I want to remain forever an enigma; to myself, and to others.
-King Ludwig II
By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, August 2021
Typical of 19th century Neo-Rococo is the belief that all aspects of a comprehensive architectural scheme – from its landscape setting and the building itself, to the interior decorations, right down to the utensils – should be orchestrated as a seamless and homogeneous whole under the direction of one overriding design. This is the most enduring legacy of rocaille style as its gesamtkunstwerk-like objective became preserved and further elaborated in the Neo-Rococo and Neo-Gothic. It is an ideal which entwines its way through Fin-de-Siècle architectural theory into Modernism.
The complete integration within a constructed space of the broadest concepts on down to the smallest details (each reinforcing the other) is what is referred to as the gesamtkunstwerkkonzept (concept of the total-artwork) as adapted from Wagnerian operatic theory. The philosophical understanding of the canon of the gesamtkunstwerk was the proclivity towards an integration of all related elements into a single aesthetic statement, resulting in a self-contained immersive world of total design.
King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886) was born crown Prince on the morning of August 25th, 1845, eldest son of King Maximillian II (1811-1864). It is significant that he was born, and spent some of his early years, in Nymphenburg Schloss replete with its rococo rooms, grottoes and frescoed scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses. In 1857, at age 12, Prince Ludwig heard of Lohengrin, the operatic production by Richard Wagner which was in production in Munich. That Christmas, Prince Ludwig received a copy of Wagner's 1851 text Opera and Drama from one of his tutors and soon after became captivated by all of the composer’s published theories, including Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Art of the Future) in which Wagner theorized the gesamtkunstwerk.
This gesamtkunstwerk ideal, in one way or another, affected the aesthetics of every one of Wagner’s works from The Valkyrie on; including Siegfried, Twilight of the Gods, Tristan and Isolde, The Mastersingers, and Parsifal. It is this gesamtkunstwerk desire for what Wagner saw as “total drama” which was passed on to Prince Ludwig.
In 1861 Prince Ludwig saw his first production of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. It made a profound impression on him – as it did on Wassily Kandinsky – instigating a long and intense admiration and eventual supportive role for the composer and his gesamtkunstwerkkonzept ideals. When Prince Ludwig was at age nineteen, his father, King Maximillian II, died unexpectedly, marking the beginning of the reign of King Ludwig the II of Bavaria, the Dream King, palace builder and generous patron to Richard Wagner.
And indeed, what is more fluidly immersive than dreaming, in that a dreamer can rapidly float from intense participation in one scenario to another instantaneously. In dreams people and things appear around us out of nowhere, and they shift appearance and proportions with little attention to the concrete laws of conservation. As Carl Jung and others have suggested, this feature of extemporaneous creation in dreams may be how we encounter our unconscious desires.
In order to write Der Ring des Nibelungen, Wagner – now under the patronage of King Ludwig II and living at 21 Briennerstrasse in Munich – surrounded himself and his piano in a powdery yellow satin room with matching yellow valences of the same material, which he referred to as the Grail. In this large room, everything was satin, silk tulle and lace. The white satin curtains were decorated with lovely faux roses and the frames of the mirrors and pictures were puffed out with tied-back pink satin bows (with even a rosette of satin in the center of the ceiling), clearly an effort for a unified feeling.
Colors of the room would change with moods. Wagner for a time covered the windows with a heavy violet velvet while working from a violet armchair wearing a violet velvet hat. Wagner’s cocooning disposition seems to echo King Ludwig’s penchant for preferring to sit alone in the midst of an artificial world of make-believe where he could project himself out of his present and into fantasized historical, usually Medieval, heroic roles. Wagner himself spoke of this ideal element of escape and referred to his working ideal as bringing a non-existent world into being.
This aim of creating an inorganic world and luxuriating in its rarefied artificiality was well articulated in 1884 with the publication of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s décadent novel A Rebours (Against Nature), a story of a recluse art worshiper who yearns for new sensations and perverse pleasures within a transcendental artificial ideal.
Visiting Linderhof, I discovered one of King Ludwig’s most décadent fantasy palaces. It was built in Neo-Rococo style by Georg von Dollmann to resemble the Petit Trianon of Versailles; Marie-Antoinette’s famous royal playground with adjacent Temple of Love. Linderhof is the only one of Ludwig’s palaces that was actually finished. Of Linderhof, King Ludwig said in a letter, “Oh! it is essential to create such paradises, such poetical sanctuaries where one can forget for a while the dreadful age in which we live.”
Located close to another of the King’s castles, Neuschwanstein (designed by Eduard Riedel), the King often retired to Linderhof to indulge in his highly decorated isolation. Linderhof owes a large part of its charged enchantment to the sublime natural beauty of its mountain setting and to its admirable prim French gardens. In the middle of its grounds an embellished fountain emits a 100 foot water-jet bathing a golden statue of Flore. The interior of Linderhof is a melee of neo-rococo ostentation and mirrors (Bavarian Neo-Rococo is based on Bavarian Late-Rococo, an already plenteous style) and the glitter of gold is prevalent throughout.
