Aubrey Beardsley is an artist who defies easy categorization. His work is both a mirror and a window, reflecting our world while framing another one. His art is both surface and symbol, and there is depth to its superficiality. Beardsley’s oeuvre is particularly suited to Oscar Wilde’s Salome, a play that is figurative and teeming with circular similes. Beardsley captures Wilde’s symbolism with clever metadramatic flair, creating art that is both derivative and original.
Beardsley’s pictures for Salome are a testament to his ability to shine as both a collaborative illustrator and independent artist. His iconic black lines, flat in their depth, grotesque and immaculate, offer a vista into a singular hand controlled by a singular mind. His art often features androgynous figures, frequently mirror-images, and infused with self-reflexive playfulness.
Take The Toilette of Salome, for example. In the original version, she sits bare-chested at right, a classically feminine beauty, facing her vanity on the left. Mischievous, masked Pierrot—a frequent subject of Beardsley’s with whom he personally identified—lords over her, dangling a powder brush that suggests Beardsley himself is the chief artist behind Salome’s allure. The literal window at center and the three-line sash echo the overall picture’s three-line border, connecting the literal and figurative windows.
In the second version of The Toilette, the literal window is smaller, on the opposite side of the room from Pierrot, and partially obscured by blinds. While Beardsley retains the same three-line picture border, he flips the composition more broadly, with Salome to the left and the vanity at right. This time though, Pierrot and Salome have both turned away from the mirror—itself now angled away from, rather than toward, you the viewer. The two versions are explicit mirror-windows of windows and mirrors, with the re-do a symbolic protest of the original’s censorship.
Beardsley also captures Wilde’s symbolism in A Platonic Lament. Superficially, it is one of the set’s more directly representational pictures, illustrating the Page of Herodias mourning the Young Syrian’s suicide. However, there’s a line in the play that makes me think Beardsley has another allusion in mind: “He had much joy to gaze at himself in the river.” The nude Page of Herodias leans over the Young Syrian’s corpse like Narcissus over his pool, as if for a kiss. Their faces are uncannily similar, and the Young Syrian’s black burial shroud is almost water-like, framing the dead reflection. The half-hidden Wilde moon in the upper right of A Platonic Lament sheds a floral tear, both recalling Narcissus’s fatal transformation and connecting the scene to The Woman in the Moon with homosexual undertones.
Beardsley’s art for Salome is a testament to his ability to create art that functions as both window and mirror. His iconic black lines offer a vista into a singular hand controlled by a singular mind, often delightfully twisted. His pictures capture Wilde’s symbolism with clever metadramatic flair, creating art that is both derivative and original. Beardsley’s art for Salome is an example of art that bridges this paradox between surface and symbol, between literal and figurative windows and mirrors.