CŒUR À CŒUR – Chapter III – GESAMTKUNSTWERK

In his CŒUR À CŒUR column, Guido Brancher of GUID-O-BERLIN talks about Berlin places and happenings, in the process trying to understand and put them into a historical and time-critical context. As for the subject matter, we have given him carte blanche as we like his eclectic taste and the breath of his understanding.

Yet even Berlin is only great if you can regularly get away, so Guido will also be reporting on some of his trips.

Come along, Life is a journey!

Exterior view of the German Pavilion for the 1929 World Exhibition in Barcelona
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, architect, with Georg Kolbe's sculpture The Morning
Exterior view of the German Pavilion for the 1929 World Exhibition in Barcelona, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, architect, with Georg Kolbe’s sculpture The Morning, photo Gili Merin

Gesamtkunstwerk

While I was working on my article on Arcadia, I found it difficult to come up with a fitting translation for the German word Gesamtkunstwerk, a term I like to use to refer the overwhelming power that a work of art can achieve through combining various arts to convey a universal and all-encompassing message or emotion. Although it seems to be a word for which there is no real equivalent in other languages, but the notion is a universal one.

Reason enough to take you on a trip through the fascinating world of the Gesamtkunstwerk.

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Make it baroque

My first encounter with a Gesamtkunstwerk was during my art history studies.

The Baroque style was the topic, Bernini’s Santa Teresa in Ecstasy was the piece and its title says it all!

The sculpture in a Roman church is part of an altar piece designed like a stage set, and depicts Teresa receiving the love of God via the flaming arrow of an angel … again and again and again.

Her body and her face express this in unison… the girl’s havin’ a good time!

But the determinative feature of the whole ensemble, the one that makes it a Gesamtkunstwerk, is a hidden window that sheds light on Teresa’s face and convulsing midriff from above.

It’s absolutely magic in all its Baroque splendour and showed me the immense power that art can have.

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, Santa Teresa in Ecstasy, Santa Maria Della Victoria, Rome, 1645-1652

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German Romantics

The term Gesamtkunstwerk itself was coined by the German Romantics, and particularly Richard Wagner approached his operas as Gesamtkunstwerke, encompassing drama, music, stage sets

– even the theatre building in Bayreuth itself –

to lend his art greater impact in expressing the human desire to become divine.

My personal encounter with this kind of divinity occurred when I had the immense privilege of assisting at the Opéra Bastille at the premier of a production of Tristan und Isolde by Peter Sellars that featured video art by Bill Viola …

I wept for five and a half hours.

The sound, the modernity, the purity, the avalanche of emotion evoked by Viola’s slow mo videos was something I shall remember till my dying day.

Melanie Diener as Isolde and Ben Heppner as Tristan in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tristan und Isolde, 2013. Conductor Johannes Debus, director Peter Sellars, visual artist Bill Viola, costume designer Martin Pakledinaz and lighting designer James F. Ingalls. Photo: Michael Cooper Photography

Viennese Secession & Art Nouveau

Around 1900, Wagner’s romanticising historicism gave way to Modernism via the Viennese Secession and Art Nouveau.

By now the Industrial Revolution had led to the consumer society, and artists along with architects were discovering design. In Vienna alone, Koloman Moser was equally successful as a painter, graphic artist and furniture designer, Gustav Klimt was promoting the Emilie Floege fashions worn by his mistress in his paintings and frescos, and Otto Wagner and Hector Guimard (in Paris) were celebrating the speed of public transport by designing train stations that looked like cathedrals.

And while we’re at it, let’s not forget Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, maybe the last Gesamtkunstwerk to be still under construction today. The architecture of the cathedral, its sculptures, its stained glass windows, all celebrate the divine unity of man and God.

Let’s stay in Barcelona and visit a ground-breaking work of Bauhaus architecture: Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, the German contribution to the 1929 International Exhibition.

Here the sacral gives way to glorification of nature via the agency of manufacturing.

The sublime use of stone framed in steel, the legendary Barcelona Chair, and Georg Kolbe’s bronze The Morning in the reflecting pool make this place a temple where I worship the gods of good taste every time I visit the city.

Interior view of the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe with Georg Kolbe's female figure "The Morning" (1929) -source: Enric Duch / Georg Kolbe Museum picture archive
Interior view of the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe with Georg Kolbe’s female figure “The Morning” (1929) -source: Enric Duch / Georg Kolbe Museum, picture archive

The Bauhaus

The Bauhaus, which in its heyday was directed by Mies, was in complete tune with the ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk and in my opinion this is a fundamental reason why this movement could only have sprung up in Germany.

Bauhaus was conceived as the universal materialisation of modern society.

According to its teachings, a complete “modern” approach had to include landscaping, furniture design and even the colour pallet as contributing to the practicality and efficiency of the living and work spaces. In later years, sculpture and fresco took a back seat, being regarded as superfluous for those live-in-machines, and 100 years later the Modernist principle of Form Follows Function is still a paradigm.

Unfortunately, our striving for efficiency seems to have killed the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Cutting out the middleman inhibits us from seeking the collaboration of different artists for a bigger, more universal project that brings us closer to God.

That’s what makes our modernity feel so cold and inhuman.

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Have we lost our connection to God and sacrificed Him for profit?

Have we lost the aspiration to become divine?

Or to use the words of Nietzsche: Have we killed God altogether?

Some art historians claim that performance art, happenings, installations and digital art perpetuate the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk.

I would rather signify them as immersive art, since they more often than not spring from the imagination of a single artist and thus, for me, lack the openness that collaboration with other artists enables for a more universal impact.

Just imagine if today’s star architects presented a building that included a sculpture program and, God forbid, a fresco!

Critics would tut-tut, dismissing their proposals as over-designed to the point of being tacky, reactionary, rather more worthy of a pizzeria!

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, Detail, Santa Teresa in Ecstasy, Santa Maria Della Victoria, Rome, 1645-1652

It’s a shame, really, because these one-man shows lack the intensity and humanity that can only be achieved through common effort.

Could a little more humility and some spirituality motivate us to turn whatever’s left of this world into a grand Gesamtkunstwerk that we all create together?

Kinda like Burning Man (Hey!) but with less drugs, more inclusive and more sustainable!

Wouldn’t that be a way out of the post-modern mush we’ve been circulating in for way too long?

Another dream to add to the to-do-list for when the lockdown’s over!

A special thank you goes to Michael Cooper and the Canadian Opera Company.

Michael Cooper’s dramatic flair and ability to capture moods in his commercial work comes from his involvement with the performing arts community. Michael has photographed all of the Canadian Opera Company’s productions for 37 years. 

Follow him on Instagram or check out his work on his website!

*GUID-O-BERLIN creates memories. We offer a selection of personalised tours and encounters in and around Berlin, thereby helping you go off the beaten tourist track and explore other European cities too.

Header photo vom Berliner Fotografen Mark (thisismywork.online) from The Nymph de Berlin series by Valentin Schmehl (valentinschmehl.eu)