British Aestheticism of the 1890s remains the focus of considerable scholarly dissent among both literary critics and art historians. Musicologists, in contrast, agree that the movement towards twentieth-century Modernism begins quite precisely with the opening chord of Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde. No truly comparable work exists for literature and the visual arts. Perhaps this comparative clarity is one reason why Daniel Albright's recent book, Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature and Other Arts attempts to deal with the apparent difficulty of Modernism in literature and the visual arts by tying those movements to specifically that of music. Albright's essential thesis is that a number of the classic works of "High Modernism" have been obscured in their meaning by a critical overzealousness to reduce a work of art to the terms of its own medium; whereas in actuality, many twentieth-century artists consciously have sought to complicate these terms, collaborating directly with those in other fields or imitating their techniques and developments. The book's unusual title reflects Albright's attempt to ground his discussion of twentieth-century trans-media tendencies in a reconsideration of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's famous 1766 essay of inter-arts criticism, Laocoön, or On the Limits of Painting and Poetry, which was highly influential in its articulation of a neoclassical division between painting and poetry.

My concern in this essay is with the nineteenth century rather than the twentieth, and primarily with literature and art rather than with music; but I find Albright's work especially suggestive in two respects: that in his main point about the hitherto largely underappreciated interdependence of the various arts during the past century Albright is absolutely correct; and that his return to the critical discussions of Lessing and the eighteenth century is both refreshing and highly suggestive. There are, I might add, several places in which I find Albright's account incomplete. For one thing — and this is surely a consequence of his primarily twentieth-century subject matter — Albright's consideration of nineteenth-century inter-arts aesthetics seems rather oversimplified: his casual dismissal of a "pop-Wagnerian mystical fusion of the arts" (Albright 5), and passing references to the influence of Baudelaire fail to do justice to the breadth of nineteenth-century opinion on this issue, and in particular, neglect the enormous influence of the critical work of John Ruskin. Not entirely unrelated is the book's failure to draw distinct lines when defining the boundaries of literary Modernism, despite its commitment to that term.

I realize of course that Albright cannot be criticized too harshly for these omissions, since one book can hardly be expected to contain everything. And how much more so is that statement true of a comparatively brief essay such as this one. With this in mind, I shall constrain my comments to a general elaboration of the theoretical frameworks I am dealing with — which must remain somewhat speculative for the time being — and then move on to a more in-depth analysis of one brief but rather underappreciated work, Aubrey Beardsley's Venus and Tannhäuser; which work, in its marriage of word and image, I will argue, provides an exemplary demonstration of the so-called Decadent aesthetic of the 1890s that will help us to better understand the relationship of that movement both to the later Modernist aesthetics of the twentieth century, and to the Romantic and neoclassical theories which preceded it. That said, I do not propose to rely very much on such periodizing terms for the remainder of this essay, lest they suggest implicit value judgments about the superiority of the Modern over the Victorian, etc., as indeed they often are intended to do. Instead, I hope to work towards a historical understanding of inter-arts aesthetics that is more complex than any facile, unilinear division between the abstract art of the twentieth century and the long tradition of earlier representational art would suggest. Such rigid binary oppositions cannot account for Aesthetic movement of the 1890s

The "Laocoön Problem" from Lessing to Bakhtin

Following Albright, I find Lessing's discussion of the Laocoön a useful point of departure for a discussion of inter-arts aesthetics as they have developed over the past few centuries. In the following discussion, I shall briefly touch upon the writings of four major aesthetic theorists in order to construct a useful critical backbone for our consideration of the art of Aubrey Beardsley. Let us begin with Albright, who provides a convenient summary of the aesthetic problem underlying Lessing's discussion of the Laocoön:

In a mimetic theory of art, the work is only a copy, a contingency, not a freestanding exultant thing: it must always lean for support on the entity in the world of experience on which it is modeled. But an entity in the world of experience generally presents itself as a spatiotemporal whole, and often presents itself to several sense organs at the same time. Therefore, insofar as an art object is focused tightly on some physical thing, it can be sensitive — perhaps must be sensitive — to aspects of the thing that extend beyond the range of any one artistic medium. [Albright 12]

