The Fashion of the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’: Decentering Art Nouveau Style at International Exhibitions

Quelle: Tobias Scholze

Study Day 

March 22-23, 2024

Georg-Christoph-Lichtenberghaus (Darmstadt)

„Maison Moderne“ – programmatically, the advertizing poster by artist Manuel Orazi, displayed at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, proclaims a ‘new style’: the ornamentally dressed young woman, enthroned on a curved chair in front of a display of vases and figurines, merges with the interior and becomes an allegory of modernity and consumption herself.

By bringing together objects and artifacts from very different areas of handcrafts, the visual arts, technology and fashion at world expositions, the boundaries between these areas became porous. It is no mere coincidence that artistic concepts of breaking the boundaries between art and life, culminating in the “Gesamtkunstwerk” (e.g. Gottfried Semper), were developed at the same time; indeed they featured prominently at the world’s fairs, along with Historicism and Art Nouveau. Design, fashion, and textiles played a central role in “Inventing the Modern World” (Busch/Futter) and stood, in fact, at the intersection of art and everyday life.

The principle of the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ was programmatic in multiple world’s fairs (Paris 1900, Turin 1902, St. Louis 1904), as they presented the “Darmstadt Artists’ Colony Mathildenhöhe.” Among the featured interior designs, there were also textile designs, such as those of Hans Christiansen for Joseph Maria Olbrich’s “Darmstadt Room,” which were celebrated as “Germany's Wonderful New Art” (Sunday Magazine 1904). The ‘Gesamtkunstwerk,’ the objective of which is actually to posit an unfragmented unity, stands for modernity here (actually a paradoxical undertaking, since modern society has become more and more differentiated since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). By the encounter of the arts and fashions of the various ‘peripheries,’ the world’s fairs themselves become a catwalk for the whole world.

To challenge such holistic models theoretically and methodologically the study day takes postcolonial and decolonial approaches and critically analyzes the contexts of globalization and such unifying concepts when considering how world’s fairs relate to Fashion Studies and Art History. The goal of this study day is to demonstrate the entangled art histories within fashion. This, in turn, provides the backdrop for a new critical discussion of the terms of Art Nouveau, fashion, globalization, and Gesamtkunstwerk.

We aim to reinforce the fundamental premises of Fashion Studies by examining these topics and terms through the example of the world’s fairs, and also to contribute to art history by critically reflecting on the staging of art and fashion at these Expositions, as that then relates to the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’. The participants are invited to analyze any of the following themes from a variety of fashion and art historical perspectives, and themes might – though not exclusively – engage with aspects, case studies or theoretical discussion of the topics proposed: To what degree the unifying conceptions of the Gesamtkunstwerk were connected with the presentations of fashion and textiles at the world’s fairs? How can constructions of modernity be critically reflected in the discourse of fashion and art within global entanglements at world’s fairs?


The study day will be organized by the DFG-funded research project “A Critical Art History of International and World Expositions – Decentering Fashion and Modernities,” namely Alexandra Karentzos, Elena Nustrini, Miriam Oesterreich, and Lizzy Rys. It will take place 22-23 March 2023 in cooperation with and at the Institut Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt and at Technical University of Darmstadt. Paper presentations should not exceed 20-25 minutes in order to leave room for intense discussion.