Word of Art - Gesamtkunstwerk

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Gesamtkunstwerk is one of those words that, in English, not only sounds made-up, but intimidating. It’s like gobbledygook or jabberwocky, but not quite as fun to say. In fact, how even do you say it?

Turns out, you need to know German. It’s a combination of that language’s gesamt and kunstwerk, and it is said like guh-sahmt-koonst-verk. A literal translation of the word would be   total artwork. So why can’t we just say that? Why do we even have this word? It’s because Richard Wagner, the nineteenth century German composer and operatist who wrote The Ring, popularized the term to talk about drama, and it has a really interesting history.

Richard Wagner (1871), thinking about how good art could be

First off, what you all came here for: Gesamtkunstwerk refers to a work of art that either accomplishes or strives for a complete synthesis of multiple art forms. And with its appeal to totality, assumes a sort of superiority. Wagner intended that. He saw opera as the purest form of art because it allowed for an intermingling of theater, literature, music, and set design, and he wanted a word to convey his thoughts on how important this was. Gesamtkunstwerk fit that bill. He believed that great art could express and elevate the human soul more than anything else because it could activate all of our senses. Art was a gateway to transcendence, so he thought.

Ana Mendieta's Soul Silhouette on Fire could be interpreted as showing a soul literally on fire from a gesamtkunstwerk

Wagner himself described the the type of drama he envisioned as the “Kunstwerk der Zukunft,” or the artwork of the future. But it was really a looking towards the past. He thought that drama – and art in general – had been corrupted after the fall of the Athenian state (yes, for over 2,400 years). In particular, he saw the drama of his time as abhorrent and in desperate need of a reform. Gesamtkunstwerk in a sense, then, was a return to Greek dramatic traditions with the addition of music as a way to counter the distasteful dramatic works of his time. For Wagner, it was a way to re-modernize the present.

The Ride of the Valkyries scene from Wanger's opera The Ring, made popular by Bugs Bunny, and an example of Wagner's gesamtkunstwerk

Wagner’s thoughts on opera have been hugely influential, both in the acceptance of his thoughts and through a rejection of them. The legacy of his gesamtkunstwerk, while particular to operas, can be seen in film, especially musicals. One can think of interactive albums, like Bjork’s Biophilia that combined music, video games, and experimental art as an example of gesamtkunstwerk.  A rejection of it could be a minimalist painting, such as Agnes Martin's Falling Blue. Later on, the term was taken up by architectural critics to talk about architects like Frank Lloyd Wright who oversaw every component of architectural design and construction.

Falling Blue by Agnes Martin – a good example of anti-gesamtkunstwerk

At its core, gesamtkunstwerk is a collage of mediums that seeks to take the best part of each so as to heighten the overall experience. So perhaps next time you’re at a musical, or at a opera, you could say, “Wow, what a great gesamtkunstwerk!” Or wait –– scratch that. Let's stick with opera.

By: Matt Marcure

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Matt Marcure


Comments (1)


If I am listening to the ride of the Valkyries while in my car, it enhances my Fahrvergnügen