The Same Old Solotaire

Peter Wollen

  • ‘Salome’ and ‘Under the Hill’ by Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley
    Creation, 123 pp, £7.95, April 1996, ISBN 1 871592 12 7
  • Aubrey Beardsley: Dandy of the Grotesque by Chris Snodgrass
    Oxford, 338 pp, £35.00, August 1995, ISBN 0 19 509062 4

Yeats had no doubt how and when the fatal blow was struck. In his memoirs, he noted that ‘the condemnation of Wilde had brought ruin upon a whole movement in art and letters.’ Yeats himself was fortunate that the Celtic Revival, which ran in close tandem with Decadence, had special resources of its own. Two of the great iconic victims of the social purity movement, the repressive engine of Late Victorianism, were themselves Irish – Parnell and Wilde – and Yeats was able to incorporate their tragedies into his heroic narrative of Irish nationalism. Moreover, as Yeats himself pointed out, his own circle – the poets of the Rhymers’ Club – were too marginal to be significantly affected by the Wilde verdict. They only aimed to sell three hundred copies and wrote ‘for the smaller public that has knowledge and is undisturbed by popular feeling’.

The real victim, besides Wilde himself, was Aubrey Beardsley, who craved a popular audience and the celebrity that went with it. Yeats first met Beardsley at the launch party for the Savoy, the magazine founded by Arthur Symons and Beardsley after Beardsley had been fired as art editor of the Yellow Book following Wilde’s arrest. It was a brave and defiant attempt to continue the movement, but the journal was suspect from the start – the Savoy, after all, was the hotel to which Wilde had repaired to entertain and enjoy his rent-boys. The Savoy was defiantly avant-garde, as the Yellow Book had never been, and served as a rallying-point for supporters of Wilde and Beardsley, including Beerbohm, Carpenter, Conrad, Dowson, Havelock Ellis, Hueffer, Shaw and Yeats.

The Savoy fizzled to an end (commercially at least) when W.H. Smith’s refused to distribute it after issue Number 3, on account of an illustration to an article by Yeats. Yeats later recalled how ‘the bookseller’s manager, no doubt looking for a design of Beardsley’s, pitched on Blake’s Anteus Setting Virgil and Dante upon the Verge of Cocytus as grounds for refusal, and when Arthur Symons pointed out that Blake was considered “a very spiritual artist”, replied: “Oh, Mr Symons, you must remember that we have an audience of young ladies as well as an audience of agnostics”’ Yeats wrote furiously to a leading newspaper to protest against the censorship, but he was told that ‘the editor makes it a rule that the paper is never to mention Beardsley’s name.’ From rapid and immense celebrity, Beardsley, like Wilde, had quickly been reduced to a non-person.

Beardsley was racked by tuberculosis from the age of seven; his life was painfully short. He was born in Brighton in August 1872, and Brighton Pavilion, along with Hampton Court, the Domino Room at the Café Royal and the Casino at Dieppe, remained among his favourite places. His mother was a dynamic woman, extremely thin, a High Tory and an Anglo-Catholic. She worked as a governess and music teacher to support her family, and was scathingly disappointed in her husband, about whom very little is known. Aubrey had an elder sister, Mabel, one year older than himself. There seems no doubt that Mabel was the only person with whom he had a really close relationship and she is often seen as the source of the feminine identification which marked his work and life. She became an actress and, after Beardsley died, a journalist who maintained an arts salon, as their mother had done.

In 1892, at the age of 20, Beardsley, who had by then moved to London, embarked on an illustrated edition of Le Morte D’Arthur. He began to be published professionally the next year and in 1894 became art editor of the Yellow Book. A few weeks previously, Wilde’s Salome had been published in England with Beardsley’s illustrations – an event which linked the two inextricably together. Beardsley had sought Wilde’s patronage and became one of the young men who made up his entourage. He patronised Wilde’s tailor, Doré, although his style of dandyism was very different, and the two men went to the same hairdresser. It is very clear from his drawings and writings that Beardsley saw the hairdresser as a kind of sinister priest who presided over the intricate rituals of coiffing, painting, perfuming and manicure. He soon fell out with Wilde, partly because of his distaste for Lord Alfred Douglas, and made it a condition of his work for the Yellow Book that Wilde be excluded from the list of contributors. The veto was carried over to the Savoy, first published in January 1896, and insisted on yet again when he and Symons planned a third journal, provisionally entitled the Peacock.