Hence the "limits of painting and poetry" to which Lessing's title refers: each artistic medium can only go so far in its imitation of reality, poetry being limited by its essentially temporal character, painting by its essentially spatial character. Confusion over the fundamental difference between the two — as in the allegorical painting and picturesque verse of what we would call the French Baroque, Lessing's primary target — has, according to this view, been detrimental to both: a situation that Lessing intends to rectify:

Bald zwingen sie die Poesie in die engern Schranken der Malerei; bald lassen sie die Malerei die ganze weite Sphäre der Poesie füllen. . . . Diesem falschen Geschmacke, und jenen ungegr ündeten Urteilen entgegenzuarbeiten, ist die vornehmste Absicht folgender Aufsätze. [Lessing, Preface]

Now they force poetry into the narrower bounds of painting; now they expect painting to fill the whole wide sphere of poetry. . . . To counteract this false taste and these ill-founded judgments is the primary intent of the following pages. [my translation]

Lessing proposes to solve this problem by recognizing the material circumstances that underly the essential character and limits of a given artistic medium, yielding a neoclassical aesthetic of clarity and decorum.

Lessing bases this discussion on a classical work of sculpture, now in the Vatican Museum, that depicts the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons as they are strangled to death by serpents as a result of Laocoön's resistance to the guile of the Trojan Horse. The interest of this sculpture, apart from its considerable power and workmanship, derives from the fact Virgil also depicted its subject in the second book of his The Aeneid, furnishing Lessing with an opportunity to compare how two masterpieces of classical art, one literary and the other visual, differ in their representation of the same subject.

The first topic of comparison — and a summary here will give some idea of Lessing's work as a whole — is the depiction of Laocoön's mouth. Whereas The Aeneid describes Laocoön screaming terribly while he is strangled, in the sculpture, his mouth is not opened wide enough for this to be the case. Lessing finds favor with Winckelmann's assertion that this adds dignity to the subject, but otherwise rejects his claims on the issue as insufficient and misleading, arguing instead that the closed mouth is depicted as such because of the limits imposed by the nature of sculpture; because the visual artist can only depict one moment frozen in time, the sculptor chose not to depict Laocoön screaming, even though this would be more truthful in its imitation of reality, because an open mouth would detract from the beauty of the image, and Beauty is the ultimate end sought after by all classical artists seek.


Ruskin's writings on aesthetics are complex, voluminous, and contradictory; and for all of these reasons they will not receive the treatment here that they deserve, though Ruskin was very much interested in contemplating the questions at hand. (For a more detailed discussion of Ruskin's thoughts on aesthetics, see Landow, The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin, below). I will only touch briefly upon the first part of his famous chapter, "Of the Pathetic Fallacy," from Modern Painters, vol. 3, in order to illustrate an important shift that occurred in aesthetic thinking during the decades following Lessing's Laocoön.

Ruskin begins his discussion with a vehement attack on the use of the terms "Objective" and "Subjective" among philosophers, arguing that all such distinctions are irrelevant to discussions of aesthetics, since:

[T]he word 'Blue' does not mean the sensation caused by a gentian on the human eye; but it means the power of producing that sensation; and this power is always there, in the thing, whether we are there to experience it or not . . . [Ruskin, vol. 3, pt. 4, section 2]

Reading against Ruskin's intended purpose, we can locate in the extended space he accords to these considerations a certain anxiety over the objective truth of observed reality which was absent in Lessing, and which Ruskin would very much wish us not to concern ourselves with too deeply. Why is it that the perception of objective reality as such is of comparatively little concern in Lessing? For both men the basis of art is mimesis, the imitation of reality; but for Lessing, representation is only a means to an ends which is Beauty, as we have seen above. For Ruskin, in contrast, art in its essence aspires not to Beauty, but to Truth: "For throughout our past reasonings about art, we have always found that nothing could be good, or useful, or ultimately pleasurable, which was untrue" (section 4). Ruskin's subordination of Beauty to Truth indicates a significant departure from Lessing's neoclassical aesthetics; and it is Ruskin's demand for Truth in art which remains the more satisfying of the two claims today.

