In his illustrations of Oscar Wilde's play Salome, Aubrey Beardsley weaves together much of the play's imagery in order to highlight the associations between the characters and the natural aesthetics of the world. These drawings culminate in The Climax, in which Salome cradles Iokanaan's severed head in her hands, and a number of images from the previous illustrations return to provide the eerie setting. In the center of the background looms a sloped white mass suggestive of The Woman in the Moon. Indeed, Wilde draws connections between the moon and both of these characters in his play ("I am sure [Iokanaan] is chaste, as the moon is. He is like a moonbeam, like a shaft of sliver;" "[The moon] has a strange aspect! She is like a little princess, whose eyes are of amber.") In this image the two characters dissolve into the moon their likeness, her pale skin and gown and his white face transparent to the far-off glow from behind. In their fatal kiss they become one with that cold floating orb — itself like a detached human head — soon to be eradicated by the violent bursts of dawn.

And nestled in that whiteness, at the top left of the image, is a bulbous design reminiscent of the peacock feathers of The Eyes of Herod — one of the fifty peacocks that Salome refuses to accept in place of Iokanaan's head. In so doing, though, she does not reject the vanity which the peacocks symbolize, but rather rejects theirs for her own. She demands the head of that man who would not have her, so that, like Browning's Porphyria, he may be to her all that she wishes, and without objection. Thus the feathered peacock pattern seems to rise directly from her own back, indicative of her obsession with her seductive power. And the flower at the bottom reinforces her characterization, reminding one of a narcissus by the pool. For indeed, Wilde draws this comparison as well: "She is like a narcissus trembling in the wind . . . She is like a silver flower." We find in this line both a gentle frailty, and the staunch conviction characteristic of vanity. In Beardsley's image the latter dominates. Salome here is not the young princess girl of the play, but a full-grown woman, confident and pleased with her ultimate victory despite its grim consequences.

Indeed, Iokanaan's head may be the very pool into which Salome the narcissus peers. Each character Beardsley endows with a Medusan quality, their hair curled and twining like rope. Salome sees in Iokanaan's face only herself, because that his very face sits before her symbolizes her great power over men (Iokanaan's lone resistance to her having recently disintegrated). Yet, like Medusa, Salome's vanity dooms her. Moments after this self-recognition in Beardsley's Climax, she will be destroyed by Herod's judgment, as Medusa when she peers into the great shield of Perseus.

Questions

1. What is the effect of Salome's position hovering over the ground? Why might Beardsley have chosen it for this particular scene?

2. Many features other than the characters' hair appear snakelike — the floral fronds, the woman's drapery, the sloping designs in the background. What is the aesthetic result of this, and how does this imagery complement the idea behind the scene?

3. The image incorporates both stark black/white contrasts and, especially in the case of Salome, the dissolving into one another of separate, similarly shaded forms. How does this play with contrasts influence the atmosphere of the scene?

4. How does Salome's facial expression at this climax compare with its o other illustrations?


Victorian Web Overview Aesthetes & Decadents Aubrey Beardsley

Last modified 22 April 2009