The Work of Living Art, Empathy, and the Creation of an Aesthetics of Perception in the Early Twentieth Century
Date of Graduation
Bachelor of Architecture
Newman, Winifred Elysse
Committee Member/Second Reader
Committee Member/Third Reader
Committee Member/Fourth Reader
Adolphe Appia (1862-1928), theorist and pioneering voice of the New Stagecraft Movement in twentieth century theatre, was a transformative influence on the history of scenic design. This paper looks at the links between Appia’s theories in theatre scenic design and contemporaneous German aesthetic theory. At the time German theorists like Adolf Hildebrand and August Schmarsow developed an aesthetic theory, Einfülung or empathy theory, based on the connection between the human body and perception. I will argue this theory influenced not only Appia and his contemporaries it also shaped the landscape of mid-century theatre design. Appia’s own theories revolved around three central ideas: Living Space, Living Color, and Living Time. His work illustrates the core ideas of empathy theory. The practical application of his theories influenced the technology and design of the stage in his time, and creates a visual language for empathetic design.
Appia, who studied theatre in Dresden and Vienna beginning at the age of 26, started his career as a young designer in 1888 when he was inspired by the work of composer Richard Wagner. While Wagner himself aspired for his work to be a “total work of art”, the overloaded sets and two-dimensional naturalistic details created a disharmony between the performers and the backgrounds. Appia saw this disharmony occurring in the theatre, and sought to find a solution, “To replace the coexistence of conflicting elements with a functional arrangement that drew its expressive power from the hierarchical ordering of the means of theatrical expression”. In this, he reacted against sets by designers such as Max Bruckner and the Bayreuth designs of Joseph Hoffman. This arrangement was to be dictated not by pictorial images or an illusion of reality, but rather by the actor’s own movement across the stage.
Appia’s aim was to create a new type of stage dissolving the barrier between performer and audience, decrying “the architecture that effected the separation: the proscenium arch — that ridiculous window that confines the stage picture — and the footlights — that ‘monstrosity,’ as he called it, of our theatre”. He would populate this new type of stage with three-dimensional, sculptural stage settings, and he lit it with new powerful electric stage lights beginning to replace the gas lights used previously. Appia’s quest to break the boundary between performer and audience was further aided by Appia’s discovery of eurhythmics and his work on the subject alongside Emile Jaques-Dalcroze.
Dalcroze, who pioneered the field of eurhythmics, recognized that “experiencing meaningful rhythmic movement associated with ear-training and improvisation facilitates and reinforces the understanding of music concepts, enhances musicianship and focuses awareness on the physical demands of artistic performance”. He later founded the Emile Jaques-Dalcroze Institut at Hellerau in order to teach his new musical gymnastics, which inspired Appia to create a series of “rhythmic space” drawings, such as the ones in figure four, studying the potential eurhythmics had in influencing spatial design.
The majority of Appia’s life was spent alone writing books and essays on his groundbreaking theories and sketching scenes to illustrate his theories, yet he was recognized by and influential to other stage innovators like Edward Gordon Craig and Jaques Copeau, who said about him: “The reality of the stage that lived in him was more alive than what we see in the theatre… he broke out of the theatre and took us with him. He denied and repudiated the theatre — but out of love for that living art”. During his life, Appia had several important publications, including The Staging of Wagner’s Musical Dramas (1895), Music and The Art of Theatre (1899), and The Work of Living Art (1921). He is also responsible for a number of essays throughout his life, such as Ideas on a Reform of Our Mise en Scène (1902), Return to Music (1906), Eurhythmics and the Theatre (1911), and Actor, Space, Light, Painting (1919) to list a few. His ideas were recognized as significant by other innovators throughout his career but it was later in his life, during the 1920s, Appia began to receive widespread recognition. In 1923 he was asked to stage Tristan and Isolde for Arturo Toscanini, and in 1924 he designed the scenography for two parts of Wagner’s the Ring Cycle and in 1925 he designed the stage and costumes for Prometheus. The simplified forms and harsh abstractness of his set designs were not accepted universally as they were a dramatic break from traditional theatrical sets, but Appia’s theories of light, space, and the human body had important and lasting effects on modern stagecraft. Upon his death in 1928, his colleague and close friend Jaques Copeau wrote a tribute summing up the importance of the work of Appia: "For him, the art of stage production in its pure sense was nothing other than the embodiment of a text or a musical composition, made sensible by the living action of the human body and its reaction to spaces and masses set against it” Appia’s work went on to inspire the work of stagecraft designers who were not only his contemporaries, such as Edward Gordon Craig, but also who came after, such as Josef Svoboda and Robert Edmond Jones, who brought Appia’s theories on stage design to America.
Architecture, Theatre, Set Design, Light, Color, Space
Winstead, S. P. (2018). The Work of Living Art, Empathy, and the Creation of an Aesthetics of Perception in the Early Twentieth Century. Architecture Undergraduate Honors Theses Retrieved from https://scholarworks.uark.edu/archuht/32
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