Letter from the Editor, November/December 2015

alice-thumbFrom the Nelson-Atkins to the Lyric Opera, the holiday season brings productions, projects and exhibits with fascinating backstories.

A goddess changes roles from fierce warrior to mother. A scary-tale is transformed into a beloved children’s confection. In the journey from literature to opera, a water nymph becomes an embodiment of nationalist longings. A series of photographs created on the eve of the 1952 Egyptian revolution get a second look post-Arab Spring.

The role and meaning of artworks change over time, and scholars and historians revel in the opportunity to excavate these changes and identify the factors that propelled them.

Take The Nutcracker for instance.

On Christmas day, 2012, NPR aired an interview with retired University of Minnesota German professor Jack Zipes, who traced The Nutcracker’s evolution from German E.T.A. Hoffman’s original 1816 tale of a girl’s escape from an oppressive rule-bound family to a “lighter and less scary” version that was turned into the popular ballet with music by Tchaikovsky in 1844.

Zipes lamented the loss of profundity in the ballet’s translation of the tale. Not only is the family reimagined as more benign, but the meaning of the protagonist’s dream world changes considerably from Hoffman’s conception.

Fired by the German Romantics’ rebellion against Enlightenment rationalism, Hoffman envisioned that dream world as a place where Marie (the model for Clara), could be free to exercise her imagination. The ballet, enjoyed by millions over the years, presents that world as one of “harmless diversion… full of dancing and merriment.”

The opera Rusalka is another instance of a story that reflects the historical circumstances of its time. As Krista Lang Blackwood points out in this issue’s “Listener’s Guide to Rusalka,” nationalism was a driving factor in Dvorak’s creation of the opera; it will be sung in the original Czech in the Kansas City Lyric Opera’s production.

The relationship between the water nymph Rusalka and the human prince she falls in love with has given rise to many interpretations, including an alignment with Symbolist ideas of the femme fatale and the movement’s association of eroticism and death. There is also a political dimension.

The opera was written in 1900, when Czechs were under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and yearned for independence.  The literature on Rusalka includes a fascinating interpretation by Ludwig Haesler, who sees the doomed lovers as personifications of the Czechs and the ruling Hapsburgs. As recounted by Timothy Cheek in his Rusalka: A Performance Guide, “The Czech Rusalka leaves her homeland in a vain attempt to join with the Prince. The relationship cannot work—the Czechs are doomed to live between two worlds and the Hapsburgs receive the kiss of death.”

At the Nelson, curator Ling-en Lu has made a determined effort to expand the canon of masterworks identified by male scholars. By including vernacular artworks and works made for everyday use, her exhibits enrich our understanding of aspects of Chinese culture beyond the elite literati class, including women’s roles, family life and the domestic realm.

Her research includes a study of the goddess Marici, a Buddhist warrior goddess whom the Chinese worship as a mother deity, in keeping with the culture’s belief that motherhood is a woman’s highest calling.

Meanings—of artworks, icons, myths and fairy tales—change, depending on the perspectives and ideas of the cultures who adopt them.

Post-Arab Spring, what will Egyptians think of a series of images of the country’s landmarks and people made by Jack Jonathan more than 60 years ago? A story by Elisabeth Kirsch traces the journey of the Kansas City photographer and designer, from his birth in Egypt to a wildly successful career in Kansas City.  In January, Jonathan plans to return to the land of his birth for a re-showing of photographs he made and exhibited there on the eve of the 1952 Egyptian revolution.

The images, which garnered favorable reviews in the Egyptian press all those years ago, stirred something in Dr. Ismail Serageldin, director the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt, who invited Jonathan and his photographs to return.

Maybe Serageldin saw what Jonathan now sees in his images, “a reflection of (Egyptians) untarnished by violence and strife.”

CategoriesKC Studio
Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson is the editor of KC Studio. She has written about the visual arts for numerous publications locally and nationally.

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