When the English thinker Sir Thomas More first used the term “utopia” in 1516 to describe a perfect island in the Atlantic Ocean, he did so allegorically.
To More, utopia literally meant “no place”; it was an imaginative expression of the impossible. Yet in the centuries that followed, the concept has inspired many who, to various degrees, saw it as something realizable.
From Marx to the Modernists and beyond, utopia was something to strive for – a goal or a system that could be incorporated into everyday life. Here in Berlin (some would say a utopia in its own right), the Deutsche Guggenheim has taken up the subject.
For most of the artists featured in Utopia Matters: From Brotherhoods to Bauhaus – which traces the evolution of utopian ideas in western artistic movements from the early 1800s to the rise of fascism and Stalinism in 1933 – the concept was embodied by a deeply held commitment to improving the world.
In the early 19th century, this often meant establishing artistic brotherhoods where such ideals could be pursued communally; the German painter Franz Pforr’s famously pious Nazarenes were a case in point. Modernist artists and designers, meanwhile, were frequently driven by the Utopian belief that art could significantly transform people’s physical and psychological conditions.
Of course, how they chose to do so varied widely, and the exhibition charts a range of responses from Constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko’s efforts to produce “objective” photography free from the taint of bourgeois subjectivity, to Wassily Kandinsky’s radically abstract paintings, which were intended to convey another kind of spiritual reality.
UTOPIA MATTERS | Through April 11