Art Term Tuesday: Gesamtkunstwerk

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Art movements come (and go) in various shapes and sizes, building upon and stealing from each other to create something new and exciting. Often reactions towards the former movement, or social and cultural progress, artists are constantly attempting to make better and do better. Gesamtkunstwerk encapsulates the artistic drive to create beyond a single work, instead striving to make use of all (or many) art forms in one, inclusive work.

German for “a total work of art”, gesamtkunstwerk is an all-encompassing word to describe an artwork, design, or creative process wherein different forms of art are combined into a single, cohesive whole. Popularized by composer Richard Wagner in two 1849 essays, gesamtkunstwerk was first mentioned by German writer and philosopher K.F.E. Tradndorff in an 1827 essay. Wagner, in commenting on the opera style of his time, believed the arts had drifted apart, and that by subordinating the individual art (for example, the musical score) to the whole piece (music, set, vocals, and costumes) they could achieve a holistic, unified performance. Advocating for the social importance of design and high quality of craftwork to ensure this unified whole, various artistic movements outside of Germany and Austria (where the philosophy of gesamtkunstwerk was most prevalent) developed it as a core tenet, including the Arts & Crafts movement in Britain and Art Nouveau in France. This “artwork of the future” promised a new frontier in both the performing and visual arts as well as the potential to create a more equitable and, eventually, utopian society. Obviously, it didn’t achieve utopia; today, it is a term applied to the aesthetic of an artist or to describe installation or performance art. Currently on view at FWMoA, though, are prints by Alphonse Mucha, the “Master of Art Nouveau”, a movement which accepted the ideal of gesamtkunstwerk with open arms.

Alphonse Mucha, Czech, 1860-1939. Gismonda. Lithograph, 1894. Photo courtesy of the Gallica Digital LIbrary. Public Domain because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The philosophy of gesamtkunstwerk is modeled on a quote by William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, who said that “to give people pleasure in the things they must perforce use, that is one great office of decoration; to give people pleasure in the things they must perforce make, that is the other use it”. Encouraging the incorporation of both aesthetic and function into the fine and functional, Art Nouveau took inspiration from organic and natural forms, marking the style through sinuous curves, asymmetrical lines, golden elements, and mosaic patterns. What would they achieve through this synthesis of art forms? A harmonious and unifying design across a variety of disciplines, bringing the arts as a whole closer together.

Mucha achieved gesamtkunstwerk through his decorative commercial posters and advertisements, from theatre posters to perfume bottles to biscuit tins. His 1894 poster for Sarah Bernhardt’s production of Gismonda, left, quickly became the emblem for Art Nouveau as it synthesized the fine and functional: the graphic arts (a poster for marketing a play) with the fine arts (the style of the artist, Art Nouveau). Stylizing the female form and using sinuous whiplash lines, s-curves, decorative plant forms, flattened shapes, and golden mosaic patterns, Mucha epitomized the Art Nouveau artist.

Cooperating with other artists from different fields to create his works, Mucha equally epitomized gesamtkunstwerk through his participation in multiple projects, including his work with two Czech designers on the Municipal House (1904-1912) in Prague, completing the painting while two other artists created the sculpture. This partnership resulted in a designed, whole, and unified environment. He also collaborated with Fouquet, the jewelry maker, mixing the graphic art of marketing with the fine art of jewelry making. In these collaborations, the artists and designers synthesized art and craft, the fine and applied arts, to create an expressive and cohesive style. Other artists who have followed and maintained the philosophy of gesamtkunstwerk include Frank Lloyd Wright, Antoni Gaudi, and those connected with the Bauhaus.

Come visit FWMoA to see Mucha’s posters, biscuit tins, and perfume bottles through September 26, 2021.

Featured Image of Alphonse Mucha in his Paris studio on Rue de Val de Grace (c. 1899). Photo courtesy and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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