Parenthetically, it is interesting to note that a primary target of Ruskin's discussion here is the poetry of Alexander Pope, whose work we will touch on again later.


John Ruskin and Clement Greenberg share an underlying concern for Truth in art, but in regard to how that Truth should be approached, their opinions could hardly differ more strongly. While, generally speaking, Ruskin takes it for granted that the imitative techniques developed by artists since the Renaissance — perspective, chiaroscuro, fine brushwork, etc. — are major advances in approaching Truth in art, Greenberg demands exactly the opposite: visible brushwork, flat planes of color, and non-representational forms. It is true that in his Modern Painters Ruskin set out to defend the increasingly abstract canvases of J. M. W. Turner, but even here he felt the need to justify these works in representational terms, arguing, for example, that objects in the distance are rarely seen in the clarity with which they are portrayed in traditional, (and here, falsely-) representational painting. For Greenberg, in contrast, all representational techniques are tricks that work to distract us from the essential nature of painting, which is spatial, textured, and two-dimensional. In this respect, his views are surprisingly analogous to those of G. E. Lessing, and it is surely Greenberg's recognition of this fact which inspired him to publish his own response in 1940 to the Laocoön problem, "Towards a Newer Laocoön," in which he rearticulated the essential difference of each artistic medium, and proclaimed an awareness of this fact to be a formative characteristic of modernist aesthetics. (For a more detailed comparison between Greenberg and Lessing, see the Introduction to Albright).


Where then, one might ask, does all of this leave our discussion of Aubrey Beardsley? At first glance his position may appear more uncertain than ever. His aesthetic seems consonant neither with the representational demands of John Ruskin, nor with the anti-representational demands of Clement Greenberg, and certainly not with the neoclassicism of Lessing. Although — with the already noted exception of Ruskin — I have thus far followed Daniel Albright's account in relating twentieth-century aesthetics to those of the eighteenth century, there is another theorist, neglected by Albright, whom I find to be highly useful in considering the issues under discussion. This is Mikhail Bakhtin, whose concept of the chronotope, or the space-time matrix in which literature is located, though admittedly influenced by the twentieth-century theories of Albert Einstein, applies to all acts of literary art and not only those of the twentieth century. Just as, following Einstein's concept of relativity, space and time in the physical world are no longer considered to exist as essentially discrete phenomena, but rather as fluid constituents of a space-time continuum which transcends these categories; so, following Bakhtin's concept of the chronotope, is it impossible to consider time and space in aesthetic theory as radically incommensurable categories, as they have been treated thus far. Lessing himself was well aware of the fact that poetry locates itself in space as well as time; his point was rather that the temporal aspect of poetry more than the spatial, in conforming to now archaic notions of propriety, was more consonant with a neoclassical aesthetic of Beauty that was as alien to Ruskin and to Greenberg as it is to us still. Finally, it is important to note that Bakhtin's conception of the chronotope arises not from any transcendent concept of a narrative fictional universe, but out of the strictly material circumstances of a given text: when representing events which take place in space and time, there is only so much that can be included in a single work of literature. In turning now to consider the work of Beardsley directly I am building upon the spatiotemporal understanding of aesthetics which follows from Bakhtin's concept of the chronotope.

