Book Report: Disturbing the Universe: Wagner’s Musikdrama by David Vernon

I have never developed a taste for opera. My initial foray into Classical music was in high school and came via theater…when I read Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and then discovered Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites. Then into the sturm and drang of Beethoven when one of my best friends ‘air conducted’ any number of his symphonies. And then in college when the drummer in my blues band told me that I needed to hear Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos by the Collegium Arium. Then there was no stopping me…as a friend pushed Mahler’s Second Symphony by Bruno Walter…and then on to the 20th Century Russians!

But this was all orchestral music. And even my introduction to music class at college as part of my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art Education…still left me wondering what all the noise was about in opera.

But now decades later I have seen a fair number of paintings or prints in both Paris and the US based on the works of Richard Wagner. So my curiosity has been reawakened.

Odilon Redon: Parsifal, lithograph, Cleveland Museum of Art, photo by Ed Heinzelman

And then mid-2021, this book appeared on social media, written by a ‘new friend’ that I had recently met there…and I decided to dive in and see what I could learn from Disturbing the Universe: Wagner’s Musikdrama by David Vernon

So as a novice, I had no idea if this would work out…but it worked out marvelously. So what do we have here…a very engaged and precise discussion of all things Wagner. And for the novice a very clear outline of Wagner’s life, his influences, the legends and stories that inspired him, and his influence on the rest of the music world. And for a novice we learn some very fascinating things. The term motif in the context of musikdrama and how Wagner used them to deliminate the characters and how they meld the story lines and character development across the arc of his Ring Cycle.

And although I was aware of Bayreuth and its history as the keeper of the flame, I wasn’t aware until reading Disturbing the Universe, that Wagner was the driving force behind its development. As his spirit is still writ large there.

photo by Ed Heinzelman

Yes, at times this gets a little deep for the novice, but not often. Instead I found myself driven by the sense of wonder and amazement at Wagner’s accomplishments. How his story telling evolved and how the music, although supporting opera, builds on and builds a new tradition for symphonic orchestral works. So for those of us not schooled in opera or with limited experience, this is a solid platform to start our education.

And for those of you with a solid understanding of opera or even a detailed interest in Wagner, you will find a lot of information here to increase your awareness and appreciation of his story telling and composition. And if you are attuned to the history of Bayreuth you may pick up on some of the comments comparing recent performances of Wagner’s works to the historical norms. I think you will find a lot to like here! There is even several inserts about how the different voices of the instruments were written specifically to support the mood and feeling of a particular section…something I understood…but if you are familiar with the works…you will really really appreciate how it works in performance.

So look for chapter long details on Tannhauser, Lohengrin, Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde, THE Ring Cycle, and others. My biggest problem now will be deciding where to start my listening!

And apologies for not having the depth of experience to do justice to this book!

Odilon Redon, Brunhilde In Twilight Of The Gods, lithograph, Cleveland Museum of Art

P.S. Added 1/26/2022: Dr. Vernon has also included two addenda. One is a synopsis of each Wagner Musikdrama and the second is suggested reference materials listed as a guide to further reading.

Picturing Motherhood Now at the Cleveland Museum of Art

If you’ve been following along you know what I did on my pre-holiday vacation. A little trip to Cleveland and a lot of time spent at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Just across the hall from the Revealing Krishna show is Picturing Motherhood Now! Quite a thought provoking locally curated show that presents us with a lot of different representations of what we think motherhood can be. Some of the works are exceptionally touching. Some of them didn’t quite connect me to the idea of motherhood. But there is a lot of very accomplished and dynamic work to see here.

One of the paintings that captured my attention and emotions is Portrait of her Mother by Mequitta Ahuja (American, born 1976). She writes, “I make paintings by scraping away paint, figuring something new out of loss”. This painting was done during the last months of her mother’s life and I find it quite compelling.

Portrait of Her Mother, 2020. Mequitta Ahuja (American, b. 1976). Oil on canvas; 182.9 x 213.4 cm. Courtesy of Mequitta Ahuja and Aicon Art, New York. © Mequitta Ahuja

Another painting that puts me in a similar frame of mine is Titus Kaphar’s Not My Burden. The painting features two Black women who have been touchingly depicted and are certainly two individuals. But they are holding children consciously absent…so absent that the canvas has been actually cut away to show the exposed gallery wall in a brilliant white. The museum wall card suggests that the missing children might represent white children who are often cared for by Black women or Black children who have been tragically lost and a hole is left to their mothers. This painting is probably the show’s centerpiece and most gripping…

Not My Burden, 2019. Titus Kaphar (American, b. 1976). Oil on canvas; 167.6 x 153 cm. © Titus Kaphar. Image courtesy of the artist and Gagosian. Collection of Ellen Susman, Houston, Texas. Photo: Rob McKeever

There are a number of very elegant but evocative sculptures as well. This clay mother and child or Madonna by Rose B. Simpson (American, born 1983) is a prime example. Ms. Simpson is working with traditional methods used by her family and ancestors in the American Southwest. Titled Genesis this sculpture is both tied to our immediate era and timeless at the same time.

