A Gesamtkunstwerk (translated as total work of art,[1] ideal work of art,[2] universal artwork, synthesis of the arts, comprehensive artwork, all-embracing art form, or total artwork) is a work of art that makes use of all or many art forms or strives to do so.[3] The term is a German word which has come to be accepted in English as a term in aesthetics.

The term was first used by the German writer and philosopher K. F. E. Trahndorff in an essay in 1827.[citation needed] The German opera composer Richard Wagner used the term in two 1849 essays. It is unclear whether Wagner knew of Trahndorff's essay. The word has become particularly associated with Wagner's aesthetic ideals.


Before Wagner

Some elements of opera reform, seeking a more 'classical' formula, had begun at the end of the 18th century. After the lengthy domination of opera seria, and the da capo aria, a movement began to advance the librettist and the composer in relation to the singers, and to return the drama to a more intense and less moralistic focus. This movement, "reform opera" is primarily associated with Christoph Willibald Gluck and Ranieri de' Calzabigi. The themes in the operas produced by Gluck's collaborations with Calzabigi continue throughout the operas of Carl Maria von Weber, until Wagner, rejecting both the Italian bel canto tradition and the French "spectacle opera", developed his union of music, drama, theatrical effects, and occasionally dance.

However these trends had developed fortuitously, rather than in response to a specific philosophy of art; Wagner, who recognised the reforms of Gluck and admired the works of Weber, wished to consolidate his view, originally, as part of his radical social and political views of the late 1840s. Previous to Wagner, others who had expressed ideas about union of the arts, which was a familiar topic among German Romantics, as evidenced by the title of Trahndorff's essay, in which the word first occurred, "Aesthetics, or Theory of Philosophy of Art". Others who wrote on syntheses of the arts included Gottfried Lessing, Ludwig Tieck and Novalis.[4]

Wagner's ideas

Wagner used the exact term 'Gesamtkunstwerk' (which he spelt 'Gesammtkunstwerk') on only two occasions, in his 1849 essays "Art and Revolution" and "The Artwork of the Future",[5] where he speaks of his ideal of unifying all works of art via the theatre.[6] He also used in these essays many similar expressions such as 'the consummate artwork of the future' and 'the integrated drama', and frequently referred to 'Gesamtkunst'.[7] Such a work of art was to be the clearest and most profound expression of a folk legend, though abstracted from its nationalist particulars to a universal humanist fable.

Wagner felt that the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus had been the finest (though still flawed) examples so far of total artistic synthesis, but that this synthesis had subsequently been corrupted by Euripides. Wagner felt that during the rest of human history up to the present day (i.e. 1850) the arts had drifted further and further apart, resulting in such 'monstrosities' as Grand Opera. Wagner felt that such works celebrated bravura singing, sensational stage effects, and meaningless plots. In "Art and Revolution" Wagner applies the term 'Gesamtkunstwerk' in the context of Greek tragedy. In "The Art-Work of the Future" he uses it to apply to his own, as yet unrealised, ideal.

In his extensive book Opera and Drama (completed in 1851) he takes these ideas further, describing in detail his idea of the union of opera and drama (later called music drama despite Wagner's disapproval of the term), in which the individual arts are subordinated to a common purpose.

Wagner's own Ring cycle, and specifically its components Das Rheingold and Die Walküre represent perhaps the closest he, or anyone else, came to realising these ideals;[8] he was himself after this stage to relax his own strictures and write more 'operatically'.[9]