Beardsley's Venus and Tannhäuser: Text

I said early on that Venus and Tannhäuser was exemplary of its aesthetic, and indeed, I meant this in no casual sense. It is rare, to use Bakhtin's terms, that a work of art is so consciously involved in fulfilling its own chronotopic and dialogic circumstances: a fact that the briefest summary of its publication history already suggets. In its original form, Beardsley's "romantic novel," The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, was to be published by John Lane with twenty-four full-page illustrations by the writer. This failing to be the case, the first three chapters of a "drastically bowdlerized version," re-titled Under the Hill, were published with several illustrations in the first number of The Savoy in 1896; it was only in 1907, nine years after Beardsley's death, that Leonard Smithers privately issued the original Venus and Tannhäuser as it survived in manuscript (Beckson 9). Already we can see work is dual in two respects; it is an intermedia work pairing text and image, in which both are essential components from the beginning; and it is an inter-temporal work, in that it dialogically recalls both the chronotopic situation of the medieval legend of Tannhäuser (and of course the Wagner opera based on it), as well as the fictionalized eighteenth-century setting of Pope's Rape of the Lock (also illustrated by Beardsley) and the ever-popular erotic novel, Fanny Hill.

As we have it, in its apparently unfinished form, Venus and Tannhäuser is virtually plotless; a fact that only emphasizes the aspect of Beardsley's text which is most crucially significant to the topic under discussion: his radical privileging of the spatial over the temporal. A return to Lessing here is instructive. One of his Lessing's famous distinctions is that between the spatial character of painting, which depicts things nebeneinander or next to one another, and the temporal character of literature, in which elements are arranged nacheinander: one after another. With this distinction in mind, Lessing discusses the difficulty poets have in representing physical beauty:

Körperliche Schönheit entspringt aus der übereinstimmenden Wirkung mannigfaltiger Teile, die sich auf einmal übersehen lassen. Sie erfodert also, da� diese Teile nebeneinander liegen müssen; und da Dinge, deren Teile nebeneinander liegen, der eigentliche Gegenstand der Malerei sind; so kann sie, und nur sie allein, körperliche Schönheit nachahmen. Der Dichter, der die Elemente der Schönheit nur nacheinander zeigen könnte, enthält sich daher der Schilderung körperlicher Schönheit, als Schönheit, gänzlich. [Lessing, XX]

Physical beauty derives from the concordant action of various parts which can be taken in at once. It requires, therefore, that these parts should lie next to one another; and since things whose parts lie next to one another are the proper subject of painting, therefore is painting, and painting alone, capable of imitating physical beauty. The poet, who must necessarily present the elements of beauty one after another, should therefore abstain from the portrayal of physical beauty, as such, entirely. [my translation]

Lessing's ideal poet here, as elsewhere, is Homer, who in the Iliad, he points out, is reticent to give any extended description of Helen's beauty, even though "the whole poem is based upon the beauty of Helen."

When we turn to Beardsley, we find the contrast so great that it sounds almost a conscious effort at parody. Consider the first description of Venus:

She was adorably tall and slender. Her neck and shoulders were so wonderfully drawn, and the little malicious breasts were full of the irritation of loveliness that can never be entirely comprehended, or even enjoyed to the utmost. Her arms and hands were loosely but delicately articulated, and her legs were divinely long. From the hip to the knee, twenty-two inches; from the knee to the heel, twenty two inches, as befitted a Goddess. . . . Those who have only seen the Venus in the Vatican, in the Louvre, in the Uffizi, or in the British Museum, can have no idea of how very beautiful and sweet she looked. Not at all like the little lady in "Lempri�re." [Beardsley 20]

Helen's beauty may be göttlich, "divine," but Venus herself is a goddess, and Beardsley has no reluctance describing her; he hardly seems to desire to do anything else. And the terms are explicitly visual: her neck is "drawn," her arms, "articulated"; the length of her legs is described so precisely it is measured in inches; and she is compared favorably to several famous paintings, the joke being that as the goddess of love, she is, in fact, their intended subject. But Venus is not the only one to be described in this way. Sporion, for example, is one of many characters who fulfill virtually no narrative function, and yet:

