Art Nouveau: Salome, Oscar, Aubrey & The Yellow Book

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” Oscar Wilde

The year was 1893. The Studio, a new illustrated magazine of fine and applied art, published its first issue featuring a daring illustration for Oscar Wilde’s scandalous play, Salome. The Irish playwright inspired a young English artist, Aubrey Beardsley, to create a stunning femme fatale in black ink and graphite on paper. Provocative! Beardsley made a name for himself that day. Some say that this was the first work of Art Nouveau.

Aubrey Beardsley was a gifted artist and musician. He did not have an easy life; he endured significant health issues, beginning at age 9 with an attack of tuberculosis. He persevered, despite all odds. In grammar school, he drew caricatures of his teachers and illustrated the school’s journal, Past to Present.  Sir Edward Burne-Jones, artist, designer and an associate of William Morris, mentored Aubrey Beardsley, encouraging him to take evening classes at the Westminster School of Art. (Evening classes do pay off!) His work was noticed. Soon Aubrey Beardsley was illustrating Sir Thomas Malory’s, Le Morte d’Arthur. And not just one or two illustrations – but over three hundred!!

Aubrey Beardsley looked for fresh and innovative modes of expression, which led to his involvement in the English translation of Oscar Wilde’s text, Salome. (Originally written in French) Wilde responded by making a copy of the play dedicated especially to Beardsley. It seemed a perfect duet – Oscar and Aubrey – until the illustrations were published. Wilde believed that the Art Nouveau style exhibited too much Japanese influence which was not in keeping with Salome, a Byzantine work. The real problem of course, was that Wilde recognized that the strength and genius of Beardsley’s drawings eclipsed his work.  And then came The Yellow Book…

The Yellow Book, published quarterly in London from 1894 to 1897, was a leading journal in the British 1890s. Aubrey Beardsley, credited with the “yellow” cover idea, was its first art editor. Critics denounced The Yellow Book for its indecency, which made it all the more tantalizing. Contributors included the celebrated artist, John Singer Sargent and the eminent writers, Henry James and H.G. Wells.  Wilde resented Beardsley’s participation in the publication, although he had far more serious problems to worry about.   In 1895, Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour for his questionable morals.  Subsequently, Aubrey Beardsley was dismissed as art editor, based on his association with Wilde. Thereafter, contact between the two was severed.

Aubrey Beardsley bounced back when he partnered with Leonard Smithers (known for his erotic publications) to establish the journal, The Savoy. He seemed destined for even greater artistic heights. That was not to be.  On the night of March 15 or 16, 1898, Aubrey Beardsley died of illness, or perhaps by his own hand, at the age of 25. In his short life, he had a significant influence on Art Nouveau.

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“In the present age, alas! our pens are ravished by unlettered authors and unmannered critics, that make a havoc rather than a building, a wilderness rather than a garden. But, a lack! What boots it to drop tears upon the preterit?” Aubrey Beardsley

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