Juliet Koss – Modernism after Wagner [book review]

Juliet Koss - Modernism after WagnerJuliet Koss

Juliet KossModernism after Wagner
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2010

The great originality of architecture historian Juliet Koss’s illuminating book is to draw parallels between Bayreuth’s Festival Theater (1876), the Artists’ Colony in Darmstadt (1901) and the Bauhaus’ Artists’ Theater in Dessau (1921), that is, performance venues conceived by artists themselves and specifically tailored to suit their needs and artistic vision. The book examines the architecture and features of each building, how it creates its own environment and re-models the surroundings so as to impact the audience’s experience of a stage performance until, with the Bauhaus theater, the building itself has become a stage. In so doing, Koss eschews the dogmatic considerations that plague  many a book on Wagner’s heritage.

Hence,  combined with the other arts, architecture contributes in no small part to the Gesamtkunstwerk experience (hereafter: GkW). Defined by Richard Wagner in 1849 as the combination of  poetry, music and dance, with emphasis on poetry (as he considered he wrote music dramas with music as a mere supplement to the dance, cf Intro, pXIII), GkW is embodied in the Bayreuth festival theater, build 1872-6, after a plan by architect Gottfried Semper, revised by Wagner himself. The theater’s situation on a hill  led spectators to raise from the train station situated downtown and climb up to the venue. When they finally reached the theater itself, they discovered a modern auditorium with folding wooden chairs, no balconies in the aisles and an orchestra tucked under the stage, completely remote from the audience (orchestra pit and auditorium pictured below, from this source).

Bayreuth orchestra pitBayreuth auditorium

Indeed, contrary to bourgeois opera, the GkW is meant as a collective experience where ‘spectators discarded their own identities as individuals to become a unified audience‘ (p18), supposedly as in Ancient Greece drama festivals, one of Wagner’s references for GkW. With nothing to detract spectators from the performance, Bayreuth was ‘a conflation of haptic and optical concerns’ (p65), where Einfühlung, that is empathy and identification with what happens on stage, was free to develop.

In her book, Juliet Koss addresses the distortion brought in our perception of Wagner by Nietzsche’s writings. From adoration to hate, Nietzsche always professed bold, caricature feelings towards Wagner and, regrettably so, this attitude seems to have infused all comments on the composer since. In her nuanced prose, Koss points to Wagner’s enthusiasm during the 1848-49 revolution, as shown in his writings and correspondence of the time, and even calls him a ‘revolutionary, not a conservative’ (p.271). Similarly, Koss makes a distinction between Wagner’s early theoretical writings about GkW and the way it materialized in Bayreuth. That the latter was not entirely artistically successful doesn’t mean the original GkW concept was wrong (p.265).

As the Bayreuth Theater, the Darmstädter Künstlerkolonie removes spectators from their usual environment to put them in an exalted frame of mind in the countryside outside the city (p115). The Kolonie was a group of artists’ studios and exhibition buildings with a small theater created for the duration of the 1901 opening exhibition. The modest building was equipped with a very shallow stage, totally at odds with large dimensions and fake perspectives found in Naturalist theater (ie: Ibsen, p126). The venue had humble wooden chairs that could be moved around by spectators, an option offering an egalitarian view of the stage and forming a rather communal spectatorship, actually very close to Wagner’s own concept of theater (p136). (Below: pictures showing some of the buildings, not the theater itself).

Das Eingangsthor, DarmstadtThe Artists’ Colony in Darmstadt

The venue was build at a time when movie halls and gramophones were getting tremendously popular in Germany, and Juliet Koss finds analogies with GkW (p203) and, for her, even automatons and advertising are derived from the GkW vision. These new media proved immensely absorbing for the audience and Einfühlung reached a kind of apex then, to which Bertold Brecht will later react with his Verfremdung concept of estrangement and shock (p231).

A common trait of the Bayreuth and Darmstadt theaters was to be conceived as sacred venues where artistic purity was worshiped. In 1900, Peter Behrens, one of the Darmstadt architects, said: ‘We will build a temple to art ourselves ; it will be sacred inside’ (note 31, p303), but the kind of purity he had in mind did not prevent him to work for the AEG firm as a designer, creating their logos, ads, posters and the AEG Turbine Factory building in Berlin in 1909.

Either in Dessau or Weimar, Bauhaus was the kingdom of puppets, tableaux vivants and costumed parties like the Beard, Nose and Heart party, 1928 or the Metallic Party, 1929 (pp238-40), where creative costume design was considered an art form.

Bauhaus auditorium, DessauOskar Shlemmer‘s Triadic Ballet, Berlin, 1926

A pantomime for 3 dancers based on symbols, primary colors and the man-machine concept, Oskar Shlemmer‘s Triadic Ballet (pictured above in the 1926 Berlin version, along a view of the Dessau auditorium today) was performed August 1923 in Weimar (p232), with original music by Paul Hindemith (in 1976, Hans-Joachim Hespos wrote a new score for the ballet). The triade of the title refers to the 3 actors, 3 movements and 3 colors, but also to the 3 disciplines used: dance, music and costume design. And since all Bauhaus theater experiments usually included ‘music, dance, film, stage direction and spectatorship’ (p241), Koss considers they were offsprings from GkW, though she might be extrapoling a bit here, since poetry as a literary form is lacking from the Bauhaus theater. It is still a refreshing point of view that enhances our perception of Bauhaus. In any case, these theaters were all revolutionary and utopian in their way and Schlemmer even claimed he targeted ‘the spectator’s inner transformation’ (p243), a feat out of reach from bourgeois theater, right?

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2 Responses to “Juliet Koss – Modernism after Wagner [book review]”

  1. 1 lampe led May 1, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    I really like this author and this book it’s my favorite one.


  2. 2 continuo May 1, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    Yep. Can’t wait to read her on Russian Constructivism as well. Not sure there is a book yet, but she’s been lecturing the world over on the topic recently.

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