When Salome requests a severed head on a platter, be careful what you wish for. Or write. Or draw.
In 1894, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley—both considered enfants terribles of Victorian England for their provocative work and lifestyles—produced a printed edition of Wilde’s play Salome. Wilde’s psychological centralization on the character of Salome and Beardsley’s transgressive illustrations became emblematic of evolving ideas of sexuality of the time.
Salome herself is an unnamed figure plucked out of the New Testament of the Bible, and who, over the centuries, has transcended into a popular subject for art, literature, and opera, as well as film noir as Norma Desmond’s comeback film in Sunset Boulevard. In the biblical tale, as well as in Wilde’s play, Salome is the daughter of Herod, king of Judea, and becomes infatuated with Saint John the Baptist (named in the play Jokanaan). He rejects her, claiming himself a man of the Lord God and proclaiming “By woman came evil into the world.”[i] Later, Herod asks Salome to dance for him in exchange for any gift, and, as revenge, she requests Jokanaan’s severed head be delivered to her on a silver platter. She kisses the severed head and is promptly crushed to death by Herod’s soldiers. [End of tragedy.]
After creating initial drawings for Salome is 1892,[ii] Beardsley was commissioned to illustrate the 1894 English-language edition of the play.[iii] As evident in this frontispiece, Beardsley conjured an intricate fantasy to ornament Wilde’s sumptuous text. In striking black and white, elongated figures mix and mingle in dimension-defying space.[iv] Characteristic of Beardsley’s larger oeuvre, the illustrations possess “‘groundless earth, the floating figures in the air, the vague intersweep of figures and draperies, the reckless lack of perspective’ (Macfall), to create an imaginative world without reference to any objective reality.”[v] The illustrations—sixteen in all—have a wandering relationship with play itself, at times depicting important dramatic moments—such as The Climax, which earned Beardsley the commission initially—and at other times presenting imaginative possibilities in the characters’ realities, digressive of the plot. (And they offer some of the finest fashion moments of the Decadent Movement, particularly the Black Cape and the Peacock Skirt.) But while Wilde gradually cooks up a quagmire of desire amongst his characters, Beardsley lays bare the sexual dynamics of the drama: “It is the outré art of Aubrey Beardsley, with its lurid representations of hermaphroditism, masturbation, genetic monstrosities, and full nudity, that most accurately illustrates both the subject matter and the spirit of the play and is, therefore, the most truly relevant of all contemporary graphic depictions of Wilde’s Salome.”[vi]
While iconoclastic in aesthetics and supposed perversion, Salome serves as a striking touch point to evolving ideas around sexuality in the late-Victorian era of the 1890s. Both psychological and scientific interest in non-heterosexual existences blossomed while simmering countercultures rebelled against morality-driven Victorian social norms through independence and decadence. Of Beardsley’s work, “His illustrations of sexually assertive women and androgynous figures represented new identity types in fin de siècle culture—The New Woman and the Dandy. Whether engaged in homosexual or heterosexual play . . . Beardsley’s characters not only reduced heterosexuality to one of many possibilities but also challenged the rigid polarity of the Victorian conception of gender.”[vii] While Beardsley himself likely identified as heterosexual, “his work is queer in the sense that it continually crosses genders and sexualities.”[viii] This context doesn’t merely function as a background to Beardsley’s work, but, rather, Beardsley’s work becomes emblematic of the historical moment. Beardsley’s presentation of the figures is a queering of Victorian values, supplementing Wilde’s play, highlighting transgressive sexual desires and blurring the traditional gender binary into fantastical androgyny.
While Beardsley’s illustrations for Salome are arguably his most famous works, his association with Wilde ultimately crippled his budding career. Wilde’s infamous trials for libel and then “gross indecency” began in February 1895; he was imprisoned by May of that year. Beardsley was fired from the magazine The Yellow Book as guilt by association, and retreated to the south of France; he died of tuberculosis in 1898 at the age of twenty-five.
Literary and art historians find ample material of self-reference to Wilde in his Salome (Beardsley also included him, perhaps mockingly, in his illustrations—here in the Frontispiece, on the far left), and many such historians draw a parallel between Salome’s forbidden infatuation with Jokanaan and Wilde’s famed “love that dare not speak its name,”[ix] given the criminalization of homosexual acts with the Labouchere Amendment in Britain in 1885.[x] In this interpretation, Salome becomes a resonant microcosm of desire, pursuit, and repression. Oft-cited Salome scholar Elliot L. Gilbert concludes that “Salome is essentially a play about power: about who is to have it, who is to exercise it, how it is to be transmitted.”[xi]
So be careful around severed heads on platters.
Matthew J. Kennedy is Cross-Platform Publications Associate at Cooper Hewitt. For Oscar.
[i] Oscar Wilde, Salome, trans. Lord Alfred Douglas (London: Elkin Mathews & John Lane, 1894).
[ii] For more: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/aubrey-beardsley-illustrations-for-salome-by-oscar-wilde.
[iii] Wilde originally wrote the play in French, and it was translated into English by Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas—a love story itself of modern-historical biblical proportion.
[iv] Beardsley’s artistic style of the period was influenced by a trip to Paris in 1892 where he saw posters papering the Parisian cityscape that were themselves borrowing visual vocabulary from Japanese woodblock prints.
[v] Elliot L. Gilbert, “‘Tumult of Images’: Wilde, Beardsley, and ‘Salome,’” Victorian Studies 26, no. 2 (Winter, 1983).
[vi] Gilbert, “‘Tumult of Images’: Wilde, Beardsley, and ‘Salome.’”
[vii] Amanda Fernbach, “Wilde’s ‘Salomé’ and the Ambiguous Fetish,” Victorian Literature and Culture 29, no. 1 (2001).
[viii] Richard Dellamora, “Aubrey Beardsley and Victorian Sexual Politics by Linda Gertner Zatlin,” review of Aubrey Beardsley and Victorian Sexual Politics, by Linda Gertner Zatlin, Victorian Studies, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Autumn, 1992).
[ix] Lord Alfred Douglas, “Two Loves,” in The Chameleon (London, 1894).
[x] “1885 Labouchere Amendment,” www.parliament.uk, https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/relationships/collections1/sexual-offences-act-1967/1885-labouchere-amendment/.
[xi] Gilbert, “‘Tumult of Images’: Wilde, Beardsley, and ‘Salome.’”