PRINT February 1982

Paradise and Lunch: Advertising’s Architecture of Heaven

Wir kommen alle, alle, alle in den Himmel” (All, all, all of us will get into heaven): this is a line from one of the best-known German carnival songs. However, we will get there only after death.

The saying that has lovers living in heaven on earth even tells us which heaven they live in: the seventh. The lover in a German hit song of the ’30s that is still popular today promises his girl to dance with her into heaven.

Situations in which we feel extreme pleasure are described as heavenly, in the vernacular. (Heaven is off limits for people we would rather see “go to hell.”)

As a maxim for Documenta 7 (to open in Kassel in June 1982) Rudi Fuchs, the director of this important exhibition of contemporary art, stated that “we must not abandon the great human goal to reconstruct paradise, even though at the moment we can only describe it in fragments and write fairytales about it.”

What is it Fuchs means when he demands a language that is simultaneously “elevated” and “common?” The above-mentioned sayings about heavenly paradise are just that—ordinary, everyday terms of our languages. “Elevated” is the language type often used by philosophers, theologians, artists, and writers who in the course of our cultural history have expressed their differing ideas on heaven and paradise.

The pictorial language of Raphael’s concept of the Saints’ Heaven in The Sistine Madonna (ca. 1512) is a good example of what is meant by “elevated.” The panel (104 3/8 by 77 1/4") depicts a heavenly space substantialized by clouds behind open curtains. The Madonna, fanned by spherical winds, walks through the space with the Child; Saints Sixtus and Barbara kneel at her feet, to her right and to her left, respectively. The foreground hints at a floor, which the curtain would clearly reach if it were let down; it would then veil the view into heaven. In the left foreground the mitre of Saint Sixtus stands alongside the suggested curtain-frame, resting on the suggested floor. Two putti are leaning on the same frame at the center of the foreground, one in three-quarter profile, the other full face. The innumerable heads of similar angels are barely suggested in, and as, the clouds. Saint Sixtus looks at the Madonna and the Child and with his right outstretched arm points to the viewer of the painting—at whom the Madonna and the Child are looking.

Without question this is an example of the “elevated” language that Fuchs calls for in conjunction with a “common” language. However, Raphael’s “elevated” language has become “common” because his representation of angels is still used today; it has become so mundane that it could now be considered “low” or “vulgar.”

For the Christmas and New Year holidays of 1980–81 the Swiss food company Bell plastered an advertisement—Zur Feier des Jahres (for the feast of the year)—all over Switzerland. The composition of this advertisement corresponds to the dominant pictorial structure of European sacral art, namely the triptych. Each of the three poster/panels (50 1/4 x 35 3/8" each) shows a popularized version of Raphael’s angels-in-clouds. A feast of Bell delicacies floats in front of each angel.

The angels on the right and left panels are turned slightly inward, oriented toward a third angel in the middle. Because of this alignment only the outside wing of each flanking angel is visible, whereas the central angel faces the spectator and both wings can be seen, just like the corresponding Raphael angel.

The angels’ bodies show forms and attitudes—heads, fingers and, above all, curly hair and reddened mouths—that suggest prepubescent girls. The appeal of these “angelic” beings is due to the calculated exploitation of innate response mechanisms triggered by what ethology would call Kindchenschema (infant characteristics; i.e. round face, big eyes, snub nose, accentuated mouth). The eyes of all three angels look directly at the spectator wherever he or she moves in front of the picture, a phenomenon that theologians in the Middle Ages considered an equivalent for the all-seeing eye of God. Raphael used it to indicate the divine status of the Virgin Mary and the Infant Christ. Angels are not only inhabitants of heaven but God’s assistants as well. Their wings make them the mediators between heaven and earth. The Bell advertisement knowingly exploits the characteristic symbols of divinity in order to establish that these figures are beings of a divine nature. As Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message.

The “common” quality of this Bell statement is that it has consciously applied the same elements that characterize the “elevated” language of pictorial constructions historically used by artists and philosophers. On the right hand poster a seal with a relief inscription, placed like a badge on the angel, reads “Bell-Art,” clearly referring to the “elevated” language of historical architectures of heaven. What do these heavens look like, and how do we get there? Do they have distinctive structures? What happens to people who reach those heavens?

The Bell posters show winged angels, clouds, and food as means of transcendental bridge building, that is to say, as mediators bridging the distance that exists between earth and heaven, if both are not the same. Until the 15th century angels’ wings were generally painted polychromatically, with the colors of the rainbow. Hence angels’ wings had the same function as the rainbow because, for medieval man, the rainbow was the most obvious bridge between heaven and earth. Arched forms—cupolas, vaults, etc.—are the construction elements used in building transcendental bridges. They quite obviously represent the fundamental form of heavenly architecture; the sky itself is perceived by the human eye as a dome above the earth. As material for transcendental bridges, clouds are not only polychromatic—as a result of the sun’s rays—but they are also polymorphous, and thus ideal for the construction of the place called heaven. These ever-changing forms suggest motion from here to there, from earth to heaven. The manifold forms of clouds can also describe flowing transitions from one state to another, so that the boundary (between earth and heaven) does not remain fixed or measurable but is itself in a process of transformation.

