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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.”

How Aubrey Beardsley’s Visionary Illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salome’ Subverted Victorian Gender Norms and Revolutionized the Graphic Arts

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.

Aubrey Beardsley in 1895
Aubrey Beardsley in 1895

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.


Believe the Praiser and Dismiss the Praise: Donald Hall’s Advice on Writing

“Rhythm and cadence have little connection to import, but they should carry the reader on a pleasurable journey.”

Believe the Praiser and Dismiss the Praise: Donald Hall’s Advice on Writing

“Be a good steward of your gifts,” the poet Jane Kenyon wrote in what remains the finest advice on the creative life I’ve ever encountered. But what, exactly, are the practicalities of that stewardship?

Incidentally, Kenyon was married to Donald Hall (b. September 20, 1928), another poet of enduring wisdom on writing, who addresses this question in the advice peppered throughout his Essays After Eighty (public library) — the terrific volume that gave us Hall on growing old and our cultural attitude toward the elderly.

Generations after Hemingway extolled the rewards of revision, Hall writes:

The greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting. My early drafts are always wretched.


Revision takes time, a pleasing long process. Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts, some as few as thirty… Because of multiple drafts I have been accused of self-discipline. Really I am self-indulgent, I cherish revising so much.


Hall goes on to offer some practical advice on composition and structure:

As I work over clauses and commas, I understand that rhythm and cadence have little connection to import, but they should carry the reader on a pleasurable journey. Sentences can be long, three or more complete clauses dancing together, or two clauses with one leaning on the other, or an added phrase of only a few syllables. Sentences and paragraphs are as various as human beings. I like the effect — see John McPhee — of a paragraph three pages long, glued together by transitions that never sound like transitions.

After a three-page paragraph, maybe a one-line blurt.

Half a century after Jack Kerouac contemplated whether writers are born or made, Hall wastes no time on the unanswerable question of genius and instead considers the “problems in writing one can learn to avoid”:

Almost always, in my poems or essays, the end goes on too long. “In case you don’t get it, this is what I just said.” Cut it out. Let the words flash a conclusion, then get out of the way. Sometimes the writer intrudes — me, myself, and I — between the reader and the page. Don’t begin paragraphs with “I.” For that matter, try not to begin sentences with the personal pronoun. Avoid “me” and “my” when you can. Writing memoir, don’t say, “I remember that in my childhood nothing happened to me.” Say, “In childhood nothing happened.”

In a sentiment that calls to mind Cheryl Strayed’s assertion that “when you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice,” Hall adds:

Avoid the personal pronoun when you can — but not the personal. My first book of poems said “I,” but the word was distant, a stiff and poetic “I.” In my best poems and prose I’ve become steadily more naked, with a nakedness that disguises itself by wearing clothes. A scrupulous passion of style — word choice, syntax, punctuation, order, rhythm, specificity — sets forth not only the writer’s rendering of barns and hollyhocks, but the writer’s feelings and counterfeelings.

But Hall’s finest point of advice deals with the psychology rather than the practicality of the craft — and it applies as much to writing as it does to every field of human endeavor. With an eye to the fine line between gratification and grandiosity, he counsels:

It’s okay to be pleased when an audience loves you, or treats you as deathless, but you must not believe it… It is best to believe the praiser and dismiss the praise.

Complement Essays After Eighty with this evolving collection of celebrated writers’ advice on the craft, including Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, Susan Sontag’s advice to aspiring writers, Ann Patchett on the importance of self-forgiveness, Neil Gaiman’s eight rules of writing, and Grace Paley on the value of not understanding everything.


Frida Kahlo on How Love Amplifies Beauty: Her Breathtaking Tribute to Diego Rivera

“I do not think that the banks of a river suffer because they let the river flow.”

As artists, Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954) and Diego Rivera (December 8, 1886–November 24, 1957) each possessed boundless talent bolstered by an unbending will. As partners, they possessed each other with a ferocious love, intense and complicated and all-eclipsing — the kind for which, in Rilke’s immortal words, “all other work is but preparation.” They wed when Kahlo was twenty-two and Rivera forty-two, and remained together until Kahlo’s death twenty-five years later. They had an open marriage long before the term existed as a trend of modern romance — both had multiple affairs, Rivera with women and Kahlo with both men and women, most notably with the American-born French singer, dancer, and actress Josephine Baker and with the Russian Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky. Still, both insisted that they were the love of each other’s life — a deep conviction crystallized in Kahlo’s passionate love letters and Rivera’s affectionate account of their first encounter.

