Life/work: Aubrey Beardsley

I’ve talked (incessantly, I know) about my interest in the Victorian era—I just love subversive modes of expression that stand in for frank discussion in that stridently conservative period. And I’m a sucker for a good and weepy three-decker novel. And I’ve talked (perhaps a bit less) about my World War I readings—from Anne Perry’s series, to an autobiography of a woman caught in Europe at the outbreak, to multiple volumes of history on life in the trenches and the world at war, to my complete obsession with Downton Abbey.

I suppose it was inevitable that I’d become interested in the period that bridged the gap, especially after my December read of The Children’s Book, which I highly (highly, highly, highly) recommend.

So in late December, completely caught up in the interweaving lives and artistic modes in Byatt’s book, I bought the Art Nouveau volume of the Visual Encyclopedia of Art series.

Such a beautiful book. There are sections devoted to architecture, and pottery, and jewelry, but my favorite (right now, anyway) are the prints. And so I’m a little obsessed with Aubrey Beardsley’s work right now.

Aubrey Beardsley was born in Brighton in 1872 and died of tuberculosis at the age of 25 in 1898. He was associated (and still is) with the Aesthetic Movement (which I talked about in this post back in October); the basic idea of the Aesthetic Movement is that life itself is the greatest artistic production. Oscar Wilde is the most famous individual connected to the Aesthetic Movement—Aubrey Beardsley was a friend of Wilde’s, and provided illustrations to his play Salome. Continue reading “Life/work: Aubrey Beardsley”

Tonight I’m reading…

Late Victorian Gothic Tales, ed. Roger Luckhurst; published by Oxford World’s Classics in 2005

It is quite wonderful. The introduction identifies the beginning of the Gothic era (late 18th to early 19th century–Mysteries of Udolpho, and Otranto, and Frankenstein) and then links that to a resurgence in the genre at the end of the nineteenth century. Works such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), The Picture of Dorian Grey (1891), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), and Dracula (1897) are examples of the fin de siecle expressions of the Gothic mode.

“The hybrid, bastard form of the Gothic records the undamming of dark forces that rush into and insidiously undermine the order of everyday life. This prospect is a terror but also, of course, a delightful promise. The genre appears to inflict exorbitant punishments on those who step outside the norm, but at the same time it is in the business of lasciviously imagining these transgressions. It invokes the law by breaking it; it insists on sexual continence by dreaming up all manner of ingenious perversity. It is difficult sometimes to decide of a Gothic text is conservative or subversive for it is often both, simutaneously.” (Luckhurst xi)

 Roger Luckhurst’s introduction suggests that the changing world of the late Victorian found expression in the supernatural excesses of the Gothic tale. What sort of changes, you ask? Gender stuff was all kinds of complicated, what with Oscar’s trial and the New Woman and all. The empire was bigger than ever, and so more fragile and more troubling than ever. Science and religion and spiritualism competed for primary place in the public mind. All of this makes for some uneasy times and for some uneasy tales.  

I’m loving the intersection of the Victorian era and modernity. Tropp’s Images of Fear (which I reviewed here) suggests that the framework with which we view the modern age is informed–created by, even–the horror stories of the Victorian era. This collection seems to allow for further interrogation of that thesis –instead of looking at all the stories, we’re just looking at a few, from a very specific time (the 1890’s), and looking at how they dealt with the very modern terrors of the late Victorian era.

Here’s what’s in the anthology:

Vernon Lee’s Dionea
Oscar Wilde’s Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime
Henry James’s Sir Edmund Orme
Rudyard Kipling’s The Mark of the Beast
B. M. Croker’s The Dak Bungalow at Dakor
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lot No. 249
Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Case of Lady Sannox
Grant Allen’s Pallinghurst Barrow
Jean Lorrain’s Magic Lantern
Jean Lorrain’s The Spectral Hand
Arthur Machen’s  The Great God Pan
M. P. Shiel’s Vaila

The book also includes some 40 pages of introductory notes, including an extensive bibliography and chronology of the era, as well as some 20 pages of explanatory notes. So lots of extra goodies. 

Highly recommended–whether you’re busily researching or just needing something spooky to curl up with on this late October evening. 

that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile

I came across the most fascinating passage about the Mona Lisa while researching my Victorian ghosties. I know that the painting is supposed to be one of the great works of our civilization, and I certainly am not claiming the authority to contradict that. But once you’ve seen something a million or so times, with clever caption bubbles added, reimagined as salt shakers, or recolored in pastels and neons to resemble Warhol’s Marilyn, it’s a bit difficult to even see the actual work without all the cultural baggage of this is a great art.   

Walter Pater reframes the Mona Lisa as a culmination of our culture, not an individual representation. Here’s what he had to say:

The presence that thus so strangely rose beside the waters is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years man had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which ‘all the ends of the world are come’, and the eyelids are a little weary…Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how they would be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire she has been dead many time, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy which it has moulded the changing lineaments and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern thought has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.

I love the way this gives me a completely different way to think about an image I’ve seen so many times. Pater, who was writing in the 1850’s, puts the painting in context for his Victorian contemporaries by referencing the common points of their culture: just as Mona Lisa is “etched and moulded” by the “animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the middle age” and so on, the Victorian admirer of the painting would have been similarly etched and moulded. He makes “Lady Lisa” into a cultural touchstone, representative of the entirety–as he imagines her persistence through the ages of history, he assumes our continued existence.

Not striking stuff for us, right? The extinction of the human race isn’t really a daily worry for me. But the Victorians? They worried about that more. Scientific progress was continually complicating religious beliefs for them: geological advances called Genesis into question; Darwin was on Beagle in the early 1830’s, his letters to the scientific community introduced his revolutionary theories;  the first dinosaur bones were identified in the Victorian era, providing concrete proof of the possibility of extinction for the unadaptable. The Victorian era was unsettling, to put it mildly. 

Pater’s insistence on the mutability and perseverance of Mona Lisa reframes the religious dream of an eternal life into a perpetual life–not for the individual, but for the collective. Pretty radical, eh?  That shift in perspective seems revolutionary to me: our individual progress is worth less than that which we contribute to the group.

I came across the quote from Pater in Ruth Robbins’ article “Apparitions Can Be Deceptive: Vernon Lee’s Androgynous Specters” which appears in Victorian Gothic, a volume of articles edited by Robbins and Julian Wolfreys and published in 2000 by Palgrave. (English major. We cite.) 

Robbins quotes Walter Pater , an Oxford professor in the mid-19th century whose essays influenced the aesthetic movement of the late Victorian Britain. Oscar Wilde is probably the most commonly associated with this movement—it highlights living life itself as a work of art, that art (Art) is for sensuous pleasures, not moral or didactic conveyance.

If you are interested in a bit more information about the Mona Lisa, the Louvre has an interactive lecture that completely sucked me in. I feel immeasurably smarter, even if I did take a break from the Victorian ghosties.

Read more about the changes in Victorian thought and theology here.

Want to read more about what our changes to the Mona Lisa say about our culture? You know you do. Find it here.

*The title is, of course, from the Nat King Cole song.