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The Artists who turned their Homes into Art

Reavealing the relationship between life and art, Jessica Bridger reflects on an exhibition at the Villa Stuck that showcased various artists’ hives of creativity

Many adages about the home come to mind, but perhaps none more relevant for the creative disciplines than the title of Virginia Woolf’s seminal essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’, a call for women to have literal and figurative space to create, a necessity that eclipses gender. In the exhibition In the Temple of the Self: The Artist’s Residence as a Total Work of Art: Europe and America 1800-1948, curated by Margot Th Brandlhuber at Munich’s Villa Stuck, there was ample evidence that this notion of a space for creation, to foster security, protection from the outside world, has a rich lineage at the scale of the home − and the exhibition was housed in painter Franz von Stuck’s sensational temple of self and art.

The dwellings featured, those of artists and architects, evidenced a common strategy of creating a place of unique remove from normative realities, from the chairs and kitchen tiles to the facade and location. Some, like the 1870 estate of Frederic Edwin Church in Hudson, New York were downright escapist, echoing their owner-creators’ desires and yearnings for far-off places and alternative lives. This remove from the crush of the mundane was also evident in places like Fernand Khnopff’s 1900 Brussels villa, but in this case it was hermetic, sealing off influence. Variations on a theme, but all show a deeply internal bent and its resultant output.

Villa

The house of landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church in New York was designed with Calvert Vaux. The result a vivid mixture of styles inspired by Church’s travels in the Middle East

The residences burst with examples of a superlative sense of selfhood expressed through the creation and selection of spaces and objects. The rote Faden, or red thread, to unify the exhibition is the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk: the ‘total work of art’ in the exhibition title. The homes and rooms of the exhibition, represented by drawings and photographs, were presented alongside actual objects from those houses and artwork produced by the artist-creators and friends. This exhibition strategy was meant to round out the notion that the artist’s house goes beyond a simple architectural expression or style, and into the realm of the interior, of private space and belongings.

A Chinese chair from the 1893 London home of Mortimer Menpes and a stained glass from Louis C Tiffany’s 1885 New York apartment, or a Theo van Doesburg drawing from his 1927 studio-house outside Paris, were like pieces in a giant curio cabinet. Given this context for each object and knowledge of the creator’s life-work, a gleaning of personality was clear in the exhibition, coming through decades, centuries, distances − and the necessity of reproduction − in a sensual way.

From circumstances of privilege that enabled the creation of some of these unusually creative living environments, such as Sir John Soane’s 1792 London townhouse-cum-museum or situations of assumedly limited means as seen in Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning’s 1946 desert home and studio in Arizona, In the Temple of the Self drew little difference between the creation of place through architecture, objects and decoration.

2

The Musee national Gustave Moreau in Paris, devoted to the painter, was originaly his dwelling

In some ways this highlights the art and craft separation of the 19th century, calling into question both this and the late 20th-century notion of a strict disciplinary division between architecture and design. Rather fittingly one of the first artist homes shown is William Morris’s 1859 Red House at Bexleyheath, England, complete with paintings, furniture and tapestries that span the art-craft divide. Architecture pleases itself to construct a hegemonic relationship with design, but like art and craft no line between the two is practical for the lived experience of space and possibly even its creation.

The final rooms of the show were where the context of the Villa Stuck became evident. Unfortunately, this spectacular setting, the very reason for the exhibition as it is a celebration of Franz von Stuck on the occasion of his 150th birthday in 2013, was obscured. The Villa is von Stuck’s creation, akin to a palace of wonder: rooms of his own. While efforts were made in the exhibition to go beyond the sterile rectilinear white box, the curved walls and differentiated spaces − with a diagrammatic exercise in entry sequences and stylistic doorway forms − it read a bit flat until the context was present.

Monet

Water Lillies and the Japanese Bridge by Monet transformed his private space into a elegant and instantly recognisable scene

The creak of Villa Stuck’s black and brown parquet, marble and eccentric details were a better background for the show. Villa Stuck is von Stuck’s life work: a gesamtkunstwerk in the truest sense, and it is a pity that while the show contextualised this, it hid the actual surroundings so fully until the last moments. While perhaps this was intended as a hide-and-reveal, it stripped away the possibility for marvellous juxtaposition too much.

The brilliant things about each and every residence were the jumbles, piles and assemblages of things designed and collected, and their resonances. The sensational colours and elegant intricacy of Claude Monet’s 1890 home and garden at Giverny are something from a fairy-tale, wrought real and living. Anything approaching a gesamtkunstwerk must be as complex as the subject: in this case the lives of artists and creators fortunate enough to make their own private spaces in their own image.

In the Temple of the Self: The Artist’s Residence as a Total Work of Art – Europe and America 1800-1948

Where: Museum Villa Stuck, Munich

When: 21 November 2013 until 2 March 2014

 

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