But nowhere does their uncommon love come more vibrantly alive than in Kahlo’s short portrait of Rivera, included as an afterword to his My Art, My Life: An Autobiography (public library). In just a few wholehearted, wholebodied paragraphs, she captures the enormity of their love. Her sincere humanity radiates a testament to the enormity of all love as a transfiguring force, the ultimate wellspring of beauty and grace.


Kahlo begins:

I warn you that in this picture I am painting of Diego there will be colors which even I am not fully acquainted with. Besides, I love Diego so much I cannot be an objective speculator of him or his life… I cannot speak of Diego as my husband because that term, when applied to him, is an absurdity. He never has been, nor will he ever be, anybody’s husband. I also cannot speak of him as my lover because to me, he transcends by far the domain of sex. And if I attempt to speak of him purely, as a soul, I shall only end up by painting my own emotions. Yet considering these obstacles of sentiment, I shall try to sketch his image to the best of my ability.

Under the wildly affectionate gaze of her sketch, Rivera — a man physically unattractive by our culture’s conventional standards of beauty — is transformed into an exquisite, magical, almost supernatural creature. We are left with a bone-deep awareness that the true splendor of a human being, as Ursula K. Le Guin so elegantly demonstrated a generation later, is something quite different from “beauty.” What emerges is ultimately a portrait less of Rivera than of Kahlo’s own astonishing capacity for love and beauty in the largest possible sense.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico, 1933 (Photograph by Martin Munkácsi)

Kahlo sketches Rivera:

Growing up from his Asiatic-type head is his fine, thin hair, which somehow gives the impression that it is floating in air. He looks like an immense baby with an amiable but sad-looking face. His wide, dark, and intelligent bulging eyes appear to be barely held in place by his swollen eyelids. They protrude like the eyes of a frog, each separated from the other in a most extraordinary way. They thus seem to enlarge his field of vision beyond that of most persons. It is almost as if they were constructed exclusively for a painter of vast spaces and multitudes. The effect produced by these unusual eyes, situated so far away from each other, encourages one to speculate on the ages-old oriental knowledge contained behind them.

On rare occasions, an ironic yet tender smile appears on his Buddha-like lips. Seeing him in the nude, one is immediately reminded of a young boy-frog standing on his hind legs. His skin is greenish-white, very like that of an aquatic animal. The only dark parts of his whole body are his hands and face, and that is because they are sunburned. His shoulders are like a child’s, narrow and round. They progress without any visible hint of angles, their tapering rotundity making them seem almost feminine. The arms diminish regularly into small, sensitive hands… It is incredible to think that these hands have been capable of achieving such a prodigious number of paintings. Another wonder is that they can still work as indefatigably as they do.

Diego’s chest — of it we have to say, that had he landed on an island governed by Sappho, where male invaders were apt to be executed, Diego would never have been in danger. The sensitivity of his marvelous breasts would have insured his welcome, although his masculine virility, specific and strange, would have made him equally desired in the lands of these queens avidly hungering for masculine love.

His enormous belly, smooth, tightly drawn, and sphere-shaped, is supported by two strong legs which are as beautifully solid as classical columns. They end in feet which point outward at an obtuse angle, as if moulded for a stance wide enough to cover the entire earth.

He sleeps in a foetal position. In his waking hours, he walks with a languorous elegance as if accustomed to living in a liquefied medium. By his movements, one would think that he found air denser to wade through than water.

Art by Yuyi Morales from Viva Frida, a lovely picture-book celebrating Kahlo’s life and legacy

At the very end of the piece, Kahlo addresses that gruesome yet all too common human tendency to judge other loves from the outside — a violent flattening of the nuance and dimension and enormous richness that exist between two people, perceptible to them alone. She writes:

Perhaps it is expected that I should lament about how I have suffered living with a man like Diego. But I do not think that the banks of a river suffer because they let the river flow, nor does the earth suffer because of the rains, nor does the atom suffer for letting its energy escape. To my way of thinking, everything has its natural compensation.

Complement My Art, My Life with Mary Oliver’s equally, very differently beautiful tribute to the love of her life, then revisit Kahlo’s illustrated love letters to Rivera.


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