Gesamtkunstwerk is a German term which translates into the English “total work of art.” The term refers to an immersive art experience in which various forms of art and/or design made by different artists come together to form a single, unified whole. The term was first popularized by the German composer Richard Wagner in the 19th century. In his ground-breaking essay The Artwork of the Future, 1849, he argued the case for the “consummate artwork of the future … [in which] no one rich faculty of the separate arts will remain unused.”
Following on Wagner’s example, Gesamtkunstwerk became a popular term in Germany and Austria, particularly in relation to the performing arts. During the 19th and 20th century the boundaries of the term were stretched by artists from a range of European art movements including the Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, the Bauhaus and De Stijl. Some of the most prominent examples of the Gesamtkunstwerk from this modernist era evolved around architecture as the unifying ‘house’ where all art forms united into one. Let’s take a closer look at some key examples of the “total work of art” in action.
1. The Operas of Richard Wagner, late 19th century
In many of Richard Wagner’s ‘Opera Cycles’ he experimented with the notion of a Gesamtkunstwerk, by merging his music with elements of drama, poetry and theatrical art. One key example is Der Ring des Nibelungen, 1876, a series of four operas based on characters and stories from Scandinavian and Germanic history which was a rich feast of operatic and theatrical indulgence.
2. The Red House, 1859
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Another key early example of the Gesamtkunstwerk in action was the famed Arts and Crafts Red House, completed in 1859. The house was c-designed by William Morris and Philip Webb in Southeast London, and featured interiors designed by the Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. Meanwhile William Morris designed a corresponding garden to compliment the same aesthetic running through the organic Arts and Crafts style architecture and interiors running through the building.
3. The Blue Rider Almanac
The Blue Rider Almanac was a published volume produced by the Blue Rider art group of early 20th century Germany. The movement was led by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, who curated this fascinating volume. They included in their weighty tome multiple art forms, including musical compositions, art prints, essays and illustrations from throughout the history of art. They proved that the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk could exist beyond performance and architecture.
4. The Bauhaus, 1919
The founder of the Bauhaus art and design school in Germany was the architect Walter Gropius, who embraced the concept of a Gesamtkunstwerk as the entire ethos behind his educational establishment. The word ‘bau’ meaning house, combined with the word ‘haus’ meaning house, to create a unifying institution where all forms of art and design could be taught and made in close harmony with one another. Gropius coined the term ‘Total Design’ to describe his utopian ideal, in which all aspects of design, from paintings and factory buildings to household utensils should share a common modernist aesthetic.
5. John Cage and the Black Mountain College Happenings, 1950s
The experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina built on the legacy of the Bauhaus in Germany, taking a radical and non-traditional approach to art education. Tutors including John Cage and Merce Cunningham encouraged their students to collaborate with staff members and one another in surprising and unexpected ways. One of the most legendary performances to emerge from Black Mountain College was a Gesamtkunstwerk organised by John Cage, which later became known as Theatre Piece No. 1, 1952. Artists, painters and musicians came together for this riotous interaction. It was a significant moment in the history of art, paving the way for ‘Happenings’ and Performance Art to follow.