Dr. Ralf Beil: Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt – world vision and the art of living

“We want to build a city, a whole city! Nothing else will be sufficient! The government should give us (…) a field and there we will then create a world.” These words by the architect Joseph Maria Olbrich, one of the driving forces of the Darmstadt artists’ colony around 1900, crystallise particularly that spirit of awakening and renewal, this perfectly unbridled vitality empowering the youth yearning for pro­­gress in the face of the new century. Youth? Yes. The youngest of Olbrich’s fellow campaigners, Paul Bürck and Patriz Huber, came to Mathildenhöhe at 21, the eldest, Hans Christiansen, was just 33 years old. Style? Yes. Style and awareness of form wasn’t lacking with the seven original multi-talents, these architects, painters, sculptors and craftsmen who were to shape the Darmstadt artists’ colony from 1899, without a doubt. But, was the result really “only” Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) in the end? This label is firmly established – but is it really appropriate?

In any case it seems to me that “Art Nouveau” (“Jugendstil”) as a term and concept leaves much to be desired as a description of all that the Darmstadt artists’ colony really constitutes. For me as director of the Darmstadt Mathilden­höhe it is fascinating how this extraordinary art initiative from around 1900 to this day emanates this noticeable artistic energy of the Mathildenhöhe, caused by the will to create a new world – and surely not as model, but in a 1 : 1 scale.


Of the energy of the Utopian. Here in Darmstadt we were and are concerned with matters larger than the design of a saucer or the design of a bookmark, as much as the artisans’ finesse and the stylised, streamlined beauty of these indi­­vidual objects repeatedly elicit admiration. Olbrich’s words quoted above express unmistakably: An aesthetically pleasing as well as an effective in the urban environ­ment synthesis of the arts was the goal. The artists’ colony initiated by the Hessian Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig aimed at some­­thing that is today more significant than ever: the appreciation of the environment as a whole and the attempt to create more than just a world of everyday life. Here on the Mathildenhöhe, at that time no exhibitions containing arbitrarily prefabricated works took place but what emerged were, for example, events like the ground­­breaking exhibition “A Docu­ment of Ger­man Art” from 1901, totally and completely aesthetically designed artists’ houses specially built for the occasion.
Again Olbrich said: “What good are three, five, ten beautiful houses, if the chair therein isn’t beautiful or the plates are not beautiful? No – a field, otherwise it can’t be done. An empty, wide field and there we then want to illustrate what we are capable of: within the whole facility and down to the last detail …”


That was the new idea, which was the true purpose of the innovative artists’ colony: to gather world vision in utmost aesthetical densification. It is important to remain conscious of this eminent creative energy – and to again and again transfer it into our present.

Since 1900, the “Institut Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt”, as an internationally oriented multi-disciplinary house of the visual and applied arts, together with its striking exhibition buildings, including the “Wedding Tower”, the “Artists’ Colony Museum” as well as the city’s art collection, has been an exceptional place of exploration, presen­­tation and communication of art and cul­­ture with special emphasis on the present.

Here beats the aesthetic heart of Darm­stadt. On the one hand, we preserve the rich cultural heritage of the worldwide unique Darmstadt artists’ colony; on the other hand, we make just this very historical setting of Art Nouveau dynamic for the present. Since the legendary foun­­d­ing era around 1900, Mathildenhöhe has time and again been a place for cel­ebrations and festive occasions, a place of integrated identification endowment for many people far beyond the borders of Darmstadt. To this, the Institut Mathilden­­höhe seamlessly connects with its present work: as cultural producer of world class, born of the spirit of embracing the art of living, deeply connected with the history of the new philosophy of life, through its vivid, highly multifaceted activities such as exhibitions, publications, gallery openings, special events of various kinds, from concerts to panel discussions and lectures up to film nights and illumination festi­­vals, it provides a major impetus and cultural surplus value for the Rhine-Main region with consistent national and inter­­national orientation. The planned long-term communication offensive of the Institut Mathildenhöhe with guided tours, workshops, children’s days and family weeks consciously addresses the whole spectrum of a public interested in culture in the broadest sense. The once described as Darmstadt’s “City Crown” and “Acropolis” elevation of the arts pre­­sents itself as a contemporary cul­­­tural ‘doer’, equally significant in its demand and its popularity.

It is an open house, which is centered around the approach to come closer to its audiences and to continuously ex­­pand those.


The “Institut Mathildenhöhe” is therefore equally interesting for visitors from home and abroad as it is for the sponsors and patrons of the arts from the economy and sciences: as a programmatic place of intensity and densification for aesthetic and hedonistic questioning with a highly impressive ambience of architecture and garden art, the “Institut Mathildenhöhe” casually embodies all those aspects, which today are conventionally understood as “location factor culture”. Already, the “Ins­t­i­tut Mathildenhöhe” acts with its unique and entire ensemble as a beacon of parti­c­ular charisma far beyond the Rhine-Main region. Through continuous quality assurance and a consistent commitment to the public, this most vibrant cultural heritage will continue to gain in importance in the future.

From time to time, the “Institut Mathilden­­höhe”, which is already seen as “World Heritage” due to its architectural Art Nouveau icons, works very deliberately on par with the present. Only thus can this culture-historical eminent place do justice to its founding fathers, the Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hessen-Darmstadt and the Viennese architect Joseph Maria Olbrich, who created this place not only for the discourse with art and culture, but at the same time wanted to offer to local handicrafts, trades and industries an inspiring and invigorating environment. This aspect of the Mathildenhöhe has not even lost in importance in the changed context of a science city of the 21st century. On the contrary: the interdisciplinary pooling of creative energy seems more relevant than ever. The “Institut Mathilden­­höhe” as sponsoring organisation of this historical site is prepared and in the best position to take over the catalyst role for life and art in and around Darmstadt. Here, not only central artistic world visions are gathered and discussed, here the present becomes conscious and history comes alive – for everyone.

Ralf-Beil-vor-dem-Ausstellungsgebäude-MathildenhöheThe author was born in Kobe/Japan in 1965. With a doctorate in art history, he worked from 1990 to 1998 as an art critic for Artefactum, the Neue Züricher Zeitung (a Zurich newspaper), the Art Bulletin and Art Forum International. Until 2005 he worked as curator and conservator at the art museums of Bern and Lausanne. Since January 2006, Dr. Ralf Beil has been director of the Institut Mathildenhöhe Darm­­stadt.