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This portfolio contains unbound plates of the 16 designs used for the 1907 edition of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé by John Lane, plus an additional plate entitled ‘Salomé on Settle’, printed on Japanese vellum. It is fuller and more explicit than the censored versions of the drawings published in 1894.
Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898) was a fashionable young London illustrator, whose first commissions had been from the publisher J M Dent for a version of the medieval poet Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. The book was a favourite among the artists and poets of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and Dent wanted something to capitalise on the successful style pioneered by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press.
When Salomé was first published in February 1893, the Pall Mall Budget magazine asked Beardsley for a drawing in response. They rejected the macabre, fantastic image he based around the play’s last scene, in which Salomé embraces the severed head of John the Baptist. J’ai Baisé Ta Bouche, Iokanaan. Here, it is redrawn as ‘the Climax’, without the text.
In April, however an art publication, The Studio, ran it as part of its first edition. Wilde saw the drawing pre-publication and liked it; in March, he inscribed a copy of the earlier printing of the book
March ’93. For Aubrey. For the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the Dance of the Seven Veils is, and can see that invisible dance.
This is particularly interesting because though the dance of the seven veils would become the most famous aspect of the story, Wilde only introduced it after the initial drafts, in the later, ‘proofing’ stage of editing his text.
The critic Peter Raby argues that ‘Beardsley gave the text its first true public and modern performance, placing it firmly within the 1890s – a disturbing framework for the dark elements of cruelty and eroticism, and of the deliberate ambiguity and blurring of gender, which he released from Wilde’s play as though he were opening Pandora’s box.’
‘Art for art’s sake’? Aestheticism and decadence shocked the Victorian establishment by challenging traditional values, foregrounding sensuality and promoting artistic, sexual and political experimentation. Dr Carolyn Burdett explores the key features of this unconventional artistic period.
Professor John Stokes considers Salomé as a play within both the French Symbolist and the decadent traditions, exploring its influences, reception and Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations of the work.