Asked to write something about Utopia, I think of two things, or two quotes to be precise. One by Robert Musil occurs towards the end of The Man without Qualities, when the eponymous hero Ulrich says: “And now I ask you-is there anyone who would not be at a loss if whatever he had been passionately demanding all his life long were suddenly to happen? If for instance the Kingdom of God were suddenly to burst on the Catholics or the Utopian State on the Socialists? But perhaps that doesn’t prove anything…What I mean is that reality in itself has a nonsensical yearning for unreality”.
The second is in the title of a short essay by Pierre Bourdieu written in 1998: Neo-Liberalism: The Utopia of Unlimited Exploitation. He goes on to ask: “What if (neo-liberalism) were, in reality, only the implementation of a utopia converted into a political programme. A utopia that, with the aid of the economic theory to which it subscribes, manages to see itself as the scientific description of reality”.
Perhaps it is an obvious question but why are literary Utopias always islands? They are always the exceptions that prove the rule, surrounded by an isolating sea that determines their survival. It is true that it may represent that poetic yearning for unreality that Musil talks of, but that is just what worries me about them when it comes to using Utopia as a metaphor for art. Because I want art to be part of the messed up, compromised society we all live in. I detest the demand for absolute autonomy and perfect form, with its intimations of closure and death. The island Utopia’s lack of accountability to the mainland’s here and now is dangerous. It may serve as a model but it is be an excuse for inaction, irresponsibility and affirmation of the status quo.
Yet, when Utopia misunderstands itself as something real it is, if anything, even worse. As Bourdieu realises and history teaches, a real existing Utopia is invariably horrific for human beings. Surely, having seen the prescribed Utopias of community, faith, socialism or neo-liberalism being misused so terribly, we should be wary of the term when it comes to contemporary art.
So, you will have to take what I say in the little travelogue below with a pinch of salt. It is intended more like a recipe in a cookbook than a musing on utopia anyway. I like cookbooks more because they have practical aspirations. They talk about what could be made from what is and the best food writers always make us imagine their food in our heads as much as wanting to make it. Nevertheless, this journey was a kind of temporary, mobile utopia that lasted only one day, so it seems an appropriate enough response.
Drive out of Basel on an August morning. Head north. Take good company with you – people you love and, ideally, someone knowledgeable about your destination. As you leave Switzerland, look up at the vines on the hills, the Blauburgunder grapes ripening as you pass. You remember that you had drunk the same wine last night and, as the others drive and chat, let that slight hangover allow your to mind slip out of gear and reach out into the passing landscape. Follow the course of the Rhine until it spills out over the Dutch landscape, so different from the low hills of the eastern Vosges. Recall, at the same time, that the importance of the river meant that for most of history, The Netherlands was more influential than the interior of Switzerland to a native of Basel or Colmar. And even further back, you seem to think you once heard that the Rhine had originally turned south at this point, heading not for the North Sea but for the Mediterranean, until an earthquake shifted its course. What difference would it have made if the change had not happened and if a southern culture had had easy access to the heart of the mountains? A different climate, a different division of Europe, another route for trade and emigration – the consequences are too huge to comprehend and, here you are, driving on, worrying where the next wage cheque will come from.
The route follows the Rhine for only a short distance before crossing over into France at Mulhouse and steering north westward towards Colmar. This is your first destination, for lunch and Grünewald. The town of Colmar is small and classically Alsatian, a shambling mix of Germanic half-timbered Hansel und Gretel architecture and north Latin atmosphere. Despite its history of conflict, it still offers a model for a future western European union. Near the centre a short run of shops by the small river leads to two simple cafes. Take the one on the left as you approach the main square. Eat freshwater fish and flammekueche, onion soup if it is unseasonably cold, then head for the Musie d’Unterlinden, a marriage of languages and forms of expression that somehow sets the tone for what is to come.
Your companions should, at this point, have given you some background information. As you walk across the square towards the museum, you are armed with the following basic details. Grünewald’s altarpiece, the Retable d’Issenheim, was commissioned for the hospital chapel of the monastery at Isenheim about twenty miles south of Colmar around 1510. The monks specialised in the treatment of skin diseases including leprosy and syphilis and the altarpiece would have been seen and prayed to by all their patients. The early sixteenth century is a moment of earth-shattering change as Europeans begin their journeys of conquest around the world and the anonymity of mediaeval life gives way to the individualism of the Renaissance. These facts, specific and general, resonate with you as you negotiate the gallery corridors towards the work you have come to see.
