The beginning of the morning of a single day is a creative act.
Das Gold im neuen Altgeist
Essay written by
Dr. Steven D. Martinson
Professor of German Studies
The University of Arizona
(An eBook of Das Gold im neuen Altgesit is forthcoming.)
In his collection of paintings on the theme of gold in the modern-day spirit of the old, Shipman repaints contours of the Nordic legends of the Rhine daughters from the perspective of the forces of spiritualized nature at work through the ages into the present day. The artist combines the colors of life like a pilot ("Schiffmann") who charts a course on the waves of water, not always sure of where he is headed, not always aware of what he and we are about to discover. The journey upon which we spectator-participants are about to embark will not come full circle. Instead, it leads to transformation, a transformation of consciousness and self-awareness in the modern-day spirit of the old.
All of the figures in Shipman’s pictorial opera search for the gold. While some seek a tangible, material object, such as a ring, others understand that the spiritual quality of the gold is the true source of beautiful creation. It is the spirit of the (g)old that leads one through and beyond the material world and provides a corrective course that leads to new life.
The beginning of the morning of a single day is a creative act. The series of images in the following collection opens on an innocent girl who quietly contemplates the primary colors of nature. As the blue, red, and golden yellow have given shape to her, so she is able to create stories. Like the artist, the girl peers into the distance of the future while drawing upon the past of her origin. But as she looks outward through a window, she must also look into it. The image that reflects back on the girl activates not only her own process of contemplation but, also, that of the viewer’s. The reciprocity between self-reflection and the beautiful appearances of spiritualized nature creates new life. The space that is formed by the interplay of colors, storytelling, and reflection is also the intersecting point between nature, the artist, and the viewer.
The cycle of being begins. The deep blue waters of the Rhine River give rise to a daughter. The red of the earth molds her, and the yellow light grants her vision. While her birth is painful, it is momentary. The pain that her exposure to the darkness and maladies of earthly life brings is perpetual. Even though she is under the spell of the ruler, Alberich, Wotan’s shadow, the Rhine maiden has the capacity to tap the power of creation, by sculpting elements and combining the colors of nature. The example of the Rhine River teaches that the life of nature is inseparable from the colors that sustain it. Shipman may well have been thinking about the first scene of the second part of Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Faust. Exhausted from his journey, Faust receives healing from spirits of nature. The author helps us see that life resides in the colorful reflections of nature: “Im farbigen Abglanz haben wir das Leben” (l. 4727). For Goethe, the sense of harmony that beauty produces occurs only in momentary flashes of time. Shipman’s representations suggest that, without the spirit of the gold, one is enveloped in darkness and unable to shape oneself, even through the harmonizing forces of nature. A force greater than nature itself must then constitute the source of Creation.
Walhalla and The Waves form the center of Shipman’s cycle. Chiseled from earthly materials and having taken corporeal form, the Rhine daughters have lost their purity. They entice Alberich, the shadow of Wotan, to steal the gold that was once under their protection. Since they have taken human form, each has acquired not only free will but desire. The artist portrays the earthly daughters’ responses to this new-old condition: disenchantment and melancholy, insecurity, and anxiety. Out of desperation, one of the daughters tries to grasp the gold only to be left holding a material, hardened ring. Her pride prevents her from seeing the Truth, which is the name of the pure gold. Shipman represents this condition by closing one of her eyes, a characteristic of Wotan. Like Wotan, she suffers from metamorphopsia. Her defective visual condition distorts appearances and blinds her to the Truth. As the Rhine maidens lose their innocence and cohabitate with the material world, so the artist exchanges colorful images for dusky and dim representations, thus moving from the brush to the pencil. The story, and the viewer, reach a point in the cycle that is darker and more forbidding than previous paintings. The images that follow stand in stark contrast to the beginning scenes of the pictorial opera. A woman, who herself is enveloped by the darkness of this world, warns her sister of what lies ahead.
The Rhine maidens occupy a space that is an amalgamation of lightness and darkness, a sphere of good and evil. Is rescue possible? To what, or to whom does one turn? Entranced by the glimmer of the gold, but holding Wotan’s spear, a girl constructs a new story. Hands, oversized hands—one of the artist’s trademarks—construct a tower. It is an idol of her own making. Mixing the elements of earth and water, she designs to know herself. But is she capable of shaping herself through an act of will? Or must she rely on something or someone else to acquire true self-knowledge?
The fire god, Loge, knows the attraction of the gold. Taking the form of a ring, materialized gold curses those who desire it. Mother Earth, Erda, has experienced the rise and fall of civilizations throughout the course of human history. Once again, she warns against the danger that lies ahead. From piles of gold, the gods had constructed a “Kingdom of Gold” called Walhalla, and a legend circulates: the gold was stolen from the Rhine, but it will some day be returned. Working together, Mother Earth and Loge attempt to retrieve the gold and return it to its proper place—the depths of the Rhine. But there are those who covet the ring. Catching a glimpse of Freia’s life-giving fruit, a product of the golden tree of life, but unable to grasp it, the accursed girl curses God. What, then, does one’s sense of complete independence produce?—“Angstgefühl,” the feeling of fear and anxiety. In what will one’s legacy consist? What kingdom does one forge for oneself solely out of one’s sense of self? A monument takes shape as a maiden descends into the river’s waters. Having been forged from the gold and earthly elements, the monument reflects her image. But what, or who does the girl see when she peers into the mirror?
Upon comparing the various sources of Wagner’s operatic Gesamtkunstwerk, such as the Nibelungenlied, M. Owen Lee concludes that “the best mythic ideas in the Ring emerged from Wagner’s own imagination” (1998, 20). He submits that “The subject of Wagner’s Ring is not much less than the world itself, the world projected in myth and music. All of external nature is in the cycle—pure, timeless nature and nature clouded and confounded. And our human nature is there too—all the storms and calms that we know within us, in our conscious and unconscious selves” (35). Shipman, the river pilot, explores and questions the sources of the power of the Ring Cycle that moves the human soul. Redemption stems from a more fundamental and powerful source of life, as indicated by the leading motifs that guide the pilot’s artistry. This source is reflected in the primary colors that constitute the unchanging center of Creation and which elicit hope in a brighter future.