Summary of Gesamtkunstwerk
The German term Gesamtkunstwerk, roughly translates as a "total work of art" and describes an artwork, design, or creative process where different art forms are combined to create a single cohesive whole. The idea was popularized by the composer Richard Wagner who argued for the "consummate artwork of the future," where "No one rich faculty of the separate arts will remain unused in the Gesamtkunstwerk of the Future". Remaining most popular in Germany and Austria, the concept was developed throughout the 19th and into the early 20th century by a range of European art movements and became a core tenet of modern art. Although it fell out of favor in the post-modern period, the term is still sometimes used today to describe multimedia artworks and installations.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Gesamtkunstwerk survives most prominently in architecture, where all aspects of the design; interior, exterior and furnishing were created to complement one another and this influence can be seen in the artistic practice of movements including Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Jugendstil, the Vienna Secession, the Bauhaus, and De Stijl.
- Concepts of Gesamtkunstwerk were often aligned with the wider values and beliefs of the art movements that adopted it and the collaboration of arts and artists that created Gesamtkunstwerk was viewed as having the potential to create a more equitable and, ultimately, utopian society.
- Some of the forms of Gesamtkunstwerk had close associations with nationalism. For instance, the Arts and Crafts Movement promoted traditional English craftsmanship. More tragically, some of Wagner's views and work can be seen as forming the foundations of Nazi philosophy and his ideas of traditionalism in music helped to offer legitimacy to the new party. This association caused the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk to be rejected by many artists after the Second World War.
Overview of Gesamtkunstwerk
The Palais Stoclet (1905-10) represents the ultimate environment envisioned by the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops) group, a total work of art that allowed for all aspects of the building to be cohesively designed.
The Important Artists and Works of Gesamtkunstwerk
This photograph depicts the exterior of The Red House, named for the red brick used for its walls and the red tiles of its roofing. Morris saw the house as "very mediaeval in spirit" and the sloping and overhanging gables, prominent chimneys, and combination of round and narrow vertical windows reflect the influence of early English Gothic architecture. Innovative in its rejection of any architectural decorative elements, the building's design was, as J. W. Mackail wrote, "plain almost to severity, and depended for its effect on its solidity and fine proportion". Every element, from the site, which was then a rural setting in Kent on the outskirts of London, to the interior fittings, were designed to create a singular work of art.
Following his marriage, Morris built this house with Philip Webb, and the design, materials, and building methods reflected his emphasis on traditional handcrafts and utility. Built upon a L-plan, Morris designed the windows, employing a number of different types and shapes, to suit the layout and purpose of the rooms. He also worked with a wide range of other artists on the property, including Burne-Jones who created a selection of stained glass, Dante Gabriel Rossetti who produced painted panels and other elements were designed by Ford Madox Brown, Elizabeth Siddal, and Jane Morris. Designing the garden, Morris emphasized its integration with the house and he saw the building and grounds, and the collaborative approach they had employed to make it, as an artistic statement of his vision of "the future we are now helping to make". He also noted that "If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art...I should answer, A beautiful House". During the five years that Morris lived in The Red House, it became an active center of the arts, informing both the Arts and Crafts movement and the Pre-Raphaelites, while also having a significant influence as a pioneering example of Gesamtkunstwerk. In the 1950s the architects Edward and Doris Hollamby renovated The Red House, which had fallen into disrepair, and it again became an important hub for artists and thinkers.
The façade of the Bayreuth Theatre reflects late-19th century fashions in architecture, with its columns and geometric patterns of light-colored stone framing the central entrance. Imposing, and referencing the appearance of a classical temple, it rises on a small hill above a garden laid out in a geometric design which reflects the decoration on the frontage. Richard Wagner built the theatre as a venue for the performance of his opera cycles at the annual Bayreuth Festival, officially titled Richard-Wagner-Festspielhaus, which still continues today. As such, the theatre and its performances embodied his vision of Gesamtkunstwerk, with every element combining to create a total aesthetic experience.
