Beardsley's illustrations warp and destabilize most of the well-established conventions of the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic. This is perhaps most evident in his depictions of women, which are often simultaneously disturbing and elegant. Thompson observes that his female type is "a direct descendant of the languid, linear Pre-Raphaelite lady, brought more up to date with an infusion of a certain perverse naughtiness" (Thompson). His women are infused with a new type of sexuality; it is no longer subtle and romanticized, but rather more predatory and obvious. This quality is observable in Beardsley's depiction of Salome, a popular Decadent figure.

The first version of The Toilet of Salome is replete with disguised sexual references. The bookshelves hold various cosmetic and decorative items, as well as a selection of "decadent" books. (Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal, and Zola's La Terre among others). To the right of these books sits a "grotesque enthroned fetus" (Snodgrass). Snodgrass notes that the pointed "phallic" shelf, the fetus and the bow of the double bass all point to the genitals of the hermaphroditic youth. Salome herself seems absorbed in a fantasy; her eyes are closed, her head is tilted forward and her hand rests suggestively between her legs. The explicit nature of the illustration led to its outright rejection.

The second version is noticeably subdued, at first glance. Salome's nudity has been eliminated and the hermaphroditic assistants have disappeared. Only the books remain as a sneaky risquŽ reference. Salome, whose body has been reduced to the most elemental of forms, sits as her attendant prepares her for the dance. Although few lines are used to delineate her form, her expression is unmistakably sinister. Other than her full lips and elongated neck, she retains few characteristics of the Pre-Raphaelite woman.

Questions

1. Do you think Beardsley looked to artistic sources from other cultures in creating these images? Are there any Pre Raphaelite influences?

2. Comment on the spatial construction of these scenes. How does the division of interior and exterior spaces contribute to the depictions?

3. Why might Beardsley have included the books? How do they relate to the other objects? Are these objects merely decorative accessories or do they have a symbolic function?

4. Thompson observes that the "demonisation" of women was popular among the Art Nouveau crowd. He writes, "seductresses, synonymous with evil, represented women's destructive power over man" (Thompson). Does this apply to either of the depictions of Salome?

References

Snodgrass, Chris. Aubrey Beardsley, dandy of the grotesque. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Thompson, Jan "The Role of Woman in the Iconography of Art Nouveau" (located on JSTOR).


Victorian Web Overview Aesthetes & Decadents Aubrey Beardsley

Last modified 28 November 2006