Another look at the legends that inspired Wagner’s ‘Ring’ operas

Two art museums are contributing to Los Angeles’ Ring Festival with small exhibitions opening this month.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Myths, Legends, and Cultural Renewal: Wagner’s Sources” (April 15-Aug. 16) looks at some of the artists who drew inspiration from the same sources as “Ring” composer Richard Wagner. At the Fullerton Art Museum at Cal State San Bernardino, “Timeless Enchantment: Richard Wagner’s ‘Ring of the Nibelung’ in Visual Arts and Performance” (Thursday-July 31) has assembled illustrations and photographs to introduce the story of the “Ring” and some of its interpretations since its first performance in 1876.

“There was no Germany until 1871,” Timothy Benson, curator of LACMA’s Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies, points out. “In the 19th century there were these revivals of national identity.” They were partly fueled by the rediscovery of Nordic and Germanic mythology and folklore, he explains. This ultimately led to a confederation of Germanic states becoming one.

For “Myths,” Benson has selected about 80 books, prints and artwork from LACMA’s collection, with the addition of several sketches and an installation by Achim Freyer, the director and designer of Los Angeles Opera’s current staging of Wagner’s “Ring” operas.

Some pertain to the epic poem “Song of the Nibelungen,” a main source for Wagner’s work. An oversized volume, “The Nibelungen Legend” from 1904, contains strikingly elegant illustrations by Josef Sattler in the Jugendstil style, the German version of Art Nouveau, to go with its medieval German text.

Then there are curiosities such as a series of postcards by Emil Nolde, better known as a serious artist, one of the first Expressionists. During his early career as Emil Hansen, he concocted humorous illustrations of the Swiss Alps for the tourist trade.

On a more serious note, several objects refer to Walpurgisnacht -- in Germanic lore, that’s the night on which witches gather on Mt. Brocken and celebrate the arrival of spring. Later, the pagan rite was thought dark and sinister (and perhaps a touch erotic, especially when depicting naked women writhing about). Goethe mentioned it in his story of Faust, a passage illustrated in prints made by Stefan Eggeler and by Ernst Barlach in the 1920s, a number of which are in the exhibition. The myth is shown being carried over into contemporary art by Anselm Kiefer in “Der Blocksberg” -- Der Blocksberg being Mt. Brocken. It’s a multimedia photo collage in which a woman is depicted with what may be her distorted torso, while a spindly broom cuts diagonally across the picture plane. In the wall text, Benson suggests that it may “convey a deep skepticism about the credibility of myths.”

On the contemporary side are six prints from David Hockney’s “Six Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm.” At Cal State San Bernardino, curator Eva Kirsch, a Wagner enthusiast, has put together a two-part show. It’s meant to accompany various “Ring"-related events taking place on campus through the end of May, including a workshop led by Rickerby Hinds, the creator of a hip-hop adaptation of the “Ring,” “Keep Hedz Ringin’.”

Part 1 of “Timeless Enchantment” is a selection of 44 digitally reproduced illustrations from the first English-language translation of Wagner’s “Ring” text, published in 1911 and illustrated by Arthur Rackham, one of the masters from the golden age of Illustration. “They’re so vivid,” says Kirsch, “and they illustrate the story really well.”

The other part consists of 20 illustrations and photographs from landmark productions of the “Ring,” from the first in Bayreuth, Germany, in 1876 to the current Los Angeles production. In the wall text Kirsch will discuss how staging has adapted to the times. Yes, she admits, sometimes they served political ends.