Beardsley spent far too much of his life in doctors’ waiting-rooms (in one of which he met Henry Harland, his co-editor at the Yellow Book), swallowing creosote pills, spitting up blood, undergoing capricious treatments, collapsing exhausted into bed, seeking relief in sea air and living in terror of dying abandoned abroad. Early in 1898, he died in great pain relieved by morphia, aged only 25. For five years he had been incredibly productive – working on book-covers and jackets and frontispieces and illustrations, on regular sets of pictures for the Yellow Book and the Savoy, publicity fliers, journalistic ephemera and large-scale posters advertising Singer Sewing machines as well as avant-garde theatre productions. Beardsley was the first innovative artist whose success was based on photogravure – a technique that enabled him to work directly from ink drawings which were photographically reproduced and then printed straight from the block. This new technology destroyed the age-old distinction between the original and the copy (Beardsley was often careless with his drawings after they had been printed) and put him face to face with a popular audience. His whole career was bound up with newspaper, magazine and book publishing, with a sideline in advertising art, which he extolled in one of his few essays as ‘the Art of Hoarding’. He courted publicity by provoking outrage – a technique he had learned from Whistler and Wilde – and struggled when the Wilde trial shut the publicity off. Not only was his livelihood threatened but his illness forced him to abandon London, along with the metropolitan nightlife he treasured and his various publishers, actual and potential.

The case for Beardsley as a Modernist, or at least as an important source for Modernism, was most carefully made by Kenneth Clark in the Sixties, a decade which saw its own ‘Beardsley boom’, a popular revival which accompanied op art, Beaton’s Ascot, Yellow Submarine and Performance. Clark described the drawings from Salome as ‘hard-edged abstraction’ and remarked: ‘No wonder the young artists of the 1890s who felt the need for abstraction – Kandinsky and Klee – looked with astonishment’ at The Toilet of Salome, and at the ‘precision with which Beardsley has extracted those shapes of the cloak and related them to the chair’. Clark noted that Beardsley’s work showed Munch ‘how simplified areas of black and white can work on the emotions’ and that Picasso, who had seen Beardsley’s prints in the Barcelona art journal Joventut, ‘made good use of Beardsley’s pure outlines’. I half-expected him to go on and make the obvious connection with Guernica, the great black-and-white painting of our century, with its evocation both of journalism and the advertising hoarding, but he stops short of such a major claim.

To see Beardsley in this way, however, does little to explain his position in art history, which is much more complex and idiosyncratic than the idea that he influenced Kandinsky or Picasso by uncluttering the black-and-white print. In fact some of his best work, such as The Rape of the Lock, was stiflingly cluttered. It seems demeaning to present him as simply a minor influence on the next generation of great artists. Any assessment of Beardsley’s historic place has to begin with an assessment of the Nineties as a whole and the movement or trend of which Beardsley was a leading exponent. What was Decadence? What was its importance? Why was the reaction against it so intense?

Part of the problem is that the most fervent disciples of Decadence turned their own backs on it, for very understandable reasons, after the Wilde débâcle. Symons, for example, was working in the early Nineties on a manifesto entitled ‘The Decadent Movement in Literature’, a version of which appeared in November 1893. After the Wilde trial he reconsidered his commitment to Decadence and ended up writing The Symbolist Movement in Literature, a book which, purged of the taint of Decadence, was to have an enormous influence on Modernism. Symons’s book, which was published in 1899, and the stream of propaganda for Symbolism from Yeats, enabled subsequent Modernists to invoke the transcendent truth of the Symbol rather than be entrapped by the ethos of Decadence. This disavowal of Decadence produced the pre-conditions for its exclusion from the lineage of Modernism.