Genesis, 2017. Rose B. Simpson (American, b. 1983). Ceramic and mixed media; 83.8 x 22.9 x 15.2 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Jessica Silverman, San Francisco. © Rose B. Simpson

And then we have a group of multi-media sculptures by Alison Saar (American, born 1956) that are troubling in their content. These works are based on an enslaved child character, Topsy, from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I am going to post a number of photos here. One from the museum that shows us the clear vision of Rice, one of three sculptures on display from a series of five. And then I will provide two more that I took that show all three in the context of the show. The three figures are Indigo, Cotton, and Rice. The youngster is clearly shown wielding the tools of slavery and harvesting cotton. A clear indictment of our past…and a prod to think about what that means to our present.

Rice, 2018. Alison Saar (American, b. 1956). Wood, copper, ceiling tin, bronze, tar, and vintage found tools; 162.6 x 76.2 x 63.5 cm. Collection of Susan Morse, Los Angeles. © Alison Saar. Courtesy of L. A. Louver, Venice, CA
photo by Ed Heinzelman
photo by Ed Heinzelman

And now a bit of whimsy: Louise Bourgeois (American, 1911 – 2010):

The Nest, 1994. Louise Bourgeois (American, 1911–2010). Steel; 256.5 x 480.1 x 401.3 cm. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Purchase through the Agnes E. Meyer and Elise S. Haas Fund and the gifts of Doris and Donald Fisher, Helen and Charles Schwab, and Vicki and Kent Logan, 98.193.A–E. © The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Katherine Du Tiel

Picturing Motherhood Now runs through March 13, 2022. This show is ticketed and tickets can be purchased online at the link shown here. Be sure to check the museum website for COVID precautions before visiting.

Ginny and Andrew, 1978 by Alice Neal (American, 1900 – 1984) oil on canvas, from a private collection. photo by Ed Heinzelman

Revealing Krishna: Journey To Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain at the Cleveland Museum of Art .

Revealing Krishna is one of the current highlights at the Cleveland Museum of Art. It tells the story of the circuitous route that their Cambodian Krishna carving took to arrive at the museum as well as the several attempts to restore it and connect it with it’s correct pieces.

One of the gratifying parts of the story is the co-operation between the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh and the Cleveland Museum. Earlier attempts to restore the Cleveland statue resulting in mismatched pieces…which eventually led to swaps of statue fragments with the National Museum to get the statue in Cleveland and another in Phnom Penh matched with their correct pieces.

Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan after 2020 restoration, c. 600. Southern Cambodia, Takeo Province, Phnom Da. Sandstone; 203.1 x 68 x 55.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund, 1973.106

In addition to Cleveland’s Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan, the exhibit includes a number of other CMA holdings of Cambodian sculpture plus this stunning carving of the same subject on loan from the National Museum in Phnom Penh:

Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan, c. 700. Southern Cambodia, Takeo Province, Wat Koh. Sandstone; 161 (without 27 cm tenon) x 65.5 x 35.2 cm. National Museum of Cambodia, Ka.1625. Photo: Konstanty Kulik 

But this exhibit goes beyond the wall cards and wall text that is standard signage in any museum. There is also a visual component that uses a visor and holograms to present details of the restoration process, original site in Cambodia, and the trek that the statue made on its journey to Cleveland. And the exhibit ends with a number of interactive videos that present three dimensional representations of the eight sculptures of gods from the original site along with text explaining who they are and how they are significant to the site and the story! Beyond the ‘in the flesh statues’ this last bit was the most informative and for me at least the next most useful piece of the exhibit.

The “Gods of Phnom Da” digital gallery displays life-size 3-D models of the eight gods of Phnom Da, from c. 600, with motion-activated animations exploring details and iconographic elements. Photo: The Cleveland Museum of Art

More info: Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain runs until January 30, 2022. There is an entrance fee for this exhibit of $15 but there are discounts for seniors and students and others. Tickets are timed and can be ordered at the link above.

Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan (detail), c. 600. Southern Cambodia, Takeo Province, Phnom Da. Sandstone; 203.1 x 68 x 55.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund, 1973.106

Janauary 6, 2022: update. Here’s a short documentary from PBS: How 3-D technology helped restore ‘Cleveland Krishna’ statue