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Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley: brilliant wits with prickly egoes

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Oscar Wilde, a renowned Irish author, poet, and dramatist of the late Victorian England, still widely known for his brilliant wit and flamboyant style advocating "art for the art’s sake" as well as for imprisonment for his homosexuality. Aubrey Beardsley, another prominent figure in the Aesthetic Movement of the late 19th century, was an English artist and illustrator who collaborated with Oscar Wilde and made drawings to illustrate his Salome. Two brilliant wits, they produced marvelous work of art but it was not an easy outcome, as their prickly egoes wounded each other.

Beardsley's relationship with Wilde was not smooth from the very beginning.

At first, in April 1893, Aubrey was inspired by the just published Wilde’s Salome written in French. It was a real macabre play that revitalized the rusty machinery of French drama. Oscar Wilde wrote it at the height of his career. For that moment, he had already published his immortal novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and a brilliant series of domestic comedies — Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893).

When Wilde wrote his Salome, he did not create a new story; he created a version of the ever-evolving legend. He took existing versions of Salome, combined and revised them. Wilde worked on the main character and made the girl both innocent and evil, a victim and a victimiser. His Salome has became the object of lust as well as the one overcome by a perverted passion. In the play’s climax, she demands the beheading of Jokanaan (Greek for John the Baptist), the one she claims to love so that he is punished for rejecting her.

Beardsley got very interested in the piece. He drew Salome with the Head of Jokanaan as one of several illustrations to accompany an article on the play in the first issue of The Savoy.

Firstly, it seemed that Oscar Wilde found a close associate in Aubrey Beardsley.
He sent him an autographed copy of the play, signed: "For Aubrey: for the only artist who knows what the dance of seven veils is, and can see that invisible dance. Oscar."
Initially being a project of two like-minded creative men, it soon transformed into mutual personal attacks in the ways inherent in each of the wits.
Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington. The portrait of Oscar Wilde at the age of 27
Jacques-Emile Blanche. Aubrey Beardsley
We do not have any clear evidence that Wilde tried to censor any of the Aubry’s drawings before publication, although, according to the critic Theodore Wratislaw, Wilde wanted Salome to "have a different face in every picture." What we can assume though is that Oscar Wilde may have complained about Berdsley’s drawings to Ricketts, an artist who had illustrated and designed all of Wilde’s books before Salome.
"My Herod is like the Herod of Gustave Moreau — wrapped in his jewels and sorrows. My Salomé is a mystic, the sister of Salammbo, 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," said Oscar Wilde about Beardsley’s sketches.
Views on his reasons differ. Ricketts declared that Wilde ‘detest[ed] the drawings' because he disliked their content. But the painter John Rothenstein reports that Wilde disliked their style — "too Japanese" according to Wilde, who considered his play Byzantine.

Truth to tell, Wilde worried much about the balance of the volume in English. There was so much power in Beardsley’s illustrations independent of the text, that Wilde feared they might subordinate the play entirely.
Aubry Beardsley certainly learnt of Oscar Wilde’s judgements on his illustrations, so in relation he made a caricature of the dramatist. In response to Oscar’s boast that while writing Salome in French he never had to look anything up, Beardsley drew the smug boaster working at his desk piled with a Family Bible, volumes of Swinburne, a French dictionary, a "First Course" in French, French Verbs at a Glance, three fairy tales in French, and other books including his masterpiece Dorian Grey.

It was not Wilde, however, who asked Beardsley to revise some of his drawings for the play, but the publisher, who was astonished by the grotesque nudity in them.

Nonetheless, Aubry disliked Oscar’s patronizing attitude towards him and filled his Salome illustrations with caricatures of Wilde as well.
Aubrey Beardsley. The Woman in the Moon
Aubrey Beardsley. Enter Herodias
Four works above and below include hidden depictions of Oscar Wilde.

"The Woman in the Moon" (upper left) shows him as a Moon with a single carnation, possibly alluding to the 'green carnation' worn as an emblem by nineteenth century Parisian homosexuals. As a creator of the tragedy, he observes his characters, the Page of Herodias and Narraboth (the Young Syrian) while they, especially the Page, look apprehensively and distrustful of what the creator planned for them.

"Enter Herodias" (upper right) places Oscar Wilde in the bottom right. He is this jester-type owl-capped figure holding a book entitled Solome with one hand and inviting the audience to see the play with the other. His theatrical presence as a jester, a wiseman, and a prompter, all rolled into one, reminds us of his aesthetic idiosyncrasies, such as his wearing his hair long, dressing colourfully, and carrying flowers while lecturing. By the way, a single carnation is here in its right place too — pinned to his sleeve.

There is no doubt that Beardsley endowed his illustrations to Salome with numerous connotations and references, telling a much broader story than Wilde might expect or critics might find "appropriate" within the bounds of his task.

Aubrey Beardsley. Platonic Lament
Aubrey Beardsley. The Eyes of Herod
The competitive affiliation between the literary artist and the artistic playwright prompted Wilde to make snide remarks about Beardsley’s heterosexuality, such as "Don't sit on the same chair as Aubrey, it’s not compromising," and Beardsley to move from the Hotel Sandwich in Dieppe, a small fishing port on the coast of Normandy, because "Some rather unpleasant people come here."
However, Beardsley hasn’t made caricatures of Wilde vicious; on the opposite, each Oscar’s face wears a sad, indeed suffering, expression.

In many works by Oscar Wilde, exposure of a secret sin or carelessness and subsequent disgrace is a central theme. In his essay "The Decay of Lying" (1889) he insisted that life imitated art. And he himself was approximating this pattern in his reckless pursuit of pleasure.
"Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing."

Oscar Wilde
Portrait of Oscar Wilde. Photograph: courtesy of Getty.
Wilde’s tragic downfall was precipitated by an accusation of homosexuality by the Marquis of Queensbury, father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, who in fact translated Salome to English.

After a sensational trial, Wilde was convicted of sodomy or "gross indecency" according to the verdict, and sentenced to two years at hard labor. Salome was not used against Wilde as evidence of perversity, and Beardsley’s name was not mentioned during the trials. Although for many their names were linked enough to associate Beardsley with all of Wilde’s crimes.

Bankrupt and ruined in health, Wilde left prison in 1897 and settled, emotionally broken and depressed, in Paris under the pseudonym "Sebastian Melmoth."
There is a letter in Millard Catalogue written by Beardsley in which Aubrey drops his poise and sympathies to Oscar Wilde: "Poor dear old Oscar, how horrible it all is. I am really upset about it — more than I think perhaps."
Both great creative men have died abroad a little while after they both were converted to Christian faith.

Aubrey Beardsley was converted to Roman Catholicism in 1896 and died of tuberculosis on 16 March 1898 in Menton, France. Oscar Wilde had developed meningitis by 25 November 1900, and was conditionally baptised into the Catholic Church four days later. He died the following day after taking his Last Sacraments, on 30 November 1900 in Paris, France.
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