Richard Wagner in the Art of David Hockney

This etching distorts the profile of the German composer on a postcard, which is covered by a glass of water. Postcard Of Richard Wagner With A Glass Of Water © David Hockney 1973
Jasper Tordoff

Jasper Tordoff, Specialist[email protected]

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Richard Wagner (1813–1883) was a towering figure in the world of music, whose work and legacy continue to resonate well into the 21st century. Wagner was not only a composer but also an influential theatre director, polemicist, and conductor, whose contributions to opera changed the course of Western music and theatre. Contemporary master David Hockney has been deeply influenced by his work, referring to it many times over the course of his career. His passion for Wagner’s music and its operatic setting speak of the visual artist’s interdisciplinary approach to beauty and creativity.

A black-and-white portrait of Richard Wagner, wearing a cravat and glaring at the camera with a serious expression.Image © Public Domain / Portrait of Richard Wagner 1871

Richard Wagner: Life, Work and Legacy

Wagner was born in Leipzig, Germany, into a family steeped in the arts. His early exposure to the world of music would shape his career, although his path to becoming one of the most influential composers of the 19th century was not straightforward. Wagner faced significant financial difficulties and political controversies throughout his life, including a notable exile following his participation in the Dresden uprising of 1849.

His oeuvre is characterised by its monumental scale, innovative harmonies and the integration of music, poetry and stagecraft – referring to the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total work of art." His compositions are known for their complex textures, rich harmonies and orchestration, as well as for the leitmotifs that represent characters, themes, and ideas.

Among his most famous works are the operas The Ring of the Nibelung (a four-opera cycle), Tristan Und Isolde, Lohengrin and Parsifal. These works are celebrated for their profound emotional depth, innovative structures, and the philosophical and mythological themes they explore. Wagner's life and work embody the quintessence of Romanticism, with its emphasis on individual expression, emotional intensity and the breaking of traditional forms.

Wagner's influence extends far beyond the sphere of opera and music. His ideas about music drama and the role of the arts in society have been subjects of intense study and debate. Wagner's legacy is also complex due to his controversial writings and the appropriation of his music by the Nazi regime in the 20th century. His anti-Semitic views have been the subject of significant criticism and have complicated his legacy. Despite this, Wagner's impact on the arts cannot be overstated. His innovations in opera and music have inspired countless artists, directors, and composers. Wagner festivals, most notably the Bayreuth Festival – which he founded – continue to draw audiences from around the world, testament to the enduring power and fascination of his work.

Hockney and Music: A Lifelong Connection

Hockney's profound and lifelong connection to music has been a significant influence on his artistic output, shaping his approach to visual arts and contributing to his creative evolution. This connection is evident not only in his personal life, where music serves as a constant companion, but also professionally. Over seventeen years, starting in 1975, Hockney immersed himself in the world of opera, contributing his unique vision to eleven productions. His roles varied widely, encompassing set design, costume creation, and poster art, demonstrating his versatility and deep engagement with the performing arts.

Hockney's journey with music took a challenging turn in 1978 when he began to experience hearing loss, a condition that would progress to significantly impact his ability to engage with the auditory world. This loss was not only a personal setback, given his love for music and conversation, but also a poignant echo of his father's struggle with deafness. Yet, Hockney's response to this adversity was characteristic of his resilience and creativity. He painted his hearing aid in vibrant red and blue, an attempt to reclaim joy in the midst of loss.

The documentary The Colors of Music (2003) delves into Hockney's relationship with music and his experience of going deaf, celebrating how music continued to inspire and influence his work despite the challenges. Twenty years later, the relationship is as important as ever for Hockney, as illuminated in his 2023 exhibition Bigger and Closer, which incorporates an auditory dimension that enriches the immersive experience. This exhibition is accompanied by an original soundtrack composed by Nico Muhly, a contemporary composer known for his eclectic and engaging works. This collaboration between Hockney and Muhly represents a confluence of visual and auditory art forms, highlighting Hockney's enduring commitment to integrating music into his artistic expression.

Youtube © Lyric Opera of Chicago / Audio Slide Show: Tristan und Isolde

Hockney's Love For Opera: Tristan und Isolde

Hockney's venture into the operatic realm, which began in 1975, reached a climax with his set designs for Wagner's Tristan Und Isolde in 1987. His participation in this project stands as a vivid testament to his deep-seated love for opera and his innovative approach to visual storytelling within the theatrical space. By this point in his illustrious career, Hockney had already established himself as a master of stage design, with his work not only gaining widespread acclaim but also being the focus of a major exhibition, Hockney Paints the Stage, at the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis in 1983. This exhibition underscored his unique ability to adapt and reimagine his set designs for a gallery context, offering audiences a new perspective on his theatrical vision.

