"Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World." the New York Public Library

By Fitting, Peter | Utopian Studies, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

"Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World." the New York Public Library


Fitting, Peter, Utopian Studies


"Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World." The New York Public Library, Oct 14, 2000-January 27, 2001 (www.nypl.org/utopia).

PERHAPS THE LARGEST ASSEMBLY of utopian materials ever put on display, not once but twice, this collaboration between these two libraries offers two complementary looks at the utopian tradition, as manifested in more than one-thousand years of books and magazines, maps and globes, illuminated manuscripts, drawings and photographs, engravings, paintings and sculptures, architectural plans and models, posters and film clips. While some of the materials are drawn from other collections, this is above all an opportunity to see some of the rarely displayed treasures of the Bibliotheque nationale de France (BNF) and of the New York Public Library (NYPL).

The subject of this exhibition and the resulting selection of the materials to be displayed, are not "obvious," the way an exhibition of the works of a particular artist or even of a particular school or historical moment might be--like the current Art nouveau exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington. Through the choices made about what was to be shown, "Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World" tells a story, or indeed several stories about utopia (in the French sense of the word histoire which means both history and story). The first and most rewarding of these stories is, I think, that of the origins and sources of the utopian tradition in the West, and the catalogue (and particularly Sargent's introductory "Utopian Traditions" as well as Lecoq and Schaer's essay, "Ancient, Biblical, and Medieval Traditions"), is vital to our understanding of that story--particularly since our understanding of the origins of the utopian tradition often involves taking a definition of the genre (usually based on More's 1516 Utopia) and then looking for earlier texts that somehow fit that definition. Sargent, Lecoq and Schaer cast a much broader net. Moreover, since many of us work in some specific area or another of the utopian tradition, we may only know parts of that tradition, and have never had the opportunity to contemplate its full dimensions, assembled in a single place, (although--with all its limitations--the Manuels's Utopian Thought in the Western Worm might be a seen as an attempt at such a written account of that tradition). The other story this exhibit tells, the one with which I have more difficulty, and which is fortunately contradicted by so much of the materials in the exhibit as well as by many of the contributors to the catalogue, takes the twentieth century as the manifestation or revelation of the real, malignant significance of utopia, as a kind of social dreaming whose realization is inevitably totalitarianism. I will have more to say about my objections to that story in a moment. These exhibitions are unfortunately now both closed, although each produced beautiful catalogues, and the respective web sites--with numerous links--are still available. Since there are some major differences in the two exhibitions, I will discuss them separately, beginning with Paris where the exhibition first opened.

I. PARIS

The Paris location for this exhibition is itself a controversial architectural monument to the utopian vision of the late French president Francois Mitterand, or to his exaggerated sense of grandeur, for it was the last of his "Grands projets"--which included the renovations at the Louvre (with I.M. Pei's stunning pyramid) and of the Gare d'Orsay, as well as some significant new buildings, including the Institut du monde arabe and the Opera of the Bastille. Like some of the other utopian visions of Modern Architecture, however, France's new national library (designed by Dominique Perrault), tends more toward the monumental than to the practical or the functional.

Situated on the Seine, the library is formed by a raised platform dominated by four glass towers with a three-story deep, rectangular space in the middle, filled with sixty-five forty meter tall trees (pine, birch and oak).

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