L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
When Richard Strauss’ indulgent opera Ariadne Auf Naxos had its U.S. premiere at the Met in 1962, critic Everett Helm was more than underwhelmed; he was exasperated. The whole show, he wrote, “makes dupes of the audience, being all form but having no real content.” It was “theatrically flabby,” “silly and contrived.” He criticized most of the cast, too (their English diction “ranged from about vague to intelligible”). But weirdly enough, he praised the lead, Leonie Rysanek, an inexhaustible diva who sang the part of the mythological mortal-turned-goddess whose love and loyalty leave her jilted. Rysanek “turned in a fine performance,” “her warm, appealing voice . . . remarkable for its flexibility” and “effortless dynamic range.”
Perhaps the reason Ariadne could be well played and appealing in an opera otherwise deemed egregious has to with the fact that she has always been beside the point. Both in the original tale and in the swaths of art and literature it has generated in the centuries since Greek mythology’s heyday, Ariadne, the woman who makes her lover a hero only to be abandoned and then forced to wed for all eternity, acts as a symbolic proxy, never quite allowed to be her own person. De Chirico’s Ariadne is a prop, Chekhov’s incapable of really loving, and Sondheim’s an idealized memory.
Elaine Reichek’s current exhibition at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica gives Ariadne her due. Reichek, an artist whose tapestries and stitchings are historical mash-ups that have much more to do with the legacy of virtuosic craftsmanship—and of virtuosic borrowing—than of woman’s work, has culled together an army of literary and visual references to Ariadne. T.S. Eliot, Picasso, Nietzsche, Ovid, John Currin, Borges, Titian: almost any creative force you can think of is present and most are male. She’s unraveled their Ariadne-inspired work, and then stitched it back together so that, rather than a put-upon figure, whose thread has been pulled willy-nilly through history, Ariadne seems to take control of her historical trajectory with savvy, sinewy resolve.
In the best known version of the myth, Ariadne is daughter of the king of Crete. The king, who has it out for Athens, sacrifices seven young Athenian men and women to a Minotaur every nine years. When studly Theseus, an Athenian sick of all the death, decides to go into the Minotaur’s labyrinthine cave and put an end to the creature, lovestruck Ariadne helps him out, giving him a thread to unwind as he goes, so that he’ll be able to find his way out. In return, Theseus marries her but quickly loses interest, famously deserting her while she sleeps on a rock.
“No daughter of minds has ever got off lightly in love,” wrote Seneca, and Reichek has stitched this line into an eye-popping portrait of Ariadne as John Currin interpreted her: whimsically inquisitive, with big yearning eyes. In another portrait, appropriated from Edward Burne-Jones, Ariadne stands looking forlornly down at a loose ball of reddish string. But the laborious, precise pairing of imagery and text—the artist has hand stitched some of the embroideries, used a digitally programmed sewing machine for others and commissioned one tapestry—in Reichek’s work, makes Ariadne’s perceived vulnerability seem all wrong. She may not have got off easy, or ever been fully recognized for her smarts, but she was able to insinuate herself into the psyches of centuries’ worth of creatives, and thus become immortal.