In the Bell advertisements we can distinguish the methodology and results of each means of transcendental bridge construction and thereby discover in precisely what way Bell’s medium is their message. The overall intended effect—transformation or metamorphosis—plays off our cultural history. Bell illustrates the nature of transformation by alluding to the change that the food, as well as the eater, undergoes when the food is consumed. Bell is not merely relying on our knowledge of biological metabolism but is deliberately evoking theological transformations as in the transfiguration of the soul. In the Roman Catholic Holy Communion the substance of bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation); in Protestantism bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ (consubstantiation). The company’s name, with its allusion to ringing, could be a clever reference to the ringing of a bell to announce the transubstantiation in the Catholic ritual. Bell does not use bread to represent the body, it uses meat because Bell sells meat, not bread; besides, flesh is more easily recognized as the substance of living beings. The full wine glasses and bunches of grapes contribute to push the reference to the changing of wine into Christ’s blood.

Wine-pressing is one of the earliest known signs of cultural activity, agricultura meaning the transformation of wild into precious and cultivated. Wine-growing was considered the most striking example of transformation; even God’s work with mankind was compared to the wine-grower’s work in the vineyard. Of course, Bell may well be thinking only of transformation on a profane level, namely intoxication. In all cultures there is a close connection between ecstatic inebriation and proximity to the gods; this is particularly so in Christianity, which goes as far as to transubstantiate or at least consubstantiate wine into Christ’s blood.

The central angel proffers “Bell Quick” in a sealed foil bag—elaborating on the reference because this modern transformed food, instant food like that the astronauts consume is analogous to the host in the Holy Communion. Each bag is individually numbered and guaranteed, thereby personalizing and promising the transformation of the consumer. Bell documents a second and direct level of transformation by using the depiction of their prepared meats as elements in an overall design. The colors and forms of the products are still in line with the looks, taste and smell that we associate with these foods. (The contemporary artist Antonio Miralda’s festivities are based on the use of non-customary colors for well-known foods. By treating food this way, Miralda didactically analyzes the different modes of perception that are activated when food is prepared and consumed. If it is not possible to identify food in accordance with its familiar taste and appearance, Miralda’s “guests” refuse to eat the meal.) Despite a certain realism, Bell knows that the origin of the meat shouldn’t be too apparent: they cover the tips of the bones with paper decorations. As in all table cultures, these decorations are “decorum” in the true sense, that is, they hide transitions which occur during the process of transformation—as do the clouds in the architecture of heaven.

The most popular conception of the structure of heaven is a reversed world, so that, if scarcity reigns on earth, heaven offers abundance. Heaven is a paradise of immediate wish fulfillments which depends on particular conditions of earthly life: those who go hungry and thirsty here will be satiated there. Such reversed worlds, as in the realization of heaven, were evident in the Roman Saturnalia and in the earliest forms of carnival, where slaves became masters and masters became slaves. Bell publishes these Zur Feier des Jahres advertisements for the celebration of the cyclical process that marks transitions between workdays and holidays, between earth and heaven, between this world and a world beyond. These transitions are possible in either direction: in other words, they may include the cyclical return from heaven back to earth, from festivity to everyday work, from paradise back to hell. Therefore, the transcendental bridging and its mediating transformations are not one-way streets. Raphael illustrates this by the curtain frame around the heavenly space: the gaze of the Madonna and that of the beholder go in opposite directions: back and forth. Similar transformations portrayed in the Bell poster show us that, in the final analysis, we are not ready to step into heaven; if we gorge we feel disgust and lose the desire to eat more—in heaven this would not be so.

From this understanding the second structure of celestial architectures can be derived, namely that of wishless bliss. To attain this state one must choose the ascetic way, which is most often practiced by those who have everything they need. Only those who know that desires are limitless and cannot be satisfied by fulfillment will ascend to the heavens of wishless bliss. Bell encourages the average customer to imagine heavens that fulfill all desires resulting from earthly deficiencies. No doubt members of materially well positioned classes see this differently: the luxurious quality of the products enables them to practice asceticism. Desire is limitless and the customer is aware that he or she can never be free of it; thus an ascetic distance establishes itself between the limitlessness of the desire and the limited fulfillment which makes enjoyment possible. Even those who only see the posters in passing, who can’t or don’t buy the products, might recognize a third paradisiacal structure: heaven as a realized utopia. Bell’s painted heaven fulfills one of the prerequisites of utopias in its criticism of existing earthly conditions. Subliminally, the critique could even extend to include a comment on the irony of comparing the luxury products of different companies while people on earth are starving. These passers-by know that neither aristocratic asceticism nor populist wish fulfillment will allow us to realize heaven-on-earth. The conditions that would exist in a utopia would eliminate the difference between speech and thought, between truth and fiction, depicted and edible food; they are conditions that would permit us to derive the meaning of life from direct evidence and not from the battle for food (or the battle of foods) where we see only painted heavenly lands of milk and honey. The structural elements of Bell’s three “common” heavens are the same as those used for the construction of “elevated” heavens, in Rudi Fuchs’ sense. (Other than these specifically mentioned building elements, the column, the arrow, the tower, the inclined plane, the top of the mountain and, above all, the colors gold and blue have historically been used to build transcendental bridges.)

