria, 1900–1985)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Two magazines, both published in September 1939, illustrate the rapidly shifting events of that year. Fortune, a monthly publication, featured an image of electrical insulators, still referencing the New York World’s Fair.

Life (1939)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

While Fortune focused on the excitement of the recent World’s Fair, Life, a faster moving weekly, swiftly pivoted from peacetime concerns to the outbreak of the Second World War with a cover photograph of a gas-masked British gunner.

The Threatening Shadow, For the 1939 New York World’s Fair (never executed) (c. 1938) by Alfonso Iannelli (American, b. Italy, 1888–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Though the tone of the 1939 New York World’s Fair was optimistic, some artists and designers sought to bring attention to the troubling developments in Europe. Alfonso Iannelli proposed The Threatening Shadow as a large-scale sculpture to warn of the imminent fascist menace. Despite appeals to fair organizers, as well as New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ianelli’s prophetic vision was rejected and never executed.

Elephant Tower (c. 1938) by Donald Macky (American, 1913-2007)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

The United States hosted two world’s fairs in 1939, one on each coast. In San Francisco, the Golden Gate International Exposition celebrated the city’s role as an American gateway to Asia. The aesthetic of the fair matched the theme, with a generalized “Asian” style exemplified by many of the major architectural features. For the Portals of the Pacific, which flanked the fair’s main entrance, Donald Macky designed enormous ziggurats topped by stylized elephants, seen here as a maquette. Within two years, the artificial island built to host the exposition would be converted to a processing center for sailors heading off to fight Japan in the Pacific.

Trylon and Perisphere (c. 1938) by Wallace K. Harrison (American, 1895-1981) and Jacques André Fouilhoux (French, 1879-1945)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

The 1939 New York World’s Fair imagined the “World of Tomorrow,” replete with technologically advanced consumer products and adventurous architecture. The Trylon and Perisphere, the fair’s theme center and de facto logo, captured this optimistic spirit. This stainless-steel model was one of forty-nine that toured the country, mounted on General Motors limousines, to promote the fair.

Stop Lynching. Shame of America (1939) by Rebel Arts Groups and Union Poster ServiceThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This banner positions the industrial working class at the vanguard of opposition to violence against African Americans. Although lynching was less common in the 1930s than in previous decades, the threat of racial violence was still very present in the national consciousness. The Rebel Arts Group was a New York-based artist cooperative founded in 1934 by students and members of the American Socialist Party, the Workmen’s Circle, and other leftist groups. Famous for theatrical and musical performances, they also produced murals, publications, and protest banners like this one.

1939 A.D. (1939) by Elizabeth Olds (American, 1896-1991) and George C. Miller (American, 1894-1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Printmaker Elizabeth Olds’s leftist politics are made plain in this lithograph which depicts Jesus enacting a modern-day version of the cleansing of the Temple. In Olds’s depiction, Jesus is backed by marching workers in front of the modern-day Temple, the New York Stock Exchange, as he drives away villainous top-hatted bankers. For Olds, social justice was intersectional: workers’ rights are linked to demands for racial equality and democracy, while the frightened capitalists are joined by a robed Ku Klux Klan member.

1635 print.

Peace in Our Time (1939) by Al Hirschfeld (American, 1903–2003)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

British prime minister Neville Chamberlain declared, “I believe it is peace for our time” after acquiescing to Germany’s annexation of part of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Chamberlain’s statement expressed hope that appeasement of Adolf Hitler’s aggression would head off war in Europe—a hope that was dashed when Germany invaded Poland the next year.

Gas mask and handbag (1939) by L. & B. R. Co.The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

The use of chemical warfare in the First World War brought about the need for mass-produced gas masks and training for their correct use. The British government distributed gas masks to every citizen at the start of the Second World War. Some retailers developed cases and even handbags specially designed to hold the respirators, allowing civilians to maintain a semblance of normalcy amid the crisis.

Un masque protège efficacement lorsqu’il est correctement ajusté [A Mask Protects Effectively as Long as It Fits Correctly] (1939) by Raoul M. Leclerc (French, b. Belgium, 1883-1966)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Anticipating the need for protection against chemical agents, the French government issued this poster on gas masks, providing step-by-step instruction on their correct use.

Credits: Story

Check out the rest of the exhibition through our four other stories: A Universe of Things: Women’s Work, A Universe of Things: Aluminum, A Universe of Things: East and West, A Universe of Things: Heroes & Villains.

A Universe of Things: Micky Wolfson Collects is organized by The Wolfsonian–Florida International University. The exhibition is made possible by the Cowles Charitable Trust, Funding Arts Network, Inc., and the Sain Orr Royak Deforest Steadman Foundation.

The Wolfsonian receives ongoing support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture; Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and the Cultural Affairs Council, the Miami-Dade County Mayor and Board of County Commissioners; and the City of Miami Beach, Cultural Affairs Program, Cultural Arts Council.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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