Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World
On November 29, 1935, Berenice Abbott photographed Henry Street, on New York’s Lower East Side. Two rows of tenements dominate the picture, their façades an indecipherable hieroglyph of messy fire escapes, mismatched cornices, car-wash signs, and posters. In the background, far beyond them, rise three skyscrapers, tall and pale. The vertical city, modern, massive, and stark, overwhelms the melancholy disorder of the low tenement street. Yet traditions cling to the steel frames of these immense buildings. Their crowning pinnacles are garlanded with columns, obelisks, and moldings: em-bodiments of the new, they still claim the aesthetic protection of an an-cient architectural code. And Abbott’s mesmerizing black-and-white image, mechanically produced and modern as the movies, also harks back in its composition to an ancient source, the New Testament Book of Revelation: “And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her bridegroom.” When skyscrapers and tenements confronted one another in Abbott’s viewfinder, old images provided her striking iconography. The age-old conflict between heavenly and earthly cities, Utopia and Dystopia, still framed the visual drama that she set in the black-and-white New York of the Thirties.
A new exhibition, created in collaboration by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the New York Public Library, sets Abbott’s image and many more in their millennial context. Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World traces the history of Western culture’s protracted effort to imagine—and sometimes to create—a perfect society. Ranging widely in time and space, the show draws an explosive energy from the dramatic projects and projectors it describes. It bursts through the bounds not only of the Gottesman Exhibition Hall but, literally, of the library itself. To reach the twentieth century, perhaps the richest part of the exhibit, one must climb to the Edna Barnes Salomon Room on the third floor, and the final segment exists only on the World Wide Web.
Utopia confronts the visitor with an extraordinary range of images and experiences. Downstairs, lush medieval illustrations of Eden, glowing with ripe fruit and populated by charming animals, and sixteenth-century maps of Thomas More’s imaginary land, Utopia; upstairs, Life‘s panoramic photos of Levittown and a replica of the murderous female robot created in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Downstairs, meticulous Renaissance and eighteenth-century plans for real and ideal cities, microscopically detailed posters describing the new systems of weights, measures, and dates of the French Revolution—not to mention the steps of a Shaker dance and the white vest of the Saint-Simonian entrepreneur Father Enfantin, its buttons set in the back to force him into cooperation with his fellows even when dressing. Upstairs, Raymond Loewy’s teardrop-shaped airplanes and passenger ships of the future and Soviet posters of a New Society being created are set off, dramatically and terribly, by dark, tiny photos of life in a Stalinist labor camp and handsome color portraits of modern voluntary communities from around …