Posted by: flannerylangton | December 8, 2020

Aubrey Beardsley and the end of Victorian imagery

Everything about Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé was deeply interesting and unsettling, but what topped it all off for me was the images drawn by Audrey Beardsley. 

Beardsley is an English illustrator from the late Victorian period whose drawings, like Oscar Wilde’s writing, characterize the end of the period. Beardsley died young, at age 25, just three years before Queen Victoria. His entire life he was ill with returning Tuberculosis making him weak and unable to take care of himself much of his life. His youth throughout the entirety of his career implies that he was at the forefront of the new and burgeoning movements.  

According to Britannica, Beardsley was an “outstanding figure in the Aestheticism movement,” or, art for art’s sake. This could explain some of the extremities in his artwork and the bold risks he takes in his drawing. In Salomé and beyond, his drawings push into the supernatural, bend gender and bodies, and tip into the erotica realm (which can be strange and off putting in a play featuring Biblical characters). These drawings though were the ones that gained him fame and name recognition, along with his connection to Wilde. 

A strong example of his work in Salomé is the image “John the Baptist and Salomé.” The image showcases the way Beardsley plays with gender, posing each figure in ways that are both stereotypically feminine– the exposed breast and the twisted over-the-shoulder look–however one of the figures must be male, as it depicts a Biblical scene. The exposed breasts on the figure to the left might be viewed by some as a clear gender identifier but that is blurred in some of the other images in the text, such as “The Toilette of Salomé II,” where the servant to the far right has both “male” and “female” genitalia. Some of this might come from Beardsley’s exposure to queer circles through his connection to Wilde. Though there is no evidence Beardsley was queer himself, the majority of the people he associated with through his work and through the Aestheticism movement were. 

To return to the image of John the Baptist and Salomé, the fashion is another piece of interest. Based on the elaborate headdress on the figure to the right, that figure is assumed to be the princess. But gender roles were fully settled at this time and that was beginning to show through fashion. John the Baptist’s delicate off-the-shoulder dress and curved stance would be read as inherently feminine and therefore controversial. To present a Saint at this way would be sacrilegious, at the very least. 

Additionally, the depiction of the princess’ body is very interesting when compared to Wilde’s play. In Salomé, a repeated point of contention was those who looked directly upon the princess. Regularly, it was those who looked upon her and those to whom she returned the gaze. This image captures that direct gaze between the characters that will bring about the end of John the Baptist. The gaze is multiplied when the viewer is considered. We, looking onto this scandalous image of Salomé, might be doomed too. It is unknown where Beardsley’s interest in depicting nudity comes from but in these illustrations, it is fitting to a story so consumed with the politics of looking and observing images. 

Looking towards the end of the Victorian Era, Beardsley’s images speak to the future of British art and visual culture. 

Perhaps they are an early indication of the need to “show skin” to sell a product. Another professor this semester pointed out in our course that this was a key moment of divergence between western culture and the global south. 

There is also in these drawings a pull from the ancient world to consider, specifically the Biblical themes in Wilde’s text but also Beardsley’s obsession with depicting monsters and demons in his work–similar to what might be seen in Renaissance-era images of Hell. In times of change, it is human nature to return to the past. For example, this year the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac both had massive resurgences on Spotify. As the boom of art and social conflict in the Victorian Era came to a close, perhaps artists were looking back in time to Biblical times in search of familiarity and comfort. 

As a pioneering member of Aestheticism, Beardsley’s art must also be considered in that lens. “Art for art’s sake.” Maybe moderately erotic supernatural art was just something he found appealing, that Wilde also enjoyed. Edgy art resonates with people on the fringes of society; Beardsley and Wilde were those people. 

Bibliography 

“Aubrey Beardsley: English Artist.” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aubrey-Beardsley.

Wilde, Oscar. Salome. Project Gutenberg, 2013. (original 1891). 


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