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Reviewed by:
  • Modernism after Wagner
  • Felicia J. Ruff
Modernism after Wagner. By Juliet Koss. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Cloth $88.50, Paper $29.50. xxix, 381 pages.

Reading a title such as Modernism after Wagner creates heady expectations for a narrative that will trace the roots of artistic modernism to Wagner’s aesthetic theories, compositional revolutions, and performance history. Instead, Modernism after Wagner requires a more narrow reading as a study of Wagner’s conceptualization of Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork) and “the establishment of the German nation” as “fundamentally linked to the creation of its theatre” (6).

As an art historian with expertise in architecture, Koss’s most valuable contribution—and conceptual focus—comes from her investigation into Wagner’s radical ideas regarding theatre design, which emanate from the composer’s concentration on audience experience as related to the Gesamtkunstwerk. Inspired by the musically based performance style of ancient Greece, Koss investigates the practical implications of Wagner’s vision of a new artwork that unites dance, music, and poetry, particularly through the physical theatre building.

With remarkable ease, Koss’s first chapter, “The Utopian Gesamtkunstwerk,” articulately and pithily defines Wagner’s genesis and development of the idea for a total artwork. She then shifts away from performance studies to detail the “[Gesamtkunstwerk’s] genealogy and the historical and political context from which it emerged, tracing its development and reconfiguration through the mid-twentieth century to argue for its centrality to modernism in the visual arts and architecture” (xiv). This first chapter focuses most on Wagner and underscores his writing as pregnant with modernist rhetoric, particularly in titles such as the 1849 essays “Art and Revolution” or “The Art-Work of the Future.” Koss highlights such Wagnerian vernacular as his articulated desire to unite “all the branches of art in order, as it were, to use up, to destroy them for the benefit of attaining their common purpose—namely, the absolute, unconditional portrayal of perfected human nature” (1).

Particularly excellent is the carefully documented chapter, “Building Beyreuth,” which visually demonstrates Wagner’s desire for a Festspielhous that would foster “the most direct communication between the Gesamtkunstwerk and its audience” (25). Koss then develops her argument based on these early ideas for a theatre space featuring amphitheater seating and a hidden orchestra. Providing a wonderful visual resource for theatre historians, Koss demonstrates the complicated process of turning theory into practice as she analyzes the ground plans of Gottfried Semper, who was commissioned to build a home (ultimately unrealized) for the composer’s music-drama in Munich prior to its construction at Bayreuth.

From there Koss develops an argument based on a series of loosely connected, if smartly argued, essays that establish a lineage of spectatorship as embodied in architecture from Bayreuth to Max Littmann’s Prinzregententheater, Littmann’s later [End Page 237] Artists’ Theatre, and Walter Gropius’s Total Theatre. The democratized auditorium at Bayreuth becomes a blueprint for the future with the Gesamtkunstwerk—the connective tissue, as Koss constructs it. The DNA shared by these consecutive artistic movements is an idea of culture contained in a performance space that would not only unite individual spectators, but unify people nationally. Indeed, nationalism is central to the argument; Koss locates Wagner’s cultural rivalry in the design and construction of the nineteenth-century opera house, noting: “The Festival Theater in Bayreuth would demonstrate the superiority of his German music dramas over the bombastic, shallow operas then being presented so ostentatiously in Paris” (41).

Another early chapter, “Empathy Abstracted,” builds on Koss’s foundational analysis of the Gesamtkunstwerk as further developed in “Einfühlung,” or “an embodied response to an image, object, or spatial environment” (67). Koss describes early twentieth-century German theories of the spectator’s aesthetic experience as manifested in various visual mediums, including art historian Wilhem Worringer’s “Abstraction and Empathy” and art critic Franz Roh’s concept of “magic realism.” Wagner effectively disappears as a principal figure in the subsequent study except insofar as he serves as a common point to contextualize Koss’s consideration of the audience members’ physical and psychic aesthetic experience and response. In later chapters, other theorists and critics ranging from Friedrich Nietzche to...


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pp. 237-239
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