The crossing of transcendental bridges in the posters is meant to be interpreted as a transformation which, in the end, leads right back to the starting point; it is just as cyclically organized as the course of the year. As already stated, the different elements of the architecture of heaven and the indications of crossings as transformations are characteristic of Raphael’s as well as of Bell’s language, of “elevated” as well as of “common” forms of expression. In the distinctions Fuchs makes, the heavens are reversed worlds: that is, they are the ordinary popular and fairytalelike worlds represented in our culture as lands of milk and honey—the Tivolis, the pleasure domes, the Las Vegases, the Disneylands, and the department store paradises. (In the food paradise of the “Kaufhaus des Westens” in Berlin, travelers from Eastern European countries can be seen in a state of physical and mental collapse when actually confronted with the realization of their dreams.) Heaven as a reversed world is also represented in all its common and popular obviousness in Rousseau’s South Sea paradise, as a refuge of true simplicity, in the ideal societies realized in Palma Nova or Caserta Vecchia or in the salt pits of Chaux. An extreme example of “heavenly architecture” is the SS state of the Nazis as Heinrich Himmler designed and partly realized it. The dominating architecture of heavens as reversed worlds can be recognized in scientific constructions of systems (with totalitarian overtones) where creators measure degrees of efficiency according to the system’s ability to submit the most diverse information to a single concept of order.

The design of the east pediment of the Parthenon represents an architecture of Olympus. This same “elevated” level of representation of heaven can be seen in medieval gold paintings and images of paradise gardens. The Gothic cathedral can be seen as the most complete architectural realization of heaven so far, programmatically, as well as in its material design.

Is Disneyland an expression of a “common” language and the Gothic cathedral that of an “elevated” language of heavenly paradise? Would the answer to Rudi Fuchs’ demand for an “elevated” and “common” language lie in the third type of heavenly architecture, the one we have called “realized utopia?” In our cultural history this type of realization has been represented by Arcadian landscapes and by the architectural ruins characteristic of the English garden, as well as by those artistic, scientific and theological statements that willingly and consciously prefer the fragment to the whole, that consider the unfinished more perfect than the complete, that regard fragments as more truly human than any stylistic systematization could ever be. We became acquainted with heaven as a realized utopia by analyzing the traces of earlier cultures, particularly of Greek and Latin antiquity. Suddenly we notice that fragmentary mutilated statues give wing to our imagination and knowledge—precisely because they are ruins—whereas careful reconstructions prove to be uninspiring by comparison. The beauty of heaven can be experienced only if we acknowledge dirt, decay and ruin as states appropriate to human creations; because of its systematic unity and forced stylistic totality “the beautiful” can only be understood as the unsophisticated and presumptuous imposition of people who claim to possess the all-seeing eye of God.

Rudi Fuchs’ statement that we can only tell fairytales of paradise and that they must be told in a language that is both “elevated” and “common” means that as artists, scientists, politicians and ordinary people we must always keep one thing in mind in our longing for heavenly paradise: between this world and a world beyond, between heaven and hell, the systematic execution of a plan or an idea must not dominate. If we were actually to execute our plans of heavenly paradises in every respect, these constructed heavens would result in concentration camps.

Reconstructions of paradise cannot be brought about by works of art. Works of art only enable us to imagine paradise in order that we may become aware that every human claim to absolute truth and definitiveness should be disregarded. This is more urgently necessary today than ever before and thus the work of artists has again become of great importance to our lives. Current interpretations of political, social and artistic developments in the western world seem to be changing direction: horizontal movement is becoming vertical. Horizontal movement was characterized as a diachronic way of looking at processes and phenomena of development in chronological order. In this regard the question most frequently asked was whether or not any given phenomenon was to be considered progressive or regressive, relative to this horizontal line. The consequences of these processes would be seen in the inevitable future. Why is it that the main direction of movement is now along a vertical? Is this because we have become aware of the fact that our future (the way we imagined it in the ’60s) is already past? Have we changed the paradigms of polarity—of past and future, of today and tomorrow, of fact and fiction, of terrestrial and cosmic, of below and above—because we feel the end of all development will not be a result in the future, but is already realized in our present time? Neutron bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles come from above—not from the future! The changed direction of dynamics in our culture is a reaction to the inevitable complexity of events that effect us synchronically. The current exploitation of historical eras (for instance postmodernism in architecture) is less an act of eclecticism than a reaction to the loss of the future. Mankind’s canons of form and expression are assembled together once again in order to take part in the great finale—that is to perish once and for all.

This, in any case, seems to be what one concludes when pondering the general mood in Europe, a mood that dominated the year 1981, and which doesn’t look as if it will recede easily. There was a future at the end of horizontal and diachronic development. At the end of synchronic verticality the heavens will lie open. However, the question remains as to what kind of heavens they are. Let us try to be good architects.

Bazon Brock is Professor of Esthetics at the University of Wuppertal.

Translated from the German by Margret Berki.