The laughing cow is the hit in this small, fine exhibition in Bayreuth’s Wagner Museum. When the French soldiers were supplied with meat in World War I, a cow caricature served as an emblem for the supply trains. “La Wachkyrie”: The cattle laugh when the German enemy cannot be defeated well fed. A macabre allusion: In the “Ring des Nibelungen” it is the Valkyries who pick up the dead from the battlefields.

After the end of the war, the cheese manufacturer Léon Bel remembered the emblem and had a logo developed from it for one of his products. Voilà: There is a portion of Wagner in the processed cheese “La Vache qui rit”, which is still very popular with children.

Richard Wagner was caricatured as soon as he was famous. Johann Nestroy called his “Tannhäuser” travesty from 1857 a “future farce with music from the past”, with the pretty rhyme “Oh, keep on sounding, your homeland bliss songs/the earthly pub beckons, you have me again”. The desire to corrupt probably has something to do with Wagner’s monstrosity, with his own hubris and his later popularity with the National Socialists as well as with his sometimes almost celestially beautiful music.

The Wagner phenomenon is difficult to get to grips with. So the joke joins the ambiguous respect for the composer, who is the only composer in the world who has managed to ensure that only operas written by him can be heard in the Festspielhaus built especially for him. The exhibition brings together comics, caricatures, souvenirs and collector’s cards, including beer advertisements and Rosenthal porcelain, for which Wagner’s daughter-in-law Winifred, a proven friend of Hitler, acted as godmother. Alberich from the Münster “crime scene” can also be found in the show: Börne’s assistant, played by Christine Ursprechen, is not only small and mighty, she is also able to develop unexpected (persuasive) powers, just like the tricky underworld boss in the “Ring”.

Wagner is pop, kitsch, mass-produced: “VolksWagner” is the name of the exhibition curated by Oliver Zeidler that opened at the start of the festival season. The title quotes a 2009 Laibach project with a jazz suite based on Wagner music. As clever as the title, which links the name of the composer admired by Hitler with that of the most popular car of the Nazi era, the text panels also sound out the depths and abysses of Wagner’s popularization. There is always terror in laughter.

Here the Wagner heroes and sounds, there nationalism, anti-Semitism, the cult of the Führer: it’s hard to tell who’s co-opting whom. The exhibition shows Nazi posters with Hitler as the Parsifal redeemer figure as well as the “Nibelungenlied”, rediscovered in 1755, which was included in the national treasure chest during the wars of liberation – before Wagner started the “Ring”.

Or the thing with the “Ride of the Valkyries”. How often has the rapid aerial gallop not already been used in the cinema, just think of Federico Fellini’s “Eight and a Half” or Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three”. At the museum you can see the insane car chase from The Blues Brothers (with screeching tires instead of Hojoto-ho top notes), as well as the clip from Apocalypse Now in which the Ride of the Valkyries accompanies a helicopter attack on a Vietnamese village .

At the same time, visitors to the exhibition learn that the accompaniment of warlike scenes with the prelude to the third act of “Valkyrie” by no means only began in 1941, in the NS newsreel about the paratroopers’ attack on Crete. But already in 1915 with the racist silent film blockbuster “Birth of a Nation”. Then Wagner sounds to glorify the Ku Klux Klan.

Isoldes Liebestod from “Tristan” to Buñuel’s “Andalusian Dog”, the Wagnerian Rock by Meat Loaf, a soft porn from Constantin Film called “Siegfried and the legendary love life of the Nibelung” (Hello, the Ober-Nibelung Alberich renounced love?) : Whether surrealism, heavy metal, satanism or the sex business, Wagner’s high level of compatibility has something to do with the catchiness of his leitmotif technique, with which he paved the way for film music. On the other hand, Wagner himself was a shrewd businessman.

RW knew how to bring the RW brand to the people. No wonder even Marvel heroines are named after his characters. The exhibition also explains the crowdfunding that was used to finance the construction of the Festspielhaus and the first season in it – today there are 125 Wagner associations worldwide. Grail jug advertisements and arrangements can also be seen, for example “Parsifal and the Flower Maidens”, set up for harmonium players.

Such notes for home use or for the pianola were common before the invention of the gramophone. Wagner didn’t like that because of the aura loss. But he quickly understood the benefits of such an increase in range, today he would certainly be on Insta and Co. on the go.

This is also suggested by the letter from circus director Renz to the “Revered Master”, which is on display in the Richard Wagner Museum. The circus asks permission to use the “Valkyrie Ride” for an act. Wagner probably granted them, an advertising flyer advertises Renz’s “Nibelungen” as a “large piece of equipment in three sections and three living pictures together with apotheosis, evolutions and fights on foot and on horseback”.

Understandably, there are people who would rather avoid the whole Wagner circus. But not even in space would they have a chance of escaping him. Eleven asteroids are already named after him or one of his works.