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Gesamtkunstwerk Collage


Started: 1890
Ended: 1933
Gesamtkunstwerk Timeline
"No one rich faculty of the separate arts will remain unused in the United Artwork of the Future."
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Richard Wagner
"The ultimate aim of all artistic activity is building! ... Architects, sculptors, painters, we must all get back to craft! ... The artist is a heightened manifestation of the craftsman."
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Walter Gropius Signature
"Let us together create the new building of the future which will be all in one: architecture and sculpture and painting."
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Walter Gropius Signature
"From the individual groups a universally great, enduring, spiritual-religious idea will rise again, which must find its crystalline expression in a great Gesamtkunstwerk. And this great total work of art, this cathedral of the future, will then shine with the dance of light into the smallest objects of everyday life."
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Walter Gropius Signature
"A modern, harmonic and lively architecture is the visible sign of an authentic democracy."
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Walter Gropius Signature
"He [the architect] not only sees more or less clearly the nature of the materials but, in his own trained imagination and by virtue of his own feeling, he qualifies it all as a whole."
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Frank Lloyd Wright Signature

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

Gesamtkunstwerk Photo

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.

Key Artists

  • William Morris was an English textile designer, writer, and social activist who was the father of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
  • Mackintosh was a Scottish architect, designer, sculptor and decorative artistwho is best known as the United Kingdom's greatest proponent of Art Nouveau and founder of the Glasgow Style.
  • Aubrey Beardsley was a nineteenth-century English illustrator and author. In black ink he created highly erotic, grotesque, and decadant drawings, much in the style of Japanese woodcuts. Beardsley's work was part of the Aesthetic movement, and was highly influential to the subsequent Art Nouveau movement of the early-twentieth century.
  • Synonymous with Art Nouveau, Horta was one of the greatest innovators and pioneers of the movement, designing flamboyant, lush, and organic houses, buildings, and offices. His works are marked by their curvilinear botanic forms, most of which can still be seen in the city of Brussels.
  • Guimard was a leading figure in the Art Nouveau movement and the buildings that he designed exemplified the aims of the movement with their organic curves, unity of decorative arts, and natural elements. He made his greatest mark in Paris where in 1900 he designed the entrances to most of the city's metro stations.
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Do Not Miss

  • The Arts and Crafts Movement was an international design movement that originated in Great Britain and had a strong following in the United States. It advocated truth to materials and traditional craftsmanship using simple forms and often medieval, romantic or folk styles of decoration. It also proposed economic and social reform and has been seen as essentially anti-industrial.
  • Rising to prominence in Germany in the late nineteenth century, Jugendstil, which means "youth style" in German, influenced the visual arts (particularly graphic design and typography), decorative arts, and architecture.
  • Bauhaus is a style associated with the Bauhaus school, an extremely influential art and design school in Weimar Germany that emphasized functionality and efficiency of design. Its famous faculty - including Joseph Albers and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe - generally rejected distinctions between the fine and applied arts, and encouraged major advances in industrial design.

The Important Artists and Works of Gesamtkunstwerk

The Red House (1859)

Artist: William Morris and Philip Webb

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.

Bayreuth Festspielhaus or Bayreuth Festival Theatre (1872-76)

Artist: Richard Wagner

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.

Hôtel Tassel (1892-93)

Artist: Victor Horta

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

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson

"Gesamtkunstwerk Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson
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First published on 21 Jan 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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