Sporion was a tall, slim, depraved young man with a slight stoop, a troubled walk, an oval impassive face, with its olive skin drawn tightly over the bone, strong scarlet lips, long Japanese eyes, and a great gilt toupet. Round his shoulders hung a high-collared satin cape of salmon pink, with long black ribands untied and floating about his body. His coat of sea-green spotted muslin was caught in at the waist by a scarlet sash with scalloped edges, and frilled out over the hips for about six inches. His trousers, loose and wrinkled, reached to the end of the calf, and were brocaded down the sides, and ruched magnificently at the ankles. The stockings were of white kid, with stalls for the toes, and had delicate red sandals strapped over them. But his little hands, peeping out from their frills, seemed quite the most insinuating things, such supple fingers tapering to the point, with tiny nails stained pink, such unquenchable palms, lined and mounted like Lord Fanny's in "Love at all Hazards," and such blue-veined hairless-backs! In his left hand he carried a small lace handkerchief broidered with a coronet. [30]

A more direct illustration of a writer's preferring his elements nebeneinander rather than nacheinander could hardly be imagined. Similar passages are so common that their citation is pointless. The effect on the narrative is clear: Beardsley's descriptive recitations are of such visual detail and so dramatically insignificant that the plot frequently approaches total temporal stasis.

This exchange of narrative time for descriptive space recalls once more Bakhtin's notion of the chronotope, and when we examine the chronotopic situation of the novella, we find similar ideas in play which make the crystallization of any stable chronology impossible. It has already been noted how the setting is suggestive of both the eighteenth and the thirteenth centuries, and passing chronological inconsistencies abound: the orchestra leader, Titurel, for example, is a character borrowed from the Grail legends of the Middle Ages (and a Wagner opera that is based on them), but he is said to be adept at playing Scarlatti and Beethoven, and later on there is a performance of Rossini's Stabat Mater, which was no completed until 1839. It is likewise difficult to track the passage of time during the narrative itself, and since descriptions vary casually from one page to the next, it is impossible to look for any signs of development. (Particularly memorable is the lake described in Chapter 9, which is less stable in size than Pantagruel, and then, we are told, "perhaps was only painted, after all"; 42). The fact that the work both begins and breaks off at the time of Venus' toilet — perennially a favorite subject of painters — underscores the overall sense of timelessness and narrative stasis.

The visual arts may be the most frequent source of the text's many allusions (a number of which are fictitious) but other sensory objects are also referenced quite often, which points to the very insufficiency of the literary medium. Often this insufficiency is admitted outright, as in the description of Venus' banquet in Chapter 3: "The supper provided by the ingenious Rabouillet was quite beyond parallel. . . . What, then, can I say of the Dorade bouillie sause marechale, the ragout aux langues de carpes, the ramereaux a la charniere, [etc., etc.]" (24). Again, this technique is so typical of Beardsley's text that further citations are unnecessary. Rather than avoiding such subjects, as Lessing suggests the literary artist ought to do, Beardsley seems to positively relish them.

In these and many other instances, Venus and Tannhäuser goes far beyond committing one of Ruskin's "fallacies"; the naturalistic representation of reality, the very idea of Truth as Ruskin understood it, is not only unfulfilled — it is absolutely derided. The dedication to "Cardinal Giulio Poldo Pezzoli" furnishes yet another instructive example. Not only does Beardsley admit that "the writing of epistles dedicatory has fallen into disuse" (12), but the Cardinal himself turns out to be wholly fictitious; the pretense, an outright lie. What does Beardsley claim to offer in place of Ruskinian Truth? He tells us, in regard to his composing this elaborate dedication, that "the practice seems to me so very beautiful and becoming that I have ventured to make an essay in the modest art" (12). In place of Truth, Beardsley claims to offer us Beauty.

