How Aubrey Beardsley’s Visionary Illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salome’ Subverted Victorian Gender Norms and Revolutionized the Graphic Arts
“He is drawing not persons but personages; he is dramatizing not the relationships between personalities but the pure, geometric essence of relationship.”
By Maria Popova
In his short life, Aubrey Beardsley (August 21, 1872–March 16, 1898) became a pioneer of the Art Nouveau movement and forever changed the course of the graphic arts. He was an artist of elegant and unsentimental exaggeration, and yet beneath his grotesque aesthetic lay a subtle sensitivity to human fears, longings, and relationships. Susan Sontag placed him in the canon of camp, but Beardsley’s significance radiates far beyond what she called “stylization.” In addition to influencing generations of artists — his unmistakable aesthetic reverberates through Harry Clarke’s striking 1925 illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy and even William Faulkner’s little-known Jazz Age drawings — he championed the poster and large-scale print work as a modern medium of graphic art. Born under the tyranny of oil painting as the only acceptable form of “picture,” he rebelled against the notion that a picture is “something told in oil or writ in water to be hung on a room’s wall” and tirelessly defied the conceit that the poster artist is somehow a lesser, lighter artist than the painter.
In her terrific 1968 treatise Black and White: A Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley (public library), British novelist, critic, music scholar, and social reformer Brigid Brophy calls Beardsley “the most intensely and electrically erotic artist in the world” and “perhaps the only artist of any kind practicing in [that period] who was never sentimental.” She writes:
Live (love) now: die sooner or later.
That, classically, is the purport of lyrical art. Aubrey Beardsley was above all a lyrical artist — but one who was pounded and buckled into an ironist by the pressure of knowing, which he did virtually from the outset, that for him death would be not later but sooner.
A scholar of Mozart and an astute cross-pollinator of the arts, Brophy — a lyrical genius herself — writes:
Beardsley is lyrical by virtue of his gift of line, which resembles the gift of melodic invention. Sheerly, Beardsley’s lines, like great tunes, go up and down in beautiful places… A Beardsley sequence is like a sonnet sequence. Yet it is never the literary content of an image that concerns him. His portraits, including those of himself, are less portraits than icons. He is drawing not persons but personages; he is dramatizing not the relationships between personalities but the pure, geometric essence of relationship. He is out to capture sheer tension: tension contained within, and summed up by, his always ambivalent images.
And yet Beardsley’s images are very much a sacrificial offering to tension, to the contradictory forces by which the human heart is pulled asunder — loneliness and longing, dread and desire, sadness and sensual delight. His stark black-and-white aesthetic — like his life, like all life — is one of violent and vitalizing contrasts, nowhere more so than in his drawings for Oscar Wilde’s play Salome.
In February of 1893, a British magazine commissioned Beardsley to create a single drawing based on the original French publication of Salomé. But the gorgeously grotesque piece he submitted — Salomé reveling in the severed head of John the Baptist — was too daring and the magazine rejected it. In April, a new art publication included the drawing in its inaugural issue and it made its way to Wilde, who was so taken with it that he offered Beardsley a contract for ten full-page illustrations and a cover design for the English edition. Beardsley was twenty-one and Wilde, whom he had met three years earlier at an artist’s studio, thirty-eight.
Originally, Beardsley had wanted to translate rather than illustrate Wilde’s play — but the honor fell to Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, Wilde’s longtime lover and the recipient of those breathtakingly beautiful love letters. Instead, Beardsley approached his art as an act of complementary interpretation rather than literal visual translation — his drawings are in intimate dialogue with Wilde’s text, often talking back with their own subversive symbolism. Wilde himself likened Beardsley’s drawings to “the naughty scribbles a precocious boy makes on the margins of his copybook,” which he meant as admiring praise rather than belittlement.
The combined force of these two tradition-defying geniuses resulted in nothing short of a creative revolution — the play was already targeted by censors for its depiction of Biblical characters and Beardsley’s intensely erotic drawings subverted the era’s gender norms by portraying women as sexually empowered, even predatory, rather than the docile and demure creatures Victorian society expected them to be.
Brophy, who was heavily influenced by Freud, writes:
It is the characteristic of precocious children that, in childhood, they are astonishing because they resemble adults. In adulthood, they are often — like Mozart and Beardsley — astonishing because they resemble children.
[Beardsley’s] vision is permanently that of a child lying in bed watching his mother dress for a dinner-party. His fantasy hangs this here, tries the effect of that there: everything is a jewel, and everything is a sexual organ. He is allured, yet afraid to touch: driven back on a cold minuteness of detailed attention, and yet passionately curious, with the emotional and involved curiosity children give to sex. The very fastidiousness of his line demonstrates the importance of touching and the fear that has to be overcome in order to do it… The child’s protest against his inexperience, against the ban on touching, is to glory in his ignorance. He does not know which sexual organs are appropriate to which sex; he makes deliberate howlers in order to howl against his exclusion from adult knowledge.
Brophy considers Beardsley’s depictions of women, deeply defiant of sexual classification:
Are they female fops, these personages of Beardsley’s: female dandies: female effeminates, even? Or are they male hoydens, male tomboys, boy butches?
Indeed, it’s hardly surprising that androgyny and a profound ambivalence about sexuality should permeate Beardsley’s work — he was a young gay man himself who, biographers believe, died a virgin.
His collaborator’s fate not only exacerbated Beardsley’s private terrors but decimated his professional life. A year after the English publication of Salome, Wilde was arrested for homosexual conduct. He had with him a copy Pierre Louÿs’s Aphrodite at the time of the arrest, bound in yellow paper as French novels were at the time. The media, in their perennial propensity for scandal-mongering falsehoods, misreported that Wilde was carrying the Yellow Book — the literary quarterly for which Beardsley served as art director. Immediately, a mob descended upon the publisher’s offices and broke the windows. Several prominent Yellow Book authors threatened to withdraw from the journal unless Beardsley was fired, even though his sole collaboration with Wilde had been Salome and Wilde himself had never contributed to the journal.
Under the combined abominations of bad journalism, bullying, and cowardice, Beardsley lost his job and his income. He and his sister Mabel had to vacate the house they shared.
Fortunately, a few months later, Beardsley was hired as an art director at a new periodical called Savoy for a weekly salary of £25, or around £2,600 in today’s money — a respectable amount given that Wilde, at the height of his fame as the twentieth century’s first pop celebrity, was earning only four times as much from his plays.
Beardsley died just as he was becoming one of the most prominent graphic artists of his day, his brilliance and promise cut short — like Simone Weil and Franz Kafka‘s — by tuberculosis at a heartbreaking age. He was only twenty-five.
His visionary genius is perhaps best captured by Wilde’s inscription on the copy of the original French edition of Salome he gave Beardsley:
For Aubrey: for the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the Dance of the Seven Veils is, and can see that invisible dance.