Richard Wagner was once a member of the prestigious Academy of the Arts in Berlin. Now, in an exhibition, the art institute is taking a critical look at the composer and his music dramas.
The last thing Klaus Staeck wanted to do was jump on the bandwagon and throw a major Wagner celebration as the year marking the composer's 200th anniversary kicks off.
As president of Berlin's Academy of the Arts, Staeck preferred instead to offer critical perspectives on the composer. Staeck says he's always been interested in seductive figures - and Richard Wagner certainly was one. To this day, he has managed to mesmerize people with his dazzling music, both in opera houses and beyond. Advertising and the film business began tapping into the power of his music long ago - from Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalyse Now" to Lars von Trier's "Melancholia."
In the exhibition "Wagner 2013: Artist Positions" that just opened at the Academy of the Arts, visitors can see and hear film excerpts and their soundtracks that run behind plexiglas. Then, thick, blood-red paint streams down the glass, altering the films' images and revealing the emotional power of the music.
For the uninitiated, the exhibition explains right at the start that Richard Wagner started out as a young revolutionary who had to flee Germany for political reasons. This bit of biographical information at the outset makes it easier for non-Wagnerians to get a handle on his life and work - before interpretations of the composer by 50 different artists are introduced. Various composers, directors, stage designers, filmmakers, visual artists and writers present their take on Wagner. It's an approach that demands patience and careful attention. But it's immediately evident that Wagner has always polarized - even now.
For instance, Achim Freyer, who is currently staging his version of Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung' for the second time in Mannheim, Germany, said: "This work is a wonder of the world." Wagner, an avant garde, anarchic rabble-rouser and artist, composed the work with an obsession like none other, Freyer said, adding that he cannot discern racist insinuations in the "Ring" - for which many have criticized Wagner since the publication of his anti-Semitic essay "Judaism in Music" in 1850.
Director Hans Neuenfels finds that essay one of the most hideous writings ever penned by an artist. "If art is supposed to preserve the humane and be its final bastion, then never has a genius so repudiated the humane as Wagner did with that essay," the director said. Yet Neuenfels also said he does not believe Wagner's music itself was anti-Semitic.
"What fascinates me most about him is that he could see through social and personal dependencies like hardly anyone else. (…) His operas are prophetic observations about mass movements and the seductive power of individuals," said Neuenfels, who has staged Wagner's works numerous times, in a 2010 interview with German news magazine "Der Spiegel."
Wagner, the art pill
Barrie Kosky, head of Berlin's Komische Oper, vehemently objects. He believes it's a lie to say that anti-Semitism does not run through Wagner's works. "It's impossible for me to separate the lyrics from the music in Wagner's works, just as it's impossible to separate his life and biography from the lyrics and music, and his anti-Semitism from his life and music and lyrics," he observed. For Kosky, Wagner is the biggest art pill on Earth, but the director has nonetheless repeatedly staged his works since 1996 - in Sydney, Vienna, Essen and Hanover.
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Almost every artist who takes a position in this exhibition addresses the question as to whether individuals can be separated from the works they create. The items displayed in Berlin range from documentation of exemplary productions of Wagner's works, to stage design sketches, to texts and photographs - all dazzlingly underscored by Wagner's music.
Wagner set artists of all stripes before a challenge. And the exhibition now invites visitors to do as the artists did - open themselves up to this composer and his complex work, whether finding themselves irritated or mesmerized by it in the end. Either way, say exhibition organizers at the Academy of Arts, with Wagner, it's about everything all at once.