The Throne Room, modelled on an abstract Byzantine basilica, requires brief comment as King Ludwig oversaw every detail of its conception and execution. Its walls are arcaded on two levels and the ceiling suggests the immersive umbrella of a star studded cerulean stratosphere, with indigo, porphyry and gold as its predominant colors. Yet the most dazzling of the rooms are the Mirror Room and the King’s bedroom (which was based on designs by Eugen Drollinger). The King’s crown too was fantastically carved and decorated with palms, Goddesses and cupids, but unpropitiously he inauspiciously perished in water before it was finished and never wore it.
In addition to these exotic chambers, a small hunting box which King Maximillian had built in the Alps below the 1,800 meter Schachen (a peak of the Wetterstein range south of Garmisch-Partenkirchen) was redone by Ludwig in an Indian manner (a style then just coming to European fashion) in the early-1870's. Though one may interpret this fact as a superficial gesture, perhaps concepts of Brahmanism, where the self and the environment are connected, may have reinforced Ludwig’s taste for the gesamtkunstwerk. The King did write to Wagner in 1885 saying that, “India and Buddhism have something inexpressibly appealing to me, evoking rapture.”
However, it is another extraneous space at Linderhof which held my interest the longest: the cheeky and flamboyant Venus Grotto.
The 9.9 meter high (33 foot) Venus Grotto was designed by Fidelis Schabet and fabricated in 1877 of garnished grout. It was equipped with artificial arc-lighting, an ersatz rainbow, a wave machine, and central heating: all set in harmonious action to recreate the phenomenon described in Wagner’s first act of Tannhäuser. The Venus Grotto was first intended to be built at Neuschwanstein, but due to lack of a suitable site, it was moved to Linderhof by a December 15th, 1875 Royal decree and the work was carried out in 1876 and 1877. Dr. Michael Petzet, writing in Wilfrid Blunt’s book The Dream King: Ludwig II of Bavaria, describes the grotto’s space as one which allows the visitor an encircled mirage where “stage and auditorium are blended into one,” creating a total theatre as it “did not separate the onlooker from the stage.”
I found it most highly enjoyable, as Venus Grotto is furnished lavishly with fake stalactites, giving one the impression that one has entered an ancient sacred space, even as garlands of roses are strung throughout its 9.9 meter (33 foot) high cupola expanse (which extends hundreds of meters/feet inward). The grotto also contained a cascade and a fully functional artificial moon and could be illuminated by electric lights colored to suit the mood of the King.
The explicit models for the Venus Grotto were the Blue Grotto at Capri (Richard Hornig, the King’s equerry, was sent twice to Capri to check the precise shade of blue) and King Maximillian’s tiny grotto at Hohenschwangau, in which Ludwig had played as a wee Prince. In the Venus Grotto, five distinctive lighting effects could be made to play for ten minutes in turn by automated means, concluded with the appearance of a spectral rainbow just over the Tannhäuser set painting.
It was very modern in that it was the first electrically illuminated installation in Bavaria. Of it, King Ludwig said, “I don't want to know how it works. I just want to see the effects.”
King Ludwig had installed in his den a clandestine inlet which discharged him into his cherished Grotto of Venus. Usually, the Grotto of Venus is entered by a sharply angled antechamber which leads to the principal chamber.
The first entity that one notices is a diminutive lagoon (replete with painted water nymphs, dryads and flying harpies) fed by a pattering cascade. As mentioned, the lights could be controlled to change colors, for instance to the cerulean of Capri or crimson to evoke the Grotto of Venus in the Hörselberg grotto where Tannhäuser dallied with the Goddess of Love. Exit from the grotto is made by way of a prolonged serpentine, stalactite-filled corridor which leads to a dolmen-like shaft that swings unclosed.
By gliding in the enchanting flamboyant cockle-boat over the face of the lagoon, King Ludwig could place himself in the midst of the grotto’s ambience and surround himself entirely on every side, even if he was only experiencing a presentation that incorporated the variance of colored lighting effects. On the lagoon, which could be ruffled by an artificial wave machine, the King kept two swans, symbols of eternal bliss and immortality, along with his enchanting cockle-boat in which he would be rowed by a serene servant.
Wilfrid Blunt, in his book The Dream King: Ludwig II of Bavaria, reports that there was a staging of the first act of Tannhäuser in the grotto, but that the sound of the waterfall rendered subliminal the singers voices in a thick din mixture of sound and by an acoustical space described as “freakish.” WM
Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. He exhibited in Noise, a show based on his book, as part of the Venice Biennale 55, and is artistic director of the Minóy Punctum Book/CD project.view all articles from this author