For Yeats, Symbolism in the visual arts was relayed from Blake through the Pre-Raphaelites into early Modernism. This lineage, however, was of no concern to Beardsley, who broke his ties with Pre-Raphaelitism beyond all possibility of repair. While he was still only 20, he remarked to the critic D.S. MacColl that he preferred photogravure to wood-cuts, ‘as he had no use for Morris’s hidebound mannerisms’, thereby jettisoning the artisanal foundation of Morris’s aesthetic. When a friend of Beardsley’s showed Morris a print from Le Morte D’Arthur, Morris angrily denounced it as ‘an act of usurpation not to be allowed’. Told about this, Beardsley retorted that ‘the truth is while his work is a mere imitation of the old stuff, mine is fresh and original.’ At the very end of his life, Beardsley told Smithers that the Peacock should ‘untiringly and unflinchingly attack the Burne-Jones and Morrisian medieval business’.

Beardsley was committed to ‘usurpation’: he was determined to use the work of his elders and betters in his own manner, cleverly transporting it into a new and original style of his own – to outdo Morris at being Morris, to outdo Wilde at being Wilde. To an old schoolfriend he exulted: ‘Daily I wax greater in facility of execution. I have seven distinct styles and have won success in all of them.’ He moved remorselessly on from medievalism to the Japonesque to 18th-century retro, instilling each with his own characteristic tone of irreverence, mockery and travesty. What made Beardsley quintessentially Decadent was his excessive stylisation, combined with his tantalising eroticism – a conjunction sealed by his interest in the grotesque, which he saw as the hallmark of his work.

Beardsley is remembered today mainly for his evocation of weird sex, the aspect of his work which Clark described as ‘catmint to adolescents’. Beardsley is exalted, like Wilde, perhaps even more so, as a sexual deviant and heretic, a master of innuendo and subtle suggestion, undermining bourgeois morality and flirting with scandal at every stroke of his pen. Most books about Beardsley circle around his sex life in transports of frustration, since next to nothing is known about it. He once claimed his first sexual experiences were with his sister. He told one of his publishers that he was going out to Jimmie’s, a favourite haunt in the West End, dressed as a tart. He told another that he was still ‘the same old solotaire’. After the Wilde verdict he surveyed himself in a mirror in the rooms Yeats shared with Symons and declared: ‘Yes, yes, I look like a sodomite. But no, I am not one.’

Beardsley devotees frantically detail every imaginable sexual innuendo and double meaning that they can detect in his drawings, as if they want to pin down one aspect of the polymorphous perversity they present as the key to Beardsley’s own sexual preference, the answer to the riddle of his true identity. Beardsley’s obsessions take us into a kind of erotic never-never land peopled with coyly seductive androgynes, extravagantly foppish cross-dressers, narcissistic women mesmerised by their mirrors, foppish young men with unbelievably narrow waists, spavined legs and pointed feet, fleshly, corrupt and vicious debauchees, young ladies masturbating dreamily with their two middle fingers, cloven-hoofed fauns and phallic gods, all watched and gloated at by smirking pierrots and gibbering dwarves. Beardsley conjured up a cornucopia of sexual deviance and extravagance: fetishism, phallic narcissism, transvestism, uranism, masochism, necrophilia.

Venus and Tannhäuser, Beardsley’s unfinished literary tour de force, published in expurgated form as ‘Under the Hill’ in the Savoy and in full after his death, presents an extraordinary catalogue of bizarre practices. Its anti-hero, transposed from the Middle Ages to the 18th century as a chevalier or an abbé, enters a grotto deep within the Venusburg, the mons veneris itself, where, like a stray from a Kate Greenaway nursery book, he observes and languidly participates in a rococo set of libertine entertainments. The only perversions missing are sadism and masochism, usually considered, in the tradition of Praz, Dijkstra and Showalter, as the defining traits of Decadence. Beardsley was not keen on violence of any kind, least of all violence against women. This was not an appropriate subject for a ‘scrumptious’ or ‘adorable’ drawing.

