Art in novels: Utz, by Bruce Chatwin

Stefano Pirovano

Do images demand their own destruction? Here is what Bruce Chatwin and Kaspar Utz has to tell us about art collecting and opportunities

Today, sixteen years after the first edition, we add to our art in novels list what is to be considered a classic of this particular kind of literature and a seminal example of the enormous potential of the form and information pattern: Utz, the novel Bruce Chatwin wrote in the last years of his life to question the meaning of collecting, according to the point of view of a sensitive, brave, and extremely curious man such as Chatwin himself was during his inspiring life.

Would you then”, I asked, “that art-collecting is idolatry?” Ja! Ja!” he struck his chest. “Of course! Of course! That is why we Jews… and in this matter I consider myself a jew… are so good at it! Because it is forbidden… ! Because it is sinful… ! Because it is dangerous… !” “Do you your porcelains demand their own death?” He stroked his chin. “I do not know. It is a very problematical question.”

Jane Bown/The Observer, Bruce Chatwin, June 1987

Kaspar Utz is a mysterious collector of Meissen porcelains who, during the Sixties, ends up fighting is own personal Cold War to protect a vital passion for delicate artworks against the bold arrogance of the communist ideology. According to Mr. Utz, collecting is more than a sophisticated and sometimes expensive game that Marxist-Leninism, as Bruce Chatwin notices, lets escape – “no one had ever decided if the owner ship of a work of art damned its owner in the eyes of the Proletariat”. It is in fact a way, perhaps the only one he has, to preserve his own identity as a human being. In the clever background set up by Bruce Chatwin, including Prague, and troubled historical role models and collectors such as Rudolph II and Augustus the Strong King of Poland, the clash Utz experiences between his life mission and the slowness of the political regime is not just a mere aberration of the common sense. It is also a metaphor of the struggle that whoever dedicates his life to the research of beauty has indeed to face to survive to his detractors.

In 1966, at the age of 26, Bruce Chatwin was the youngest junior director at Sotheby’s when the company’s board decided he deserved a significant promotion, and it was probably also due to his position that later that year he was told by his friend and colleague Kate Foster about the remarkable man he had met in Prague, during a study trip she made early that same year. This man was collector Rudolf Just, the true character on which the novel Bruce Chatwin wrote twenty years later – and after having been twice to Prague (in 1967 and 1982) – is based.

What is known about Just was reported in a document by Sebastian Kuhn, lecturer and Sotheby’s Director at the time the Rudolf Just collection surprisingly reappeared in Bratislava in April 2000, after having been secretly preserved for more than 50 years, despite Communism and a successful novel by a leading English writer. A few months later it was sold at auction, giving a completely different end to Bruce Chatwin’s fictional version of the Just/Utz enigma. But, again, imagination goes far beyond reality and auction houses’ perfect marketing.

Now, after the collection being dispersed and Prague conquered by Western countries and USA’s real estate developers, Utz and Just have become one. This latter leaving behind a corpus of eleven volumes meticulously describing his collection (yet to be published), while Mr. Utz inviting any art passionate who is not scared of Bruce Chatwin’s own “ballad of sexual dependency” to follow the path and make the acquaintance of Just, who was in the end “far more interested in objects which pose not easily resolved problems than in those which everyone knows, and most wish to possess, only because they are desirable and cost a lot of money”, as he personally wrote.

March 12, 2024