The Von Wagner Code

Entitled “The Von Wagner Code,” the show’s mysterious story begins here in Lakeland with a tattered canvas but leaps back and forth through history, crossing continents and centuries all the way to 1870s England, 1600s Italy, and beyond.

  The Von Wagner Code ,  2018 .

The Von Wagner Code, 2018.

The exhibition centers on the recent, incredible rediscovery of a large-scale painting of a chariot race on the Florida Southern College campus. The painting had been gifted to the College in 1953 as a 17th-century Italian masterwork, but, at some point not long after its receipt, the six-by-four-foot painting was rolled up, placed in a closet, and forgotten for more than 60 years. Then, six decades later, it was found.

Rediscovering it only in September 2016, the Museum had the painting examined by a conservator, who added another exciting wrinkle to its story, declaring it to be from no earlier than the 19th century. A search determined the painting instead was a version of one of the most famous masterpieces of the 19th century: The Chariot Race (c. 1882) by the Hungarian artist Alexander von Wagner.

With this startling art-historical discovery in our midst, The Von Wagner Code is thus an exhibition that puts the Museum — and Lakeland — on the world stage. As the show’s title suggests, the search for answers about our painting is an intriguing and enigmatic one. Several celebrated variants of von Wagner’s Chariot Race are known to have been made in the 1870s, with the only extant version from the 1880s residing today in the Manchester Art Gallery in England. The other early versions have disappeared. Might we hold a missing link to the story of Alexander von Wagner in our own collection? Have we unearthed one of these missing masterpieces here in Lakeland?

The first-ever exhibition to focus on von Wagner and the legacy of his chariot race paintings, The Von Wagner Code is a large-scale show, thematically focused on the astonishing back-story and cultural influence of the painting (including influencing the movie Ben-Hur), the complex tale of its vanishing and rediscovery, and the critical importance of the conservation process in preserving artistic treasures.

Indeed, unsurprisingly after 60 years in a closet, the painting was in poor shape upon its rediscovery. The painting underwent a first round of conservation earlier this year, and, although it is still in need of extensive reparative treatment, our newly-stabilized painting can now serve proudly as the visual centerpiece for The Von Wagner Code. As a result of the painting’s still-in-progress preservation, visitors to the show will also be treated to a rare insider’s glimpse at the behind-the-scenes world of art conservation.

While The Von Wagner Code grapples with the concepts of authorship, authenticity, and conservation, the show will also present an expansive exploration of the global influence of von Wagner, and his Chariot Race works, as well as of the endlessly twisting history of our own long-forgotten painting.

UNLOCKING A MYSTERY

For an artist whose signature work is so recognizable internationally as the emblematic illustration of the Roman chariot race, it is especially shocking that neither von Wagner nor his most famous painting has been the subject of any substantial research or solo exhibition. As a result, von Wagner is a bit of an art historical cipher. As the first deep foray into the legacy of his chariot race paintings, The Von Wagner Code is an important key to unlocking the mystery of not merely our own recovered masterwork, but also of von Wagner himself.

We do know a few particulars about von Wagner. He created many closely-related variants of paintings on the theme of the chariot race as early as 1873 in Munich. The Roman Chariot Race, as the painting was originally known, was already extremely famous within years of its first two iterations in the 1870s (one is the so-called Vienna Exposition version; ours may very well be the missing Philadelphia version of the mid-1870s). It traveled the world and inspired the public with its Ancient Roman theme.

Other artists, like Americans Stephen Ferris and Peter Moran, made an etching after von Wagner’s early version in 1875, popularizing the piece here in the United States and contributing to its evolving cultural impact. Ferris and Moran’s original copper-plate etching — itself renowned as the largest ever made up to that time in America — will appear in the show, on loan from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Small-scale editions of the painting soon appeared everywhere, reproduced in everything from fine art journals to small Midwestern newspapers by the 1880s and even on the back of “Silent Movie Souvenir” playing cards in 1916 (examples of which are all set to appear in the exhibition as well).

Perhaps even more remarkably, the Chariot Race paintings were so captivating that they even inspired Ben-Hur — yes, that Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston — which was published first as a book in 1880, before being adapted into theatrical and film versions. From the advertising for the stage productions based on the book to the cinematography for the movie, von Wagner’s Chariot Race is quoted overtly as a principal visual source. Accordingly, the exhibition will also excitingly feature several original Ben-Hur theatrical and movie posters on loan from the Library of Congress, along with the sheet music for “The Chariot Race” by composer John Philip Sousa, also inspired by the painting and originally published in 1892.

Where does our painting fall into this complex history, though? Is it one of the early versions? Could it perhaps be a study for one of the early versions? Will visitors to the show be able to help us decode an odd symbol at the bottom left of our painting that may reveal the source or date of its authorship?

A glimpse at preparatory sketches for the paintings might help us to find answers, but an investigation revealed that the original study for von Wagner’s Chariot Race paintings was sold at auction in 2013 in Denmark to a private buyer. The trail might have ended there. In what may be the biggest coup for our exhibition, however, we found the buyer — and that initial study will be in our show, on special loan from the Parisian gallery that purchased it.

Each day of research reveals something new about von Wagner, about the painting, and about its incredible cultural influence on art, music, theatre, movies, and literature from the 1870s to today. This is an historic exhibition continually in the making and we are eager now to bring Museum patrons into our thrilling hunt for answers.

H. Alexander Rich, Ph.D.
Curator & Director of Galleries & Exhibitions