It is relevant, of course, that Beardsley flourished at the same time that Freud was recording and interpreting his dreams, that the pioneering work of Krafft-Ebing was published and, nearer home, that Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis were calling for sexual liberation. Ellis was a close friend of Arthur Symons, a key contributor to the Savoy, had gone on a pilgrimage to Paris to meet Verlaine, the emblematic Decadent and, like Beardsley, publicly asserted his belief that women had a right to seek sexual enjoyment. Ellis published his study of homosexuality, Sexual Inversion, undaunted, within three years of the Wilde trial, only to have it seized by the police. A year or so before, Beardsley had written to his patron, André Raffalovich, himself the author of a study of homosexuality, Uranisme et unisexualité, published in Paris in 1896, asking: ‘What sort of book has Ellis made and whom has he found to publish? I am amused at what you tell me about the way he treats our Lord and all the Saints.’

Beardsley admired Ellis’s contributions to the Savoy (a three-part essay on Nietzsche, a defence of Jude the Obscure – the book which brought Hardy’s career as a novelist to an end – and a laudatory piece on Casanova). He described him as ‘most readable’, high praise from such a caustic and dismissive critic. He must have recognised in Ellis his own passion for abnormality. (It has even been improbably suggested that Beardsley was able to obtain mescalin through Ellis.) Ellis, of course, was unrelentingly serious in his studies of sexuality, whereas Beardsley sought to shock and to distance himself through exaggerated stylisation.

Beardsley’s version of the Tannhäuser legend was a parody in the manner of Laforgue. It is the most camp of all his works. The story of Venus and Tannhauser was prefaced by a long, ornate and faintly ridiculous dedication to an imaginary Roman Catholic cardinal, in which Beardsley excuses himself for a work which deals with ‘amorous passion’ and ‘mere venery’, nonetheless venturing that ‘inasmuch as it treats of the great contrition of its chiefest character, and of canonical things in certain pages, I am not without hopes that your eminence will pardon my writing of the Hill of Venus, for which extravagance let my youth excuseme.’ Then on to the muffed, peruked and tasselled chevalier, to curious pranks, atrocious laughter, moustachioed ladies, the flounce of petticoats, the flutter of frilled things and the Queen of Love’s expert masturbation of her pet unicorn with the crook of her elbow.

In her Notes on ‘Camp’ Susan Sontag might almost have substituted ‘Beardsley’ for ‘camp’ wherever the term occurs:

Beardsley is a certain mode of aestheticism ... Beardsley’s art is often decorative art, emphasising texture, sensuous surface and style at the expense of content ... All Beardsley objects, and persons, contain a large element of artifice ... Beardsley responds particularly to the markedly attenuated and to the strongly exaggerated ... the Beardsley sensibility is one that is alive to the double sense in which some things can be taken ... While it’s not true that Beardsley taste is homosexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap ...

and so on. Sontag’s essay was published in 1964 and its placing of Beardsley in the canon of camp, along with his friend Max Beerbohm and his disciple Ronald Firbank, is one of the first signs of the Sixties re-evaluation of his art. It is significant, of course, that the Beardsley craze came back to life in that particular decade, when so-called Victorian values were first seriously challenged. Beardsley’s work was clearly created in malicious counterpoint to the power of the social purity movement in Late Victorian England. The trajectory of the purity lobby has been vividly described in Trevor Fisher’s Scandal: The Sexual Politics of Late Victorian Britain, which recounts the rise of the movement, from the three Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s through the Maiden Tribute affair, orchestrated by W.T. Stead to highlight child prostitution, and the subsequent destruction of Parnell, Dilke and Wilde.

Beardsley never commented on public events, except insofar as he himself was one, but he did indulge in a sly dig at Stead, the moving spirit of the crusade. In a letter from Paris to the publisher of the Savoy, Leonard Smithers, himself a great connoisseur of erotica, Beardsley noted: ‘I read in the papers here that Stead has established an agency for the adoption of children. Is it true? If so I certainly mean to adopt some nice little girl who could at once satisfy my maternal, amatory and educational instincts. This quite seriously.’ It was Stead and his lobby who set the stage for Wilde’s downfall and Beardsley’s expulsion from the Yellow Book. Beardsley noted in a letter to Mabel that young artists in England were always ‘in such a hurry to épater the bourgeois’, and he well knew, from the abuse Daubaway Weirdsley had received in Punch and elsewhere, that nothing shocked the bourgeois more than mocking manliness and sexual conformity.