The foundation stone for the building was placed on Wagner's birthday in 1872 and Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung,) Wagner's cycle of four operas opened the theatre in 1876. To integrate the presentation of the operas with the building, Wagner pioneered a new design, including continental seating (a seating layout without a central aisle), a double proscenium, and a recessed orchestral pit. He also primarily used wood for the interior to improve acoustics. The continental seating, arranged in a single wedge, meant every seat had a clear view of the stage. The double proscenium created what Wagner called a "mystic gulf" between the stage and the audience, enhancing the dreamlike and mythic quality of his operas. At the same time, the orchestra pit, hidden under the stage, was invisible and let the audience focus entirely on the opera. Many theatres subsequently adopted these features.
This townhouse, considered to be one of the first complete examples of an Art Nouveau building, was revolutionary in its architectural techniques and its fluid, open style. Innovating with modern materials, particularly steel and glass, Horta emphasized organic, curving lines, so the façade flowed both vertically and horizontally. He pioneered the use of thin iron columns, rather than conventional stone, allowing for the large windows. Horta also designed the interior, giving the property an open floor plan and emphasizing natural light, so that the total effect of the building was of a fully-integrated, light-filled space. The wider design was complemented by details such as the light fixtures, window frames, door handles, and stair railings which imitated sinuous plant-like forms, defining both the wider Art Nouveau aesthetic as well as creating a cohesive decorative and architectural scheme throughout the property.
Along with Horta's Hôtel Solvay, Hôtel van Eetvelde, and Maison & Atelier Horta, this building was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000 and cited, as "some of the most remarkable pioneering works of architecture of the end of the 19th century. The stylistic revolution represented by these works is characterised by their open plan, the diffusion of light, and the brilliant joining of the curved lines of decoration with the structure of the building."
Useful Resources on Gesamtkunstwerk
- The Total Work of Art in European ModernismOur PickBy David Roberts
- The Total Work of Art: From Bayreuth to CyberspaceOur PickBy Matthew Wilson Smith
- Artwork of the FutureOur PickBy Richard Wagner / Translated by William Ashton Ellis
- AD Classics: Red House / William Morris and Philip WebbBy Luke Fiederer / Arch Daily / June 16, 2017
- GesamtkunstwerkOur PickBy Michael A. Vidalis / Architectural Review / June 30, 2010
- Richard Wagner's Concept of the 'Gesamtkunstwerk'Our PickBy Ursula Behn Wolfman / Interlude / March 12, 2013
- Beyond Kitsch: A New Look At Art NouveauBy Alan Riding / New York Times / April 30, 2000
- How Bauhaus Redefined What Design Could Do for SocietyBy Nikil Saval / New York Times / February 4, 2019
- Passage Interdit: GesamtkunstwerkBy Dustin Cosentino / Kinfolk
- Theo van Doesburg: The splintered selfBy Adrian Searle / The Guardian / February 1, 2010
- The Palais Stoclet SeducesOur PickBy Aaron Betsky / Architect Magazine / October 4, 2013
- The Synthesis of the Arts: From Ceremonial Ritual to "Total Work of Art"By Steven Brown and Ellen Dissanayake / doi.org / May 15, 2018
- Go easy on the gesamtkunstwerkBy David Newland / Macleans / July 27, 2012
- Walter Gropius designed school in Dessau to reflect the Bauhaus valuesBy Alyn Griffiths / dezeen.com / November 5, 2018
- How the Bauhaus built the futureBy Philip Hoare / newstatesman.com / July 10, 2019
- Walter Gropius in the (Bau)hausOur PickTalk with Karen Koehler / SFMoma
- Viennesse ModernismVienna Now
- Josef Hoffmann and the Wiener WerkstaetteWoke Lamps Vienna
- Rietveld Schröderhuis (Rietveld Schröder House)UNESCO/NHK
- Imperial Hotel videoOur Pick
- GESAMTKUNSTWERK: NEW ART FROM GERMANY VIDEO TOURSaatchi Gallery