Karl Marx’s penguin and Richard Wagner’s design for Madonna’s corset

Karl Marx’s penguin and Richard Wagner’s design for Madonna’s corset

1 May 2022

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Karl Marx and Richard Wagner are featured in joint exhibits at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin. But why, I wondered. The first man was a flaming revolutionary, forced to flee the country and live much of his life in exile. His name became synonymous with disastrous attempts to implement his philosophy. The second was a composer who curried the favor of the rich and famous, notably the romantically inclined King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Wagner’s opera themes even grace the rooms of his benefactor’s castles. Apart from being contemporaries, I couldn’t imagine what these two men had in common.

But museum exhibits shine light on the gaps in our knowledge. This one was no exception. The theme was capitalism, specifically how Marx and Wagner viewed it differently. But what struck me was something completely different: unexpected similarities between these two famous men.

It helps to look at what was happening in the political, social and industrial arenas that both shaped these men – and were shaped by them.

Political unrest

The year 1848 saw uprisings across Europe, including Germany, the culmination of years of citizens’ striving for more democracy in the absolutist states of the day. The German Kaiser did allow the formation of a parliament but reserved the right to dissolve it and overturn its rulings. So basically, he was saying: “Feel free to get together and chat, drink coffee and eat cookies. But your decisions won’t matter.” An early version of the average business meeting, basically.

Attempts to form representative governments failed, with far-reaching consequences – and not all bad, nor all confined to Europe. The U.S. can be thankful for the disgruntled revolutionaries who fled across the Atlantic seeking freedom, as many seasoned fighters came in very handy in the North when the American Civil War broke out in 1861.

It is well known that Karl Marx was forced to flee the country for his inflammatory political views published in the Rheinische Post newspaper, but Richard Wagner also counted among the upstarts. He participated in the May Uprising in Dresden, sitting on top of the church shouting out regular reports on troop movements to the rebels below. As Hofkapellmeister of the city, I suppose he was accustomed to directing. Unfortunately for him, as a civil servant he was easily recognizable and a wanted man. While Marx fled at different times to Paris, Brussels and eventually London, Wagner fled to Zurich, which came to harbor a whopping 12,000 German refugees. Considering the city had a population of only 35,000 at the time, this was a significant act of largesse.

So Wagner was not just a composer but also politically active. And while embracing industrialization, he was keenly aware of its impacts on the environment. Marx for his part thought he had found the solution for the increasing depletion of the soil in agriculture. Having read about the fertilizing capacity of bird droppings, available in copious quantities on the Western coast of South America, he proposed importing it on a large scale to enrich the soil in Europe.

It is easy to imagine the words he used to make this suggestion:

“I guano propose an excellent excrement idea!”

Unfortunately, extracting guano and importing it to Europe in turn upsets the natural cycle in South America. But it shows Marx’s profound interest in the environment. 

Tainted Teutonic titans

Marx wanted nothing more than to raise the status of the proletariat, dedicating his life to this cause and, along with his family, endured considerable hardship because of it. Apart from having to flee the country several times, they often had to resort to selling family heirlooms to survive.

His association with the later rise of repressive communist states is a bitter irony of history. It is worth noting that Marx’s seminal work, Capital, was published in Russian before it appeared in English, despite the fact that he was living in England. This likely resulted from his acquaintance with various Russian revolutionary thinkers. Trouble was already brewing for the czar in the late 19th century.

In his antisemitic beliefs, Wagner was a man of his time. Anti-Jewish sentiment was on the rise in the late 19th century. The Napoleonic era had introduced a new era of freedom for Jews, enabling them to enter new professions and businesses. This in turn provoked jealousy, and rising nationalism also fueled antisemitism. Wagner’s antisemitic attitude continues to spark criticism of both him and of performances of his music.

Riding the tide of newspapers and photography

Both men profited enormously from 19th century innovations. Making good use of the explosion of newspaper publishing, Marx served as a European correspondent from 1852 to 1862 for the reform-minded New York Daily Tribune  and other newspapers. At one point, he was also publishing articles in six newspapers from England, the U. S., Prussia, Austria, and even South Africa.

Due to Richard Wagner’s untimely death (and birth, for that matter), the world lost someone who might have become the greatest Instagrammer of all time. He incessantly wrote and talked about his music and knew the value of photography for publicity. He was a social media expert before social media was even invented.

Photography was just becoming widespread. Wagner maximized it to publicize his operas, having singers expertly photographed in full costume. His operas are every costumer’s dream: gods, goddesses and all manner of legendary heroes with helmets, wings and swords. And mustn’t forget those pointy Teutonic boobs (the inspiration for Jean Paul Gaultier and Madonna?). Yes, Wagner knew full well how to market his music.

Hands off my theater

Speaking of marketing, is there anyone else who has a theater dedicated to performing their works exclusively? All right, Shakespeare, but other than that? Besides, Shakespeare had such a huge impact on the literary world that it only seems fair to let him have the Globe Theater all to himself. In Wagner’s case, I’m referring to the Bayreuther Festspielhaus, which only opens for the opera festival in the summer where Wagner’s operas and only Wagner’s operas are performed with much pomp and circumstance as per his wishes.

Wagner carefully considered the sites for his theater including Zurich and Munich, in the end choosing to construct a new building to his exact specifications in Bayreuth, Bavaria. It helped that his buddy, King Ludwig II, chipped in with some Bavarian state funding.

Marx and Wagner, the political revolutionary and the composer, are striking representatives of their era. If you happen to be in Berlin, it’s worth stopping in to learn not only about these two men but especially about the social, political and industrial upheavals of the time.

It’s also soothing to be reminded that ours is not the only age of turmoil.

Brenda Arnold

See also:
Ukraine on the train – from a military to a cultural conflict
The ladies, the rest home and the bombs
Aren’t you glad you got the orange car after all?

Photo credit: Karl Marx – public domain; Chinstrap penguin by Liam Quinn from Canada


2 responses to “Karl Marx’s penguin and Richard Wagner’s design for Madonna’s corset”

  1. chiarasfera Avatar

    Very enlightening, thank you!
    And your humorous touches always make for an even more enjoyable read.

    1. Expat chatter Avatar

      Thank you so much! So glad you liked it – thanks for taking the time to comment!