Hockney's engagement with Tristan Und Isolde was marked by his characteristic attention to detail and pioneering approach to visual design. Understanding the intrinsic role of lighting in conveying mood and atmosphere by now, Hockney meticulously crafted a miniature set in his studio, which allowed him to experiment with and anticipate the interplay of light and shadow in the opera's staging. His interest in this particular opera was driven by the challenge it presented: staging nature itself, as Wagner's masterpiece unfolds in an outdoor setting. This concept intrigued Hockney and inspired him to explore the dynamics of natural landscapes within the confines of a theatrical environment.

The premiere at the Los Angeles Music Center Opera in December 1987 showcased Hockney's visionary designs to critical acclaim. His sets for the opera were marked by a departure from the more vivid colour palettes of his earlier work, embracing instead soft, curving forms and a subtler, pastel tonality. This aesthetic shift complemented the opera's thematic essence and underscored Hockney's adaptability and his keen sensitivity to the narrative and emotional undercurrents of the works he engaged with. Critics, including those from The New York Times, lauded Hockney's achievement, highlighting his ability to transport audiences from the mundane to the sublime, seamlessly bridging the temporal and spatial dimensions of Wagner's operatic masterpiece. His designs were celebrated for their visual beauty and their capacity to evoke a profound emotional response, encapsulating the operatic experience in a manner that was both "awesome" and transformative.

This screenshot shows the artist David Hockney, still young, driving a convertible car.Image © Youtube @Sotheby's / David Hockney driving

Hockney's Drive: A Love Letter to Wagner and California

In 1990, Hockney embarked on an intriguing fusion of visual art and music, marrying his affection for Wagner's operatic compositions with the scenic beauty of California. This confluence of interests gave birth to his Wagner Drives, a project that offers a unique experiential artwork that extends beyond traditional mediums. Despite Wagner's compositions often being associated with themes of shadow and foreboding, Hockney's move to a beach house in Las Flores Canyon and subsequent exploration of mountain routes timed to Wagner's music during the early 1990s marked a conceptual genesis for the artist. These drives, meticulously planned to synchronise the ebb and flow of Wagner's operas with the changing landscapes of Malibu Canyon, the Santa Monica Mountains and the San Gabriel Mountains, became a new canvas for Hockney's exploration of light, colour, and movement – both in nature and in his art.

Arthur Kolat's 2016 master’s thesis provides an academic foundation for understanding the Wagner Drive and codifying the routes and musical cues Hockney designed, thereby opening this unique blend of art and experience to a wider audience. Kolat's work prompts us to consider the experience not merely as an eccentric hobby but as a significant artistic endeavour that informs and is informed by the broader spectrum of Hockney's work. The visual representations of these drives, particularly seen in paintings such as Pacific Coast Highway And Santa Monica, capture the vivid and almost surreal quality of the Californian landscape through a lens heightened by Wagner's dramatic scores. These artworks stand as testament to the transformative power of combining different sensory experiences, painting the landscapes not just as they are but as they are perceived and felt through the lens of Wagner's music.

Musically, Hockney's selection emphasises Wagner's more cinematic aspects, focusing on the sheer spectacle rather than the deeper psychological or thematic layers of the compositions. This approach strips Wagner's work of its traditional gravitas, reimagining it within the context of an American road trip—a celebration of surface beauty and immediate sensory pleasure.

“When I did them, I could take only two people in the car. But I did realize it was a kind of performance piece or performance art. It was now. It was only now—when it was over, it was gone. Performance is now, isn’t it? It has to be now.”
David Hockney

Hockney's Ode to Wagner: A Symphony of Sight and Sound

Hockney's love for Wagner reflects his broader artistic ethos—a relentless pursuit of innovation, a deep engagement with the sensory possibilities of art, and a profound respect for the narrative power of musical and theatrical expression. Hockney and his music share a symbiotic relationship; Wagner has profoundly influenced his art, while his visual interpretations have added a new dimension to the operatic experiences. Hockney's experience with music and deafness enriches our understanding of his art, highlighting the interconnectedness of the senses and the transformative potential of facing life's challenges with creativity and courage. Through his set designs, immersive exhibitions and depictions of the composer, Hockney has contributed significantly to reassessment of Wagner’s legacy through a contemporary lens.

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