Until he became associated with Nazism, the composer’s music inspired many artists from other disciplines – but now he is a muse again, writes Jason Farago.

The Bayreuth Festival, the yearly celebration of the music of Richard Wagner, is underway in Bavaria: an august, often controversial, internationally renowned but resolutely German affair. It’s the most important cultural and social event in the Federal Republic and it can take a decade or more to procure tickets for one of the master’s six-hour operas, with the chance to sit in punishingly uncomfortable wooden seats and eat lobster-filled bratwurst between the acts. (Angela Merkel, a decades-long attendee, saw Siegfried last week. It is one of the few days of the year she appears in public with her husband.) Wagner fans take their music very seriously. The legend has it that if you die in the middle of a performance – as happened to one man last year – other spectators will wait until the interval to call an ambulance.

Last year was the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth, which the Bayreuth Festival celebrated with an aggressive restaging of the Ring cycle by Frank Castorf, the artistic director of the Volksbühne in Berlin – a scruffy, tradition-breaking theatre light-years away from Bayreuth’s manicured green hill. Castorf’s Ring incorporates cheap mobile homes, massive statues of Stalin and Mao and a doner kebab stand –and when the Rhine overflowed its banks and the final note sounded, spectators erupted in voluble booing.

His bracing, willfully ugly staging is a good reminder that while Wagner is enjoying a major revival in popularity (there were no fewer than 20 full-scale Ring cycles performed last year), the context for his reception has changed completely. Wagner, the megalomaniacal genius who once had to be either worshiped or despised, now seems a more manageable size – and his enduring importance can be felt not just on stage, but in art galleries, in print and on screen.

Cult of personality

In the late 19th Century, Wagner had much of the European world of art and literature in his grip. His ten mature operas didn’t only shatter the tradition of classical music; they seduced entire generations of artists and writers. Wagnerism – a weird, intense deification of Wagner by the most devoted fans of his music – ran deep in the visual arts, as demonstrated in an illuminating exhibition last year at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, filled with softcore portraits of Valkyries. Wagnerism went far beyond Germany: it took root everywhere from Spain and Italy, where it had a notably decadent streak, to Britain, where George Bernard Shaw hailed Wagner as a socialist hero, to the United States, where Willa Cather wrote fiction grounded on The Flying Dutchman and Tristan and Isolde.

Chief among Wagner’s appeals was his conception of opera as a Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art”: one that unified music, drama and poetry into a single artform and (he was really not modest here) redeemed society in the process. The Gesamtkunstwerk, in the early 20th Century, seemed to be the future of the arts, but it crashed and burned after 1945 – not least thanks to Wagner’s most famous fan, Adolf Hitler, who still hovers over the Wagnerian legacy today.

Much of the rhetoric around modern art in America, for instance, insisted upon a strict delineation between mediums, rather than a synthesis of them. Heroic, democratic American painting, in this oversimplification, pared art down to the most basic properties of its medium – typified by Jackson Pollock’s all-over abstractions, say, or Mark Rothko’s stained fields of color. The total work of art, by contrast, was a decadent and imprecise confection: maybe, if you’re feeling ungenerous, the sort of thing that Hitler would like. And not only him. In 1988, the Russian philosopher and art critic Boris Groys published Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin – a groundbreaking and highly disturbing book that looked at Soviet communism alongside Wagnerian modernis, and argued that the monstrously repressive Soviet Union under Stalin was the most complete Gesamtkunstwerk of them all.

If Wagner never exactly went out of fashion in the opera houses and concert halls, Wagnerism in the world of art was truly dead by the late 20th Century. The very word ‘Wagnerian’ was an insult: it meant bloated, overambitious, politically suspect and at least an hour too long. Even Matthew Barney, the American artist who comes closest to Wagner’s scale and scope in his epic film and sculpture cycles, bridled recently when asked whether his most recent project, the operatic River of Fundament, could be described as a Gesamtkunstwerk. “I feel it describes something from another time,” he explained in Basel this summer. “I believe that my generation inherited the option to move between mediums without feeling too many restrictions…. It was never a strategy or a statement to layer multiple mediums.”

Restored to glory

But the death of Wagnerism has had a positive flipside. The depletion, if not disappearance, of the cult of Wagner has made it possible to see him again as a man of his time: not a god but a revolutionary artist of the late 19th Century, to be reinterpreted and refashioned rather than slavishly worshipped and imitated. Philosophers, both conservatives such as Roger Scruton and radicals such as Fredric Jameson, Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, have all written on Wagner’s relevance in recent years. A powerful new exhibition at MoMA PS1 in New York of work by the late German artist and theatre director Christoph Schlingensief, features a recording of Parsifal, the composer’s enigmatic final opera – but in Schlingensief’s hands, the arts do not add up to some holy Gesamtkunstwerk but a furious, uncontainable mess.

Other artists are using Wagner’s music as raw material, remixing it in ways that would have scandalised an earlier generation of purists. Rodney Graham, for example, one of Canada’s greatest artists and a musician as well, has produced multiple works related to Parsifal. In one work, he uses a complex mathematical formula to re-sequence several bars of the opera, then repeats them in such a way that a full performance would take 39 billion years. (And you thought six hours of Wagner was long.) Still others, such as the American painter and draftswoman Elizabeth Peyton, have embraced lapsed romantic tendencies in art and found in Wagner the ideal source material for refashioning 19th Century traditions for contemporary purposes. One of her recent exhibitions featured tender drawings of scenes from Parsifal, Tristan and Isolde and the Ring – but as she told one interviewer, she made them while listening to Justin Bieber.

Several visual artists have in fact tried their hand at designing productions of Wagner’s operas, or even directing them. Bill Viola, the American pioneer of video art, has had a go at Tristan with images of cascading waves and slow-motion fireballs. Meanwhile, Jonathan Meese, an often belligerent German performance artist and painter, is set to direct Parsifal at Bayreuth in 2016, despite having proudly proclaimed, “I don’t understand music!” Even Lars von Trier, the Danish film director and perhaps the only artist more megalomaniacal than the master of Bayreuth, was set to take on the Ring at one point. He pulled out, claiming it was beyond his powers – but then in 2011, he made Melancholia, which opens with a ten-minute overture scored to Wagner’s most powerful music. The film is about the end of the world, a theme Wagner would have recognised. But when you watch Kirsten Dunst in her wedding dress, birds falling to the ground behind her, not even the straining chords of Tristan and Isolde could deceive you that you are anywhere but in the 21st Century.

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