It was well over half a century before the social purity trend was reversed, after the Wolfenden Report and the Lady Chatterly trial. Soon afterwards came the Beardsley revival, gathering momentum with the retrospective exhibition organised in London in 1966 by Brian Reade. The Nineties had gone underground for seventy years, resurfacing only when the hold of Late Victorian values was at last undermined, where it had long been upheld, in the courts. Beardsley’s legacy does not run through the acknowledged masters of Modernism, but through a tradition of alternative modernity which sustained many of the values (or counter-values) of Decadence. Arguably, his influence was stronger in literature than in visual art – we can trace it explicitly, as Stanley Weintraub has done, through Lawrence and Faulkner. In the art world we must wait till the Sixties, for the appearance of Hockney and Warhol. Beardsley had no use for futurism or the machine aesthetic or abstract art. He loathed Turner, the founder of the colouristic sublime, comparing him to Antoine Wiertz, the Belgian painter of huge melodramatic historical and religious scenes.

The Sixties can also be seen as marking the end of classic Modernism. This is not to say that Beardsley should be seen through the Post-Modern lens of deconstruction, as Chris Snodgrass proposes in his densely packed and theoretically sophisticated study of Beardsley. Derrida paradoxically provides Snodgrass with authority to praise Beardsley for creating a world ‘where meaning oscillates ceaselessly among indeterminate alternatives, even polarities; where no value can ultimately be authenticated, no truth made finally secure; where the very foundations of meaning are the shifting sands of paradox’. Beardsley’s tendency to paradox, however, did not necessarily imply a lack of philosophical commitment to secure truth or ultimate value.

He was well aware that his own art, however frivolous it seemed, had extremely serious consequences – why else did it attract such hostility? It makes sense to see him as an artist torn between incompatible commitments to libertinism and Catholicism. He was buried with his signed copy of La Dame aux camélias, given to him by Alexandre Dumas fils, beside him in the grave. The story is that of a famous prostitute, doomed by TB, redeemed by self-sacrifice, repentant of her sins, converted to the Catholic Church on her death-bed. It runs parallel in many ways with the story of Tannhäuser, who sought forgiveness from the Pope after escaping from the spell of Venus – except that Tannhäuser is refused absolution and returns, despairing, to his libertine life. It runs parallel, too, with Beardsley’s own life. As Kenneth Clark noted, ‘the idea of renunciation and repentance lay at the centre of his spirit.’

In a strange way, Beardsley brings Notes on ‘Camp’ into relation with Illness as Metaphor, the book written two decades later in which Susan Sontag explored the metaphoric meanings given to tuberculosis in the 19th century, when TB was both feared and aestheticised, even eroticised. That Beardsley should have attenuated and etherealised his characters – especially the women – at the same time as he stressed their urgent passions and desires cannot be unconnected to his disease. Nor can we look at the blood flowing from John the Baptist’s head without remembering the blood which Beardsley constantly coughed up from his lungs. His jilted Pierrot is racked with remorse, always about to spit up blood, taking to his curtained bed, already at death’s door.

Early in 1913 Yeats wrote a series of poems, ‘Upon a Dying Lady’. He describes a woman with dull, red hair, ‘propped upon pillows, rouge on the pallor of her face’, telling improper stories and shaking with laughter as she dies ‘thinking of saints and of Petronius Arbiter’. She has a table with four ornamental dolls dressed, Yeats told Lady Gregory, like Beardsley drawings, and she turns them to the wall when a priest comes to say Mass.

The lady of Yeats’s poems was Mabel. ‘I cannot overstate her strange charm,’ he wrote, ‘the pathetic gaiety. It was her brother, but her brother was not, I think, loveable, only astounding and intrepid.’ In another letter, he told Lady Gregory that Mabel had said to him, ‘I wonder who will introduce me in heaven. It should be my brother but then they might not appreciate the introduction. They might not have good taste’.