Now I am in difficulty. The first impression of the crucifixion image surpasses all description. Christ is not simply dying but demonstrably suffering. His skin, and remember who originally saw this, falls in loose folds around his skeleton, pierced by the whips used in his torture and by the broken thorns falling from his crown. It is a picture of a frightened, desperate human being. It makes you conscious not of the Christian God but of our life here on earth. It seems almost unchristian, or at least heretical, as though Christ’s divinity is really in doubt. Above all, it is indescribably beautiful. Around and between this central image, the other tableaux are almost invisible. The alter piece has three distinct positions and, in the museum, the piece is exploded so that you can see them all simultaneously. Usually only the crucifixion was visible but on some Sundays and saints days, inner pictures would be revealed. In one, a much less convincing image of the resurrection, with a smiling, almost childish image of Christ surrounded by light, serves to reinforce the strength and humanity of the suffering on the cross – its unconvincing picture of Christ in majesty simply not enough of a counterweight for what went before. The final position reveals stone sculptures by Nicholas of Hagenau which are actually the original structure of the altarpiece to which Grünewald added his various screens.
If you think for a moment about this work in contemporary terms, it becomes overwhelming. Here is an artist who turns to the one subject his viewers and commissioners are most likely to want to forget. The patients’ suffering is emphasised but also shared with the figure of Christ without denying in any way their immense burden of pain. Not only this, but he manages to reach out beyond the hospital to touch on the human condition itself, without ever patronising his clients or treating them as irrelevant. He uses an existing frame, thus appropriating augmenting an existing artistic production, to perform this incredible feat. Finally, he provides a dubious salvation, comforting for the ill but, surely, laden with his own fears and uncertain faith.
Walk slowly away from this because it takes time to take it in. Yet remember the time and start out soon for Ronchamp and Le Corbusier’s small pilgrimage chapel, because the two must be seen in the same day and in daylight. The drive to Ronchamp, through countryside that has seen some of the worst armed conflict in the twentieth century is sobering. After Grünewald, the suffering of war seems greater, the motive even less explicable. Park in the village at its western end and walk up to the Chapelle Notre-Dame du Haut. On the way, a old wooden mine head emerges out of the forest. Long disused, its presence on this religious trail, provokes another moment of remembering. The Renaissance was about technological advance just as much as today’s world. Grünewald himself was something of a sixteenth century traditionalist, for Italian early modern society was in full swing, based partly on global trade and the beginnings of empire. That someone ‘behind the times’ could produce the Retable d’Issenheim is salutary for those of us driven by the quest for artistic innovation. As these thoughts occur, and standing before this primitive disused mineshaft, you may find it hard to avoid a certain nostalgia for the old certainties of nineteenth century socialism. Do not succumb however, but remain on guard against determinism of all kinds. Le Corbusier, of all people, will tell us that our future is not entirely out of our hands.
Climb further until, above the trees, the chapel rises. Pay your entry, but pause and look carefully at the location before ascending to the building. Circumnavigate it at least twice before entering through the north door. These instructions should again be clearly given by your companions because a knowledge of the whole of the exterior is both necessary and totally confusing once you walk inside. You should first remark on the cave-inspired construction of the south wall from the outside, pierced by deep-set irregular rectangles of glass. On the east side, climb the stepped pyramid and look around at the environment. Step down and stand at the edge of the shadow which should by now be coming from the west. Here is the prime position for the external congregation, the little pulpit off to the left underneath the Viking canopy of heavy grey concrete. Now walk further round and go inside.
This is the moment to remember Grünewald again. As you enter the north door, what do you see? Not the altar, not the priest readying his homily, not the cross, but the pews and the people, with the pierced south wall shining the sun’s light onto each one of them. Grünewald’s point about humanity in the world is forced home again, only this time in the mass of the congregation rather than as an individual. Then, turning your head left, you find not a great altarpiece but a small, slightly feeble cross dominated from above by that same sloping concrete roof that hung over the pulpit outside. Only now, it is not the massive form alone but lifted and lightened so that its right hand corner breaks free the open gap between wall and roof. Here, our only clear view is out to an isolated fragment of perfect blue sky.This magical sliver draws the world into the building, in a way that I can only describe as pre-Christian, reminding us of our powers of protection against the ineffable forces of nature. Without the building, the views both outwards and inwards continue. Standing alone in the soaring bell tower with its long narrow slit of light or moving round to the north wall where a huge guttering pipe shoots water off the roof in a torrent, you are in a constant state of optical wonder. But the kinship between these two artists, separated by over 400 years, resonates most. Both doubtful Christians (I imagine), both manipulators of a particular commission, both using the site to say something specific to it as well as to the world in general, both makers of beauty, both political and passionate, both examples to us all.
As the sun goes down, return to Basel, eat a little and go to bed without further distractions.
Charles Esche is the director of Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven and editor of Afterall Journal of Art.