Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salomé

January 28, 2015

On February 7 the Museum opens Oscar Wilde’s Salomé: Illustrating Death and Desire (February 7-May 10, 2015). The genesis for this exhibition was two-fold. Late in 2013 I learned that in February 2015 Opera Philadelphia was presenting Oscar, an opera in two acts written by composer Theodore Morrison from a libretto co-authored with English opera director John Cox which presents the life of Oscar Wilde as he reflects on his time of imprisonment in Reading Goal. The opera was jointly commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and Santa Fe Opera and premiered in Santa Fe in July of 2013. It seemed like an excellent opportunity to feature our recently purchased (2010) portfolio of Aubrey Beardsley’s “Drawings Illustrating Salomé” issued in 1906 by an unknown publisher.

An English artist and illustrator, Beardsley (1872-1898) was a leading figure in the Aesthetic Movement, an off-shoot of Pre-Raphaelitism which was made manifest in both literature and the visual arts and included figures such as James McNeill Whistler and Oscar Wilde. Aestheticism embraced the “art for art’s sake” philosophy of the French writer Théophile Gautier, which advocated for a “true” art devoid of utilitarian function. Beardsley was associated with a somewhat decadent aspect of Aestheticism which eventually developed into Art nouveau and was best represented in his work as editor of the avant-garde periodical The Yellow Book (1894-1897), named for the color of the covering which was placed on controversial French novels to hide objectionable content.

The Irish writer and poet, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) became one of London’s most popular playwrights in the last decades of the 19th century. In 1890 he published his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, incorporating themes of decadence, duplicity, and beauty. The play, Salomé followed — written in French — in 1891. The Importance of being Earnest, perhaps his best-known drama (1891), was still on the London stage when Wilde was tried, convicted and imprisoned for gross indecency. In prison he wrote De Profundis (1897, published 1905), a long and searching letter recounting his spiritual journey throughout the trial. His last published work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), was a long poem recounting the hardship of prison life. Today he is remembered for his brilliant witticisms and his role in promoting the British Aesthetic Movement.

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Figure 1. The Toilette of Salome I, 1906. Offset lithograph Acquisition Fund, 2010. DAM 2010 31.12.

The story of the beheading of John the Baptist appears in the New Testament twice, in Mark 6:17–29 and Matthew 14:3–12. In the biblical narrative, Herod, a tetrarch of the Roman Empire, imprisons John the Baptist (called Iokanaan in Hebrew), fearful of his relationship with Jesus. Iokanaan had been outspoken with regard to Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodius, enraging the latter. During the revelry of the festivities in celebration of his birthday, Herod promises Herodius’s daughter the head of Iokanann in exchange for her performance of the dance of the seven veils. In his retelling of the narrative Wilde discarded the subtleties of biblical parable and modernized the story’s moral degeneracy with cadenced clarity and repetitious whispers of decadence which shocked critics and fascinated artists and illustrators.

In June 1892 Sarah Bernhardt began rehearsals in London for a French-language production of Wilde’s new play, but prior to opening the drama was censored because of a longstanding prohibition against biblical characters on the English stage. While the cancelation of the play was devastating, it may well have provided added impetus for publication of the text.

In 1893 the first edition of Salomé was co-published in French by Edmond Bailly’s Librairie de L’Art Indépendant in Paris and Elkin Mathews and John Lane’s Bodley Head in London. The volume contained only a small title-page decoration by the Belgian Symbolist, Félicien Rops, a harbinger of the long history of visual interpretation the text would engender. Although largely panned by the critics, the 1893 publication attracted a growing curiosity amongst the reading public, including that of the controversial young artist and illustrator Aubrey Beardsley who was inspired to produce a single illustration, Salome, with the head of John the Baptist, reproduced in The Studio magazine in April 1893. It was undoubtedly this design which led to Beardsley’s eventual illustration of the text in its entirety.

The synergistic confluence of “Oscar Wilde…the most visual writer, and Aubrey Beardsley the most literary artist of the 1890s” (Linda Zatlin, 2000) resulted in the first English edition of Salome, published by Elkin Mathews and John Lane in late February 1894. Beardsley’s 16 designs (reproduced by photomechanical engraving by Carl Hentschel), were accompanied by a translation of Wilde’s French attributed to Lord Alfred Douglas. Although the book contained 16 plates, including a frontispiece, decorative title-page and a list of illustrations, Beardsley had completed a total of 19 illustrations for the edition, three of which were replacements for versions John Lane felt were too sexually explicit. Beardsley wrote to his friend, Robert Ross in November, 1893: “The book will be out soon after Xmas. I have withdrawn three of the illustrations and supplied their places with three new ones (simply beautiful and quite irrelevant).”