Gesamtkunstwerk in architecture

The use of the term Gesamtkunstwerk in an architectural context signifies the fact that the architect is responsible for the design and/or overseeing of the building's totality: shell, accessories, furnishings, and landscape.[10] It is difficult to make a claim for when the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk was first employed from the point of view of a building and its contents; already during the Renaissance, artists such as Michaelangelo saw no strict division in their tasks between architecture, interior design, sculpture, painting and even engineering. A later example occurs in the Baroque, for instance the work of the Austrian Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, who was an architect and sculptor, as well as an architectural historian. "His buildings can be considered total works of art in which architecture and the figurative arts are united to express a predominant idea—the glorification of God or the patron saint in ecclesiastical architecture or the allegorical glorification of the ruler or of the noble patron in secular buildings... All of his works are composed of several different elements or contrasting features that are harmonized in a unified whole and in reference to their natural and artistic environment".[11] The idea of Gesamtkunstwerk in architecture in the era following Romanticism is synonymous with the Art Nouveau; for example in the works of Josef Hoffmann and Otto Wagner in Austria, Henry van de Velde, Victor Horta and Paul Hankar in Belgium, Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Scotland, Antoni Gaudí in Spain and Eliel Saarinen in Finland. For example, Henry van de Velde built a house for his own family at Uccle near Brussels in 1895 in which he demonstrated the ultimate synthesis of all the arts, for apart from integrating the house with all its furnishings, including the cutlery, he even attempted to consummate the whole Gesamtkunstwerk through the flowing forms of the dresses that he designed for his wife. In another example, in the studio home of the architects Gesellius, Lindgren, and Saarinen, Hvitträsk (1902) in Finland the architects designed their own studio homes, the interiors, furniture, carpets, artworks and the exterior landscaping. It has been argued by historian Robert L. Delevoy that Art Nouveau represented an essentially decorative trend that thus leant itself to the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk. But it was equally born from social theories born from a panic fear of the rise of industrialism—while at the same time determined to create a new style.[12]

Frank Lloyd Wright: Interior of the Robie House, Chicago, 1909.

A distinctly modern approach to the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk emerged with the Bauhaus school, first established in Weimar in 1919 by Walter Gropius. The school specialised in design, art and craftsmanship (architecture was not introduced as a separate course until 1927 after it had transferred to Dessau). Gropius contended that that artists and architects should also be a craftsmen, that they should have experience working with different materials and artistic mediums, including industrial design, clothes design and theatre and music. However, Gropius did not necessarily see a building and every aspect of its design as being the work of a single hand.[13] While certain architects have been known to be involved in other design aspects of design such as industrial design, painting and sculpture, it is rare for architects to concern themselves with a Gesamtkunstwerk approach. Exceptions are Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) and Alvar Aalto (1898–1976).


  1. ^ Millington (n.d.), Warrack (n.d.)
  2. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, Gesamtkunstwerk
  3. ^ Also defined as "universal artwork" in entry at ArtLex Art Dictionary
  4. ^ Millington (n.d.)
  5. ^ Wagner (1993), p.35, where the word is translated as 'great united work'; p.52 where it is translated as 'great unitarian Art-work'; and p.88 (twice) where it is translated as 'great united Art-work'.
  6. ^ Warrack (n.d.), Gesamtkunstwerk is incorrect in saying that Wagner used the word only in "The Artwork of the Future"
  7. ^ Millington (n.d.)
  8. ^ Grey (2008) 86
  9. ^ Millington (1992) 294–5
  10. ^ Michael A. Vidalis, "Gesamtkunstwerk - 'total work of art'", Architectural Review, June 30, 2010.
  11. ^ The New Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 15th edition.
  12. ^ Robert L. Delevoy, 'Art Nouveau', in Encyclopaedia of Modern Architecture. Thames & Hudson, 1977.
  13. ^ Arnold Wittick, Encyclopaedia of Modern Architecture. Thames & Hudson, 1977.

Further reading

  • Finger, Anke and Danielle Follett (eds.) (2011) The Aesthetics of the Total Artwork: On Borders and Fragments, The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Grey, Thomas S. (ed.) (2008) The Cambridge Companion to Wagner, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521644396
  • Millington, Barry (ed.) (1992) The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner's Life and Music. Thames and Hudson Ltd., London. ISBN 0028713591
  • Millington, Barry (n.d.) Gesamtkunstwerk, in Oxford Music Online (subscription only) (consulted 15.9.2010)
  • Warrack, John (n.d.) Gesamtkunstwerk in the Oxford Companion to Music online, (subscription only) (consulted 15 September 2010)
  • Wagner, Richard (1993), tr. W. Ashton Ellis The Art-Work of the Future and Other Works. Lincoln and London, ISBN 0803297521

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  • Gesamtkunstwerk — /geuh zahmt koonst verddk/, n. German. total art work; an artistic creation, as the music dramas of Richard Wagner, that synthesizes the elements of music, drama, spectacle, dance, etc. * * * …   Universalium

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