Decadence: Oscar Wilde and the Cult of Artifice

What could be a clearer sign of a decadent aesthetic than the abandonment of the ethical imperative for Truth in art? And yet this is precisely what Beardsley and other members of the Aesthetic Movement of the 1890s explicitly claimed they were doing. The most famous proponent of this claim is of course Oscar Wilde, whose brilliant dialogue, "The Decay of Lying," is framed as one extended attack on the aesthetic of Truth. Wilde's stand-in, Vivian, discusses the writings of Zola:

[H]is work is entirely wrong from beginning to end, and wrong not on the ground of morals, but on the ground of art. From any ethical standpoint it is just what it should be. The author is perfectly truthful, and describes things exactly as they happen. What more can any moralist desire? We have no sympathy at all with the moral indignation of our time against M. Zola. It is simply the indignation of Tartuffe on being exposed. But from the standpoint of art, what can be said in favour of the author of L'Assommoir, Nana and Pot-Bouille? Nothing. [13]

Rather than the truthful imitation of reality, Vivian proposes a return to an aesthetic of lying. This is a consciously amoral claim, an explicitly perverse elevation of artifice over nature, which is related to Wilde's identification with the artificial products of the modern period: synthetic colors, hothouse orchids, and the green carnation which became his symbol, etc., etc.

One recognizes, then, the amorality of these Aestheticist claims, and also their consequent sterility. But one suspects at the same time that they are to some extent a pose masking deeper intentions. Many of the so-called decadents, after all, became either highly religious as they grew older (such as Lionel Johnson), or committed to the cause of social justice (like William Morris). If the cult of artifice is a hoax, however, and the naturalistic representation of Truth has been abandoned, the question of what aesthetic purpose a work like Venus and Tannhäuser is intended to achieve remains unanswered.

Beardsley's Venus and Tannhäuser: Images

Both Lessing and Daniel Albright have found that the consideration of aesthetic problems from a broader, inter-arts perspective has clarified rather than complicated matters, and I hope that we will find the same when we turn to Beardsley's illustrations. Venus and Tannhäuser is, again, exemplary in this respect because it furnishes an instance in which not only the subject matter but the artist of each medium is identical, and therefore the correspondence between aesthetic aims of both media is presumably quite close; certainly it is more so than that between Virgil and the sculptor of the Laocoön, whom we cannot date to any precise time period. The fact that only the illustrations to the first three chapters of the novella were published is also convenient for the purposes of this essay, which must be somewhat restricted in its breadth.

The first of these illustrations, entitled "The Chevalier Tannhäuser," depicts the protagonist, who stands elaborately dressed before a backdrop of lush vegetation. Presumably, he is shown before entering the Hill of Venus, but the precise narrative moment is obscure because at the opening of Chapter 1 Tannhäuser is said to dismount from his horse outside the gate of the Venusberg, whereas neither the horse nor the gate is here visible. Tannhäuser's features are effeminate, his body strangely rounded, and his clothing, fanciful and exaggerated; none of which would give any suggestion of his identity if it weren't for the caption. His left arm and legs seem to bend unnaturally, and there is throughout no real use of either perspective or shading to suggest an illusion of spatial depth, which is subordinated to the two-dimensional patterns of Tannhäuser's robe, the flowery background, etc. It is, in fact, difficult for the eye to distinguish at first between those elements of the drawing which belong to Tannhäuser's figure, and those which do not.

The illustration to Chapter 2, "Venus at Her Toilet," displays similar attributes. Once again, the figures are difficult to identify, and he use of illusionistic technique is minimal. Venus is apparently the lady seated with bare breasts, but the composition of Beardsley's drawing lends her little emphasis, and her limbs are puzzlingly intertwined with the figure in black who stands behind her and attends to her hair. There are a total of six figures crowed into the quadrant to the right of Venus, all of whom are obscured to some degree, and Beardsley seems to take little interest in the depiction of their facial features or spatial relationship. Far more attention is paid to the interplay of white and black, and the complex linear patterns suggested by the overlap of elaborate dresses and hair-dos, and the furniture of Venus which is itself anthropomorphic and irregular. In contrast to the tightly crowded upper half of the illustration, the lower half appears quite empty, with much of the floor clearly visible between the grotesque posturing of the dwarves, suggesting a studied indifference on the part of Beardsley to the elegant balancing of visual space. While the upper figures stand passively contemplating the seated Venus, the dwarves are frozen in acts of exaggerated violence, both of which postures suggest the kind of temporal abstraction found in medieval illustration, which is also recalled by the flattened use of perspective, as is the painting of the Far East.

The final published illustration, to Chapter 3, is captioned "The Fruit Bearers," and even more than in those preceding it, its subject is largely irrelevant to the narrative. Two men (or one man and one satyr) are shown in an almost Egyptian profile, carrying dishes for, presumably, the supper-table of Venus and Tannhäuser. Strictly speaking, it is only the satyr who is shown to be bearing fruit. As in the previous illustration, the only pretension to illusionistic perspective is in the receding pattern of the floor, which is so exaggerated that it only calls attention to itself. As in the first illustration, it requires some effort for the eye to distinguish the figures themselves from the complex vegetative patterns behind them. This difficulty is the result of a conscious effort on Beardsley's part; the rose-pattern garment of the satyr-figure resonates confusingly with the branching rose bushes behind him, while the alignment of the second figure's bowl seems to suggest that it carries a flowery structure that, we must rationally conclude, properly belongs to the background. His hair is likewise virtually indistinguishable from the darkness behind it.

To summarize, therefore, we can conclude that the outstanding characteristic of the technique of all three illustrations is that Beardsley carefully eschews or undermines the illusionistic techniques of perspective, foreshortening, chiaroscuro, etc., which create, in realist art, a suggestion of three-dimensional space that is in fact absent. In place of these techniques, Beardsley chooses to draw attention to the flatness of his medium, and to explore the complex, anti-mimetic interplay of two-dimensional line patterns and planes of white and black. Is this pure decadence�the abandonment of Truth in favor of artifice? In the visual arts, perhaps, it is more obvious that it is not. What Beardsley achieves, rather, is an emptying out of naturalistic techniques, of illusionistic tricks, which would otherwise distract us from the essential nature of his medium. His work anticipates and moves towards the anti-mimetic aesthetic of Clement Greenberg, which develops out of a Ruskinian desire for Truth in art, even as it renounces Ruskin's demand for naturalistic representation, which it sees as exhausted and confining. It looks back towards Lessing in aspiring towards the fulfillment of a given artistic medium, as it develops naturally out of a recognition of that medium's essential limitations.

Modernism: Artifice as Revelation of Truth

These conclusions about Beardsley's visual aesthetic can, in turn, guide our understanding of his literary work and its intentions. Where we last left off, we were uncertain how Beardsley's self-consciously Aestheticist elevation of literary Beauty over representational Truth functioned on an aesthetic level: whether it was simply a decadent retreat from the moral imperative of Truth, or somehow a movement forward into a new literary concept of Truth that remains, as yet, unexplained. Again, Bakhtin's chronotope proves a useful theoretical model. We have seen how Beardsley's movement towards a modernist aesthetic in the visual arts functions as the product of his renunciation and unveiling of the illusionistic techniques of perspective, chiaroscuro, etc., which work to represent three-dimensional space within two-dimensional art. We have also seen how Beardsley's literary technique complicates the space-time binary which allows for the illusionistic representation of time in the literary narrative. Bakhtin's discussion of the chronotope as a representational technique helps to clarify the analogous nature of these processes:

What is the significance of all these chronotopes? What is most obvious is their meaning for narrative. They are the organizing centers for the fundamental narrative events of the novel. The chronotope is the place where the knots of narrative are tied and untied. It can be said without qualification that to them belongs the meaning that shapes narrative. We cannot help but be strongly impressed by the representational importance of the chronotope. Time becomes, in effect, palpable and visible; the chronotope makes narrative events concrete, makes them take on flesh, causes blood to flow in their veins. . . . Thus the chronotope, functioning as the primary means for materializing time in space, emerges as a center for the concretizing representation, as a force giving body to the entire novel. [Bakhtin 250]

Just as the chief illusion of painting is the creation of space, so is the chief illusion of literature the creation of narrative time; Beardsley's Venus and Tannhäuser works to undermine both simultaneously, recalling, paradoxically, both the aesthetics of Ruskin in his pursuit of Truth, and the aesthetics of Lessing in his articulation of radical formal difference between the artistic media.

But what is gained, it might be asked, through these acts of unveiling? For Greenberg, the modern artist is not only a productive but a heroic figure, salvaging what he can from the exhausted remains of realist art; he does so by drawing attention to the elements of painting which develop naturally out of the formal limitations of the canvas: color, line, texture, etc. In the illustrations to Venus and Tannhäuser, Beardsley does exactly that; in the text, he draws attention, contrastingly, to elements that are essentially literary: the sound of his words and his phrases, for example. A striking consequence of this is Beardsley's recuperation of classical rhetoric, and his phrasing frequently recalls that of rhetoricians like Sir Philip Sidney. It hardly matters any more whether this is parody or not, since the claim to representational Truth has been discarded in favor of the pure experience of the medium's essential character. Pope can once again be read with pleasure, despite his Ruskinian fallacies, because of his demonstrated mastery of language, which is a kind of Truth in itself.

These thoughts may help us to bring to the surface a number of other ways in which Beardsley's text anticipates the literary developments of the twentieth century. One motif examined by Daniel Albright in considerable detail is what he sees as the characteristically modernist motif of the "Loop," which, without going into too much detail, is already present in the repetitions and contradictions of Beardsley's narrative, the incommensurability of his text and his images, as well as the more obvious looping patterns of his illustrations. Even more striking is Beardsley's preoccupation with obscenity and sacrilege, with which he anticipates the Bataille's Histoire de l'oeil and the Surrealist movement. (Picasso was not the first, it might be noted, to draw illustrations for Lysistrata.) What was previously enigmatic can now be considered as a conscious emptying-out of old forms, a transgressive act that is ultimately recuperative and productive.

Much more could be said about Beardsley's language than I have space to consider at present: for example, from the perspective of Bakhtin's considerations of heteroglossia and genre, or from the perspective of gender. What I have attempted here is simply to suggest some of the ways in which a trans-media approach opens up a number of semantic possibilities for a hitherto frequently misunderstood work, and helps us to better locate that work within a historicized narrative of changing aesthetics. Had Beardsley, like the poet Yeats, lived and continued to produce for a longer period of time, such efforts would perhaps have been more readily forthcoming; as it is, the recovery of Beardsley's aesthetic requires a considerable amount of theoretical groundwork. Ultimately, however, a better understanding of the work of Beardsley can help to illuminate not only our conceptions of the Aesthete Movement or Modernism, but the very relation between images and words, which has been an issue of primary significance to considerations of art in the West since the time of their origins as we have them.


Albright, Daniel. Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature and Other Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. M. Holquist and C. Emerson, ed. M. Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Beardsley, Aubrey. "The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser," rpt. in Beckson: 9-46.

Beckson, Karl, ed. Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890's. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1981.

Brophy, Brigid. Beardsley and His World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1976.

Greenberg, Clement. "Towards a Newer Laocoon," Partisan Review 7 (July-August 1940): 296-310.

Kampmann, Rüdiger Maria, ed. Aubrey Beardsley in den "Yellow Nineties:" Dekadenz oder Modernität. Munich: Lipp GmbH, 1984.

Landow, George. The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971. (available at

Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. Laokoon: oder, �ber die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1994; originally published 1766. (available at

Ruskin, John. Modern Painters, ed. David Barrie. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

Wilde, Oscar. "The Decay of Lying," rpt. in The Complete Writings of Oscar Wilde , vol. 7. New York: The Nottingham Society, 1909: 3-57. (available at

Last modified 9 January 2008