Friday, 21 March 2014



There is some singular/plural confusion happening on the Object of the Week column this week. Today’s feature, the Gesamtkunstwerk, is in fact a singular noun: a German word which could be translated as a “total work of art.” To achieve a “total work of art,” however, the work requires that all of its components -- both objects and spaces (at least in its physical form, for the purpose of this object-focused column) -- function together in harmony. This is where the plural becomes integral to the singular: without the balance of its multiple attributes, a Gesamtkunstwerk could never be.

To spare you further ruminations on grammar and German vocabulary, let’s get to the object(s) at hand. Though the term Gesamtkunstwerk could apply to various forms of art, typically it is associated with a style of architecture in which the architect plans not only the structure of a building, but also the components that make it whole: including the furnishings, the surrounding area, or the interior design.

Ron Thom & Massey Hall. Source: the National Post

I have been thinking about the Gesamtkunstwerk ever since I visited the exhibition Midcentury & Still Modern: Ron Thom and the Allied Arts, currently on view at the Gardiner Museum. It presents the life and work of Ron Thom, heralded as “one of Canada’s greatest architects.” Thom’s designs featured in the exhibition -- Massey College, Trent University, and several houses on Canada's west coast -- are exceptional examples of Gesamtkunstwerk. In Massey College at the University of Toronto, Thom’s modern organic style shines through in the ordered yet natural lines and patterns composing the interior and exterior of the building. Yet these architectural elements are not complete without the accessories and furnishings that Thom designed as well as commissioned for the hall: for example, John Reeve’s hand-crafted pottery such as vases and bowls, which are also on view at the Gardiner. In Massey College, the whole is arguably greater than the sum of its parts: its “seamless integration of exterior and interior design, including the rich detailing of its custom furnishings and fittings” is one of the reasons why it was given the Royal Architectural Institute’s Prix du XXe si├Ęcle in 2013.

Lantern for Massey Hall. Source: Azure

After seeing the Ron Thom exhibition, I was so excited about the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk that I immediately headed over the ROM next door to see my most favourite objects at the ROM, Frank Lloyd Wright’s oak chairs and side table designed for the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, between 1916 and 1922. (Like many iSchool students, I often find myself oddly immune to museum fatigue!) Similar to Massey College, the former Imperial Hotel is another magnificent example of a Gesamtkunstwerk. Everything housed inside the hotel contributed to the effect of the detailed geometric patterns and exquisite craftsmanship of the building itself. While Frank Lloyd Wright’s version of the Imperial Hotel no longer exists, fortunately you can still view a small glimpse of its details in the ROM’s permanent collection.

Frank Lloyd Wright's oak chair & side table. Source: ROM

As I examined these examples of Gesamtkunstwerk, I couldn’t help but compare the work of these architects to the concept of the museum exhibition. While each individual artifact in a museum has richness, detail, and a history of its own, its place in an exhibition contributes to the exhibition’s overall narrative. Like Ron Thom or Frank Lloyd Wright did when they crafted their architectural Gesamtkunstwerke, curators (and their collaborators) must consider how the elements of a space fit within the message of the exhibition: including (but certainly not limited to) artifacts, text panels, object labels, and the layout of the space. In many ways, curators are like architects: in constructing spaces designed to be user-friendly and comfortable yet challenging and innovative, both professions demand enormous amounts of collaboration, creativity, and lots of time. The museum exhibition: now there’s a Gesamtkunstwerk I’d want to inhabit!

If it wasn’t obvious from the post, I would encourage you to “run, don't walk" to Ron Thom and the Allied Arts at the Gardiner. And if you are interested in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and his contemporaries, check out the upcoming exhibition at the ROM, Around 1914: Design in a New Age. I’ll be lining up for that one right around the March 29 opening -- see you there!

1 comment:

  1. Katherine, I have to admit that, when I have the chance to visit NYC, I always go to the MET to see the Frank Lloyd Wright room ( for many of the reasons you outlined in your post. It is indeed one of the most "authentic" experiences I had in a museum as the space itself is curated by the artist to the last detail (while outside of its original location, it is a microcosm of objects which fascinates me every time due to its harmonious tone).