Wilde’s role in the making of the illustrations remains unclear. But after the book’s publication he wrote to the artist, Charles Ricketts, regarding what he felt to be Beardsley’s misinterpretation of certain characters:

My Herod is like the Herod of Gustave Moreau – wrapped in his jewels and sorrows. My Salomé is a mystic, the sister of Salammbô, a Sainte Thérèse who worships the moon; dear Aubrey’s designs are like the scribbles a precocious schoolboy makes on the margins of his copybooks.

Despite Wilde’s dismissive comments (possibly stimulated by the unflattering caricatures Beardsley drew of him in several designs), it could be suggested that these illustrations have come to eclipse the text in notoriety. As one scholar noted, “Beardsley gave the text its first true public and modern performance.” (Peter Raby, 1998). Certainly Beardsley’s images set the standard for all illustrators to come.

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Figure 2. The Toilette of Salome II, 1906. Offset lithograph Acquisition Fund, 2010. DAM 2010 31.13.

The history of the 1906 “Portfolio of Aubrey Beardsley’s Drawings Illustrating ‘Salome’ by Oscar Wilde” (the contents of which will be part of the upcoming exhibition) is unclear. Two of the 17 offset lithographs in the portfolio were not printed in the 1894 publication of the drama. In addition, several of the compositions which were included in the 1894 edition appear in the portfolio without the alterations made to omit overtly sexual details.

For example, the portfolio includes two versions of The Toilette of Salomé, an image of Salomé preparing to perform the dance of the seven veils, having successfully outwitted Herod into promising her the head of Iokanaan in return for her seductive performance. It is not difficult to discern the reasons for the rejected version (Figure 1) as the salacious details would have been obvious to even the most naïve of viewers. Salomé, attended by a sinister masked figure, is seated with a covering draped casually around her shoulders leaving her torso fully exposed. A second attendant, of ambiguous gender, stands to her left, completely unclothed, offering a tray of tea. A similarly naked on-looker is seated at lower left, hands placed suggestively between his/her legs. In comparison, the composition for the published image (Figure 2) includes only Salomé and a single attendant, the latter still masked, but of a slightly less nefarious nature. Both figures are fully clothed. Symbols of dissipation, however, abound. Several pairs of scissors, alluding to castration, signify Salomé’s dominatrix character. Decadent books (which appeared in the rejected version) are here reproduced, the titles on the spines clearly visible. These include Émile Zola’s Nana, Paul Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes, and an unidentified text by the Marquis de Sade.

As is more often than not the case in Beardsley’s visual accompaniments to the text, the moment chosen for illustration does not reference a specific moment in the narrative. Wilde’s text does not include a description of Salomé preparing for the performance. This is purely Beardsley’s invention. Wilde’s response to Beardsley’s illustration is ambiguous. Despite his oft-quoted misgivings, he inscribed a copy of the text, “For Aubrey, for the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the dance of the seven veils is, and can see that invisible dance.”

The exhibition will also showcase the complete illustrations of the contemporary illustrator Barry Moser (b. 1940) created to accompany a new translation of Wilde’s original French text (Translated by Joseph Donohue, published by the University of Virginia Press, 2011). These illustrations were generously lent by the artist for the exhibition. These, the most recent illustrations to the text, and several books showcasing the work of various artists working in the period between Beardsley and Moser, will make up the remaining contents of the show.

In creating this exhibition I have been fascinated by the range of responses to Wilde’s drama, and I am reminded that a seminal work of fiction engenders infinite interpretations generation after generation, century upon century. As I have engaged with Wilde’s Salomé I have been awed by the wonder of his particular genius, specifically his sagacity in interpreting this biblical tale of morality. I hope visitors to the exhibition will discover the magic of the serendipitous marriage of text and image, author and artist that occurs throughout the history of illustration.

Note: On Thursday, March 19 Dr. Joan Navarre, Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin will lecture on Beardsley and Wilde in a talk entitled “The mystery of the world is the visible”: Exploring Aubrey Beardsley’s Illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salomé.



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