The Sinuous Curve

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The Climax-Aubrey Beardsley 1894
Along with the Irish writer and wit Oscar Wilde, whose play Salome he illustrated to astonishing effect, Aubrey Beardsley is the key figure in the English 19th Century fin-de-siecle.

In his precocious, short lived yet immeasurably influential career Beardsley started out as a follower of Aestheticism, England’s anaemic version of the international Symbolism/Decadent movement. At the age of twenty his art implicitly rejected the insipid romantic cliches of the Pre-Raphaelites, which Aestheticism was still in thrall to, and concentrated on the grotesque and the erotic. Inspired by Japanese woodblocks and the poster art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, he was one of the first artists to exploit the new process of ‘line-block’, which enabled unlimited prints to be made without losing the clarity of the original drawing. Beardsley’s most important contribution to the history of drawing was, however, the value he attached to line. Beardsley noted that artists “are in the habit of using thin lines to express backgrounds, and thick lines to express foregrounds.” His simple yet revolutionary idea was that he could achieve a greater effect if  “the background and foreground are drawn with lines the same thickness.”  The importance of Beardsley on the sinuous curve of the then nascent Art Nouveau style is hard to over-estimate.

Beardsley’s first commission in 1893, at the age of twenty-one, for the Everyman edition of Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur caused quite a stir with its languid atmosphere of androgyny and perversion. He was a co-founder of The Savoy magazine, where parts of his unfinished erotic novel Under the Hill (with illustrations) were published, and the first art editor of TheYellow Book. Beardsley is credited with the distinctive yellow cover, daringly associating it with the tradition of bounding illicit, pornographic books in that colour in France. Along with the illustrations for Salome, this would prove to be problematic for Beardsley at the time of Wilde’s trial for gross indecency in 1895 and the publishers of The Yellow Book gave in to demands for his dismissal.

Beardsley would continue to illustrate books, notably Lysistrata, Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and selected tales of Edgar Allan Poe, before moving to the South of France in 1897 due to his deteriorating health. He died the following year at the age of 25 from tuberculosis.

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Le Morte d’Arthur-Aubrey Beardsley 1894
Solomeya[1]
The Dancer’s Reward-Aubrey Beardsley 1894
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The Burial of Salome-Aubrey Beardsley 1894
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The Peacock skirt-Aubrey Beardsley 1893
Lysistrata[1]
Lysistrata-Aubrey Beardsley
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Frontispiece of Venus and Tannhauser-Aubrey Beardsley

Dreams of Desire 44 (Lilith)

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John Collier-Lilith with a Snake 1892
Of the many femme fatales that haunted the imagination of the late 19th century, Lilith reigns supreme, the only other serious contestant being the murderous temptress Salome with her Dance of the Seven Veils (see Dreams of Desire 22 (The Apparition).

Lilith is a character from Jewish mythology, and like most mythological creatures the legends surrounding her are confusing and even contradictory. She is alternatively Adam’s first wife, a lustful female demon or the wife of Samael. She is barely mentioned in the Old Testament but she features more prominently in the Zohar and other Kabbalistic works. In the Kabbalah she is a type of succubus who is responsible for nocturnal emissions and is associated with the Qlippoth. The one thing that all sources agree on however is that Lilith is supremely beautiful and deadly dangerous.

The above representation by the English Pre-Raphaelite John Collier follows the tradition of having Lilith enjoying the sensuous en-coiling of her naked body by a snake, presumably the same snake that would tempt Adam’s second wife Eve. Unlike Eve though, Lilith actively embraces the independence offered by the emissary of evil.

Dreams of Desire 22 (The Apparition)

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L’Apparition-Gustav Moreau 1874-1876
In this gorgeous opiated phantasmagoria of a painting Gustav Moreau places the ultimate femme fatale Salome in the Byzantine opulence of Herod’s palace, the seven veils in the process of being parted, before the