Wagnerism in Art: Painting Music or Listening to Pictures

Alina Manevskaya 14 January 2021 min Read

What is Wagnerism? There are perhaps no other cultural movements in the world that we have named after one person. Wagnerism was admiration for Wagner’s musical oeuvre, which originated in the second half of the 19th century. The attention directed at his music was so huge that the habits of the audience who listened to it had to be changed from showing off their clothes in theatres to listening to the performance with as much attention as possible.

Wagnerism in art: Henri Fantin-Latour, Around the Piano, 1885, Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France.
Wagnerism in Art: Henri Fantin-Latour, Around the Piano, 1885, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France.

Here are some artworks that represent different ways of listening to Wagner’s music. The first one is called Around the piano. Henri Fantin-Latour painted it in 1885. In this painting, we see a group of people listening to music. All of them were musicians and all of them were Wagnerians. Despite the absence of a Wagnerian title or any reference to Wagner, this picture was considered to be Wagnerian right from the very beginning. All the depicted musicians were great admirers of Wagner’s music. The music that they are listening to in the painting is also probably Wagner’s music.

If we look at Aubrey Beardsley‘s drawing The Wagnerites, we see a different kind of Wagnerian listener. The drawing depicts an audience of women listening to Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. All of them sit in the seats that were considered to be places for a lower-class audience. Additionally, all of them wear open dresses in order to attract men’s attention while listening to the opera about love.

Wagnerism in art: Aubrey Beardsley, The Wagnerites, 1894, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, England, UK
Wagnerism in Art: Aubrey Beardsley, The Wagnerites, 1894, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, England, UK.

Paul Cezanne’s Overture to Tannhäuser is a completely different Wagnerian picture. The women depicted in the picture are the artist’s mother and sister. While one of them is playing the piano, the other one is sewing. We may assume that the picture represents two different worlds of a dream: while the artist’s sister is dreaming of an artistic life, his mother is submerged in daily activities of an ordinary woman.

Wagnerism in art: Paul Cezanne, Overture to Tannhäuser, 1869, State Hermitage, St.Petersburg, Russia.
Wagnerism in Art: Paul Cezanne, Overture to Tannhäuser, 1869, State Hermitage, St.Petersburg, Russia.

Another Wagnerian painting is also concerned with Wagner’s controversial opera Tannhäuser. While Cezanne’s painting represents the difference between the world of dreams of two women, Edouard Manet’s Music in the Tuileries painting, which is a group portrait of many cultural personalities of the nineteenth century, is a tribute to Wagner by means of applying his new operatic ideas to pictorial space.

In his operas, Richard Wagner tried to overcome the structure of the musical piece by erasing the borders between arias, duets, and other musical numbers within the whole piece. He wanted his operas to be a single whole, undivided into separate units. This is what Manet is doing in the painting. The crowd of people pushes itself through the painting, as if trying to overcome the borders created by the trees. The only figure who is not involved in the process of pushing and is painted separately, is French composer Jacques Offenbach. Here he is in the background of the tree, on the right side of the painting. This is because he didn’t share Wagnerian ideas and stood on his own in the world of music.

Wagnerism in art: Edouard Manet, Music at the Tuileries, 1862, National Gallery, London, England, UK.
Wagnerism in Art: Edouard Manet, Music at the Tuileries, 1862, National Gallery, London, England, UK.

Unlike his fellow artists, Seurat never depicted a Wagnerian subject. However, his art may also be considered Wagnerian. In the picture entitled Le Chahut (the word may be translated as “uproar” or “noise”), which shows a can-can, a sexual dance performed in Paris, the Wagnerian message is conveyed by means of a frame. The artist wanted the painting to be exhibited in a dark frame. This was to emphasize the difference between the audience, sitting in darkness, and the brightly lit stage. This was an effect Wagner introduced in his specially built festival theatre in Bayreuth.

In the second half of the 19th century, the revolutionary effects of Wagner’s music became evident in theatres. The method of darkening the auditorium during the performance was devised in Bayreuth. This was to prevent listeners from being distracted by the appearance and movements of others in the audience. As the purpose of the visit to an ordinary opera house before Wagner’s decision to darken the audience was to socialize, to observe, and to be observed, Wagner’s decision to darken the auditorium in order for the audience to concentrate on the performance was a revolutionary idea of his time. And if we assume that the subject of Seurat’s painting takes place on stage, we may see that Seurat is doing the same as Wagner by darkening the frame, identified as the audience, and brightening the pictorial space, identified as the stage.

Wagnerism in art: Georges Seurat, Le Chahut, 1889-1890, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.
Wagnerism in Art: Georges Seurat, Le Chahut, 1889-1890, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.

There are different representations of listening to Wagner’s music and different Wagnerian pictures. If Fantin-Latour, Cezanne, and Beardsley represented people listening to Wagner’s music, Manet’s task was to combine the depiction of Wagnerian listening with a pictorial equivalent to his operatic innovations. Seurat’s Wagnerism was exhibited by separating the pictorial space from the auditorium by means of darkening the frame and lighting the painted stage.

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