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Gesamtkunstwerk. Storck House Artists` Home. A Visitor’s Impression

Gesamtkunstwerk.
Storck House Artists` Home.
A Visitor’s Impression

text and foto: Mihaela DUMITRU-TRANCĂ, Kázmér KOVÁCS

The German word that has gained currency per se illustrates, besides its relatively familiar origins, an array of simultaneous tendencies in European art and spirituality dating earlier than the beginning of the 19th century, when a German philosopher coined the concept designated by Gesamtkunstwerk1. The impulse to transform life through art, namely the path from a faulty reality towards perfection is age-old and has innumerable forms of manifestation: it suffices to refer to the Platonic ideal (even though Plato himself did not value the arts, deeming them to be a pale copy of another copy).
The concept of the Total Work of Art gained impetus and notoriety due to the endeavour of an exuberant and gifted composer encouraged by his even more extravagant patron. Richard Wagner and Ludwig II of Bavaria dreamt of creating the Total Work of Art. Wagner took up the concept of Gesamtkunstwerkin his writings and placed it at the core of his staggering musical project. The great theatre (Festspielhaus) he built at Bayreuth is merely the collateral architectural product of the (stirring) Wagnerian music. The building, which encompassed several elements from Gottfried Semper’s unmaterialized project for the Munich Opera House, was completed thanks to the financial support of the Bavarian king and was to become – and is to the present day – the constructed framework hosting the great productions that irreversibly changed European opera music. Yet its architecture displays too little information concerning the ambitious desiderate of the Total Work of Art. Beyond the technical innovations meant to (functionally) improve the performance experience, the architecture-specific eloquence and its characteristic features are not included in the work of art as a whole. Music intertwined with poetry, drama and painting ignore the art of building which is thus limited to an auxiliary position.
However, the idea of life imitating art persisted and reappeared, for instance, in a comical and polemic form in Oscar Wilde’s often quoted essay/art of poetry, The Decay of Living: „Just as those who do not love Plato more than Truth cannot pass beyond the threshold of the Academy”2. In other words, the perfection of daily existence cannot be translated by the immeasurable complexity of reality but by its aesthetic-based adjustment. Furthermore, the Romantic idea of the uniqueness of all art is not far from that of a complete work of art and entails certain consequences when it comes to the West’s social enterprises dating almost one century ago. „Gesamtkunstwerkhas always stood for more than an aesthetic programme […]. From Wagner to the present day it has been offered as an answer to social crisis and the modern experience of alienation, claiming to have a major impact on all aspects of life”3.
The idea of transcending the limits of art and transforming the society through aesthetic means was also embraced by the creators of „frozen music”4. The professional exponent of the struggle to create the complete work of art starting from an architecture project is Peter Behrens. For him too, „the quest for a Gesamtkunstwerk was linked closely to the problem of aesthetic fundamentalism”5. Behrens exerted an important influence on the younger generation of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. The idea of the synthesis of all arts is also found in the formative universe proposed by the Bauhaus School and, in a less evident manner, in the formal universe generated by the abstract purism of Modern Movement architecture.
This brief evocation of the aesthetic utopia does not aim at developing the highly complex topic of Gesamtkunstwerk. It is only meant to provide a thematic frame for the building located at 16 Vasile Alecsandri Street in Bucharest. It is called THE STORCK HOUSE: an implausible example of an embodiment of similar cultural ideals and a „vernacular” counterpart of the main trends in the social, political and artistic thought in Europe at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The history of „the Storck dynasty” is well-known, thoroughly documented and exhaustively analyzed.6 There is no point in resuming the biographical data of Karl Storck and we only wish to call attention to a commendable fact: he came to Wallachia in his youth and settled here, similar to other Westerners whose timely contribution was substantial to the becoming of modern Romania.7 Originally a jeweller, Karl was „the son of a silk stockings maker (Strumpfwirkermeister…)”8. He turned into a sculptor after an apprenticeship period spent in the company of another German master and became the first Professor of Sculpture at the newly founded Fine Arts School. Two of his children, Carol and Frederic (Fritz) also became sculptors and created an artistic work representative of Romanian academism. Carol had the strongest „Bohemian” temper: he left his family home early and studied in Italy with Augusto Rivalta. He returned to the country after a four-year stage in Philadelphia and worked in a team with his father. Frederic, 18 years younger than Carol, took a less winding path, did his studies in Bucharest and Munich and had a solid artistic career in parallel with teaching activity at the Fine Arts School, following in his father Karl’s footsteps. Cecilia Cuţescu, Frederic’s wife, was, in her turn, a remarkable painter who distinguished herself through talent and personality. Her works also avow a vigorous commitment – unusual for the time – to the empowerment of women as individuals with full rights. Notable members of high society in interwar Romania, the artists in the Storck family are an iconic presence both for their artistic work and for the fact they are the spectacular embodiment of the spirit of the time and of the idea of life lived as a work of art.
The building presently hosting Frederick Storck and Cecilia Cuțescu-Storck Museum was almost left unharmed after having gone through the cultural wasteland during the four decades of Romanian communism. A kind of sui-generis Bucharest-specific Gesamtkunstwerk, the centennial edifice seems nowadays a distant and almost incredible architectural narrative of an entire epoch with its manifold registers of economic and social life – its superstructural crystallisation – and artistic attitude. This is what makes it a quintessential piece of cultural heritage.
The Storck House was built between 1911 and 1913 by architect Alexandru Clavel, but the plans were decisively influenced by the financers. The Romantic inspired architecture evokes (naturally, at the small scale of an urban villa) the figure of Peleş Castle to the extent that it recalls the Nordic vocabulary of timber frame buildings reminiscent of the family’s German origin. To that end, the memorial function was more or less part of the edifice from the very beginning – yet given the array of houses displaying various historicizing styles and built in the pre-war and interwar periods in Bucharest, this alone was not enough to prepare it for an exceptional destiny.

Yet throughout the life of the couple Cecilia Cuţescu and Frederic Storck, the house got gradually impregnated with the artistic impression of its inhabitants. Not only due to the existence of the atelier and their individual creations – Cecilia covered the walls of the reception halls in allegories painted in a personal technique while Frederic sculpted the bas-reliefs adorning the façades – but also by virtue of the pieces in their art collection. Like all art collections, it reveals the collectors’ appreciation and skill; the works of father Karl and brother Carol Storck are also part of the collection. The house represents the pictorial embodiment of the organic fusion illustrating the multi-level existence of the artists-collectors both working and leading a family and social life. In the context of the beginning of the 20th century in Europe and Romania, we are offered the architectural discourse of an extremely particular and representative fragment of urban living – the inhabitants had strong personalities and were a visible presence in the society of the times. The exemplary character of the edifice and its memorial load is tributary to the fact that the artistically supersaturated villa is a metaphorical expression of the hopes of an epoch.
The house is naturally paired with the garden which shelters a part of the collection but also acts as the extension of the urban villa, with its specific housing functions. Even though it has been transformed into a museum and given that the spirit of the ensemble is somewhat echoed by the other houses in the neighbourhood which mostly kept to their one hundred-year-old atmosphere – the historic monument fulfils its memorial function in an exemplary fashion. Visiting the house – with its art collection including the family members’ works, pieces collected throughout generations, casts, the scale model of the Episcopal church in Curtea de Argeş prior to Lecomte du Noüy’s intervention, as well as the furniture used by the house residents – should be enough reason to account for a preserved and inhabited built heritage.
What makes it stand out in relation to other art collectors’ houses is the unique blend of architecture, visual arts and everyday life. Anyone dropping by can experience all these layers of meaning; they are traces of the residents who once conceived the house, furnished and adorned it, lived and died in it. The artists in the Storck family „disseminated and yielded, in the best sense of the words, Romanian art and culture”9.
Even though the Storck House is nowadays just one of the former private collection museums in Bucharest, it is made prominent by the unparalleled synthesis between the personalities of the Storck family artists, their art, the cultural trends defining a flourishing period of the Romanian capital and not least, an architecture project meant to shelter all aforementioned.
It is a fortunate occurrence that the edifice has survived to the present day in an almost unchanged form. Not the same can be said about the vacation house belonging to artists Cecilia Cuţescu and Fritz Storck. Lying abandoned, their Balchik villa is currently in an advanced state of ruin. Its memorial value tends to completely disappear. The contrast between the two edifices reveals the importance of cultural heritage conservation: no matter how valuable a historic monument is, once destroyed, it is irremediably lost.

1 Karl Friedrich Eusebius Trahndorff, Ästhetik oder Lehre von Weltanschauung und Kunst, Berlin, 1827.
2 Gabriele Bryant, „Timely timeliness”, in Tracing Modernity, Mari Hvattum and Christian Hermanssen, editors, London and New York, Routledge, 2004, p. 159.
3 The temporal endurance of the metaphor of architecture as frozen music is exhaustively analyzed in the PhD thesis by Khaled Saled Pascha, Gefrorene Musik – Das Verhältnis von Architektur und Musik in der ästhetischen Theorie, Berlin, Fakultät VII – Architektur der Technischen Universität Berlin, 2004.
4 Gabriele Bryant, ibid. The abnormal projections of this type of fundamentalism materialized, among others, in the totalitarian political doctrines that tore apart the European societies in the 20th century: the utopia of the classless society and that of the single class society.
5 A selective bibliography is found at the end of these reflections.
6 We can randomly mention Paul Louis Albert Galleron, André Lecomte du Noüy, Johann Schlatter, Alfred Saligny.
7 Eleonora Costescu, Artiștii Storck [The Storck Family Artists] , p. 5.
8 Ioana Beldiman, „Despre lectura unui catalog” [On Reading a Catalogue], in Sculptorii Storck[The Storck Family Sculptors], p. 12

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