Cambridge Opera Journal


Wagner and the ‘Makart Style’



The visual artist most commonly linked with the name of Richard Wagner from the 1870s to the early twentieth century was the now relatively little-known Viennese painter Hans Makart (1844–84). Makart's Viennese atelier – no less than his sumptuous history paintings, ‘bacchanals’, society portraits and multi-media design-projects (notably a lavish 1879 historical pageant celebrating the Hapsburg monarchy) – defined an influential visual and stylistic idiom for the early fin-de-siècle. The style is recognisable in the salon at villa Wahnfried, in Paul Joukowsky's set designs for the first Parsifal, and arguably, in aspects of Wagner's music itself. Like most artists of the era, Makart occasionally depicted Wagnerian motifs, but his affinity with the composer was recognised as a matter of style and technique. Two breakthrough works from around 1868 in triptych form, Moderne Amoretten (Modern Cupids) and Der Pest in Florenz (The Plague in Florence), suggest thematic and conceptual parallels with Tannhäuser and Tristan und Isolde, respectively. Makart's Renaissance history paintings and the 1879 Vienna Festzug stage national history as a collective aesthetic experience in the manner of Die Meistersinger. A ubiquitous theme in comparisons of artist and composer is the role of colour (visual, harmonic and timbral), raised to a quasi-autonomous force that dominates composition and ‘idea’. Makart's resistance to conventions of visual narrative, as read by contemporary critics, recalls Wagner's resistance to conventional melodic periodicity.

This article investigates the cultural and technical sources of Makart's appeal in the later nineteenth century and traces the comparison of Makart's and Wagner's styles as a critical topos. The disappearance of Makart and his ‘style’ from modern critical consciousness, I argue, mirrors a cultural Amnesia regarding features central to Wagner's irresistible fascination for his contemporaries.

Thomas Grey is Professor of Music at Stanford University. He is the author of Wagner's Musical Prose: Texts and Contexts (1995), as well as editor and co-author of the Cambridge Opera Handbook on Wagner's Flying Dutchman (2000), the Cambridge Companion to Wagner (2008) and Wagner and his World (Princeton, 2009). Recent projects include essays on ‘absolute music’, ecocritical perspectives on landscape and nature in nineteenth-century music, the entry ‘Richard Wagner’ for Oxford Bibliographies Online, music and the ‘Gothic’, and American musical theater.