Diane Silverthorn (Birkbeck College, University of London), ‘Music, Myth and the ‘Beethoven Exhibition’: Nietzsche’s immanent art’

In April 1902 the artists of the Vienna Secession opened the doors of the Secession House (exhibition pavilion) to ‘The Beethoven Exhibition’. It was the first public art exhibition of its kind in the modern period devoted to a single, guiding idea, the mythic aura surrounding the figure of a musician, rather than an artist. The interior of the Secession House was reconstructed to evoke a temple-like setting for the art objects (described as ‘Tempelkunst’ or temple art), and the singular ‘Beethoven Monument’, a polychrome sculpture of the fêted Leipzig artist, Max Klinger. The notion of art as the new religion was not restricted to the visual arts. Gustav Mahler, then music director of the Vienna Court Opera, who played a significant role in the private opening of the exhibition was seen by Vienna’s music critics as the embodiment of Richard Wagner on earth, ‘a total conductor’ with ‘a sacred mission’. His revitalised performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony had been described as a sacred mission, the concert hall, a temple; the audience, its initiates. Most scholarly literature on the Vienna Secession ‘Beethoven Exhibition’ relies on Mahler’s musical participation at the event for its fulfilment as a total artwork, in the spirit of Wagner’s ideas of the Gesamtkunstwerk. I argue, however, that the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, and the theatrical realm of ‘Schein’ (semblance or appearance) from The Birth of Tragedy, may cast a different light on exhibition and its artworks, which gleamed with gold and semi-precious stones, as an immanent musical event, even without Mahler’s musical intervention. In the transition of ideas from ‘the musical’ (after Schiller) to the visual arts, at a tipping point between late Romanticism and early modernism, the artists of the Secession were engaged in making the inexpressible, visible.


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