Notes on Utopia: An Exhibition
'Utopia, Visions of a New World' is the current exhibition in De Lankenhal Museum. An Utopia is often defined as an ideal that comes to break with the past to move towards the future. What’s new then about this particular Utopia in exhibit?
The display in Museum De Lakenhal brings together works by expressionist and constructivist artists produced between 1900 and 1940. Instead of radically contrasting the styles, a very interesting effort has been made to present these two artistic movements as a dialogue about a new utopic world.
As the curator explained to the group I joined for a guided visit, expressionist and constructivist are usually seen as two distinct styles. But as she realized while setting up this exhibition, they proved much more of a continuum than she used to think they were. Therefore, both artistic movements, which are often regarded as mutually exclusive - with distinct masters and schools, and coming from distinct places (Germany and Russia) - are now brought together and remind us of, and question, some of the usual categorizations that we - as lay visitors - tend to fall into when seeing and interpreting artistic production and art exhibits.
A shared history
One basic aspect that these two artistic movements share, is their contemporaneity: artists in both movements worked during the beginning of twentieth century. This means that even when seen as distinct we should not forget that these movements also have a shared history, which is far from being mutually exclusive. Even when shown as distinct in a museum or in an art history book, they were movements in dialogue.
A network instead of two exclusive territories
Expressionists and constructivists were less spatially fixed than the spatially located categories often attached to artistic movements make us believe. That is, both styles not only transcended national borders, but also attracted artists from very distinct places in Europe and the world (even though the exhibition hardly goes beyond European artists) to imagine and represent the future, while connecting places into a stylistic dialogue. Thus, if we try to visualize such a dialogue it would look much more like a network of people thinking about an ideal world, than a counterpoint of two distinct territorial zones representing two exclusive ideological arguments.
Stylistic practices beyond conventional art
Artistic movements not only imprint ways of seeing the world through 'conventional' art works such as paintings and sculptures, but often also travel along paths of distinct disciplinary techniques and crafts. Artistic inspiration comes from somewhere else – maybe that is why they are called 'movements'. As the Lakenhal exhibition shows, these movements may also influence the work of architects, industrial designers, stage designers, custom and fashion designers, choreographers, dancers, photographers and film makers, and so on. It may even inspire the production of toys along certain stylistic lines, or inspire the design of daily activities we don’t often imagine as permeated by 'stylistic practices', such as cooking and eating meals as 'The Futuristic Cookbook' in the exhibit suggests.
Experiencing a new point of view under the umbrella of De Lakenhal
Still, despite the effort to engage expressionist and constructivists into a dialogue the exhibition does not mix them up, but keeps them very clearly separated as distinct styles. The works of the artists representing the two movements are divided into two parts, and even placed on two distinct floors of the museum: the first floor shows the work of the expressionists and the second is devoted to those artists considered part of the constructivist movement.
The dialogue then lies in the possibility offered to the visitor of imagining parallels between the two, and searching for meeting points in which the two stylistic layers - proposed by the curator -may enter into a dialogue. Thus, the museum here functions as the umbrella that brings them together in a display presented as showing something new, while the display on both floors, is intended as the way to signify the distance that stylistic categories had set between them. The challenge of experiencing a new point of view among its two floors is definitely worth the visit. (Besides the fact that the exhibit has amazing pieces together at one place here in Leiden!)
New vision exhibited: A true Utopia
At the end, after seeing an exhibition that brought together so many different artifacts, techniques, and ways of representing 'new visions of the new world', I kept thinking about why we associate Utopia with the New. If Utopias move, such as the visions of these two artistic movements show and are circulated, translated, contested, and influenced by other world views - and by the way we bring them into museums - maybe the ultimate Utopia of our time is that these works actually represent something absolutely new. Maybe it would be more accurate to frame them as coming from somewhere else, and yet still evoking and informing the imagination of yet another time and space to come.
As usual, having movements framed within strict categories inevitably disenchants the new vision. Maybe having something absolutely new in a Museum is what actually is Utopian.