Oscar Wilde’s Play Salome Illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley in a Striking Modern Aesthetic (1894)

December 11, 2019

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Beardsley was a young aesthete with a literary imagination. In his short career—he died at the age of 25—he illustrated many of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, forefather of the American Gothic. Beardsley also famously illustrated Oscar Wilde’s scandalous drama, Salome in 1893, to the surprise of its author, who later inscribed an illustrated copy with the words, “For the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the Dance of the Seven Veils is, and can see that invisible dance.” Beardsley’s drawings first appeared in an art magazine called The Studio, then the following year in an English publication of the text.

Beardsley and Wilde’s joint creation embraced the macabre and flaunted Victorian sexual norms. After an abrupt cancellation of Salome’s planned opening in England, the illustrated edition introduced British readers to the play’s unsettling themes. The British Library quotes critic Peter Raby, who argues, “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.”

Wilde’s play was ostensibly banned for its portrayal of Biblical characters, prohibited on stage at the time. Furthermore, it “struck a nerve,” writes Yelena Primorac at Victorian Web, with its “portrayal of woman in extreme opposition to the traditional notion of virtuous, pure, clean and asexual womanhood the Victorians felt comfortable living with.” Wilde was at first concerned that the illustrations, with their suggestively posed figures and frankly sexual and violent images, would “reduce the text to the role of ‘illustrating Aubrey’s illustrations.’”