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Leonardo: Modernism after Wagner

By Martha Blassnigg
Leonardo Reviews

Koss_modernism coverIn Modernism After Wagner Juliet Koss aims to recover Richard Wagner’s seminal conception of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) to its original interdisciplinary idea as conceived by Wagner in order to show how its principles lie at the very heart of modernism. Contrary to the frequent retroactive assessments of Wagner’s work, Koss situates it in the historical and political context of the period between the 1890s and the 1930s in Germany. In doing so, she proposes that the common opposition of the Gesamtkunstwerk to the central themes of modernism, such as autonomy, medium specificity and artistic purity, does not hold once the concept is liberated from uncritical associations with fascist aesthetics and from misleading interpretations of the spectators as entirely passive and engulfed in an overpowering force conveyed through a blurring of creativity among a variety of artistic disciplines. The Gesamtkunstwerk, as conceived by Wagner, on the contrary, retained the specificity of the single discipline but enforced its strength through an interdisciplinary collaborative effort. As quoted in Koss (p. xii), Wagner declared that art forms:

[E]ach attain the capacity to be and do the very thing which, of their own and inmost essences, they long to do and be. Each, where her own capacity ends, can be absorbed in the other, … proving her own purity, freedom, and independenceas that which she is.” [1]

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Modernism after Wagner