Gesamtkunswerk, the Concept of a “Total Work of Art”

Gesamtkunswerk, the Concept of a “Total Work of Art”

The term Gesamtkunstwerk, meaning a “total work of art” is a concept developed in the mid-19th Century by composer and dramatist Richard Wagner. Drawing inspiration from the Greek tragedies, Wagner envisages the union of all art forms to create a “total” work: this fusion of poetry, music, dance, sculpture and architecture epitomizes Wagner's operas.

The concept flourishes in Vienna. While studying at the School of Applied Arts, Klimt takes a course led by art historian, Rudolf Von Eitelberger. Heavily inspired by the British Arts and Crafts movement, Von Eitelberger imparted to his students the importance of abolishing the hierarchy in different art forms and holding craftsmanship to the same high esteem as painting, sculpture and architecture.

For Klimt and the other secessionists, this notion would be the cornerstone of their programme: eradicating the divide between fine art and applied art. In the first issue of the Ver Sacrum review, published in 1898, the artists declare: “We recognize no distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, between art for the rich and art for the poor. Art is a universal good.”

Henceforth, all art forms should marry together harmoniously and complement one another. Thus, the idea of a multidisciplinary work of art is conceived. Likewise, collaborations ensue between painters, designers, architects, poets, musicians and dramatists, all focussed on a common goal: producing a high quality, total work of art. For instance, for the living quarters that the secessionists create, like the illustrious Stoclet Palace in Brussels, every detail is thought out as one complete work, from the exterior architecture to the interior design, down to the furniture and tableware. Every element of daily life is contemplated aesthetically and blended seamlessly together. The idea is to turn every aspect of the human environment into a total work of art.

The Secession’s fourteenth exhibition, dubbed the Beethoven Exhibition, epitomises the concept of Gesamtkunswerk: architecture, painting and sculpture coming together in harmony to pay homage to the much admired Ludwig van Beethoven. The architect, Josef Hoffmann, conceives the exhibition as a tribute to the composer. When the visitors enter the exhibition, the first work they see is the famous Beethoven Frieze, painted by Klimt, the last scene of which references Beethoven's Ode to Joy, the fourth movement in the Ninth Symphony. German symbolist artist, Max Klinger, creates a polychromatic Beethoven statue, around which related works by other artists are displayed, creating a synergy of the arts. Finally, on opening night, Ode to Joy is performed on a loop, conducted by the famous composer Gustav Mahler, immersing the visitors completely in a total work of art, devoted to Beethoven.