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The realization of an utopian society has always been an aspiration of humankind, but its achievement has been countered by the paradoxically dictatorial precepts upon which it must be founded. Mainstays of Western thought have alternately attempted to formulate an utopian paradigm that could function in practical terms or condemned the hope altogether. When governments have put utopian theories into practice these efforts have historically failed, suffocated by the numerous rules required to maintain a presumably perfect world. Yet, the need for the idea of utopia to live in our imaginations is an important one for our culture.

El Lissitzky
Untitled, ca 1919-20
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010

Utopia has long been a subject of investigation for artists, as well as a model for artists’ communities, where an ideal society has sometimes been more easily realized than in larger contexts. Though many were short-lived, these collectives functioned as the catalyst for intense and fecund periods of exchange and creativity. Artistic movements with utopian foundations emerged in the wake of the Enlightenment-fueled revolutions in France and America and were nourished by Romantic principles. They range from the nineteenth-century brotherhoods premised on the example of the medieval guild to the colonies which burgeoned by the end of the nineteenth century when artists retreated to remote locales, looking for respite from the problems of urban life. With the avant-gardes following World War I—when there was a turn toward the idea of truth and harmony in pure, abstract forms—utopian groups optimistically endeavored to recraft society through art and design.

Edward Burne-Jones
Elaine, 1870

Through nine movements spanning 130 years: the Primitifs, the Nazarenes, the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris and Arts and Crafts, the Cornish Art Colony, Neo-Impressionism, De Stijl, the Bauhaus, and Russian Constructivism, many of the forms utopian artistic groups can assume are explored. Utopia Matters allows for dialogues between a diversity of these groups from Europe and the United States so that historical movements and avant-gardes with like aims of collectivity and idealism, normally separated by national and chronological divisions, are seen alongside each other. The presentation concludes in the early 1930s, when the ascendancy of fascism brought about the close of the Bauhaus in Berlin in 1933 and Stalinism reframed Russian Constructivist projects in the Soviet Union.

Utopia Matters includes temporal interventions by contemporary artists—banners by Luca Buvoli and a new version of the RMB City internet-based project by Cao Fei—which signal the endurance of utopian themes today.

Vivien Greene, Curator of 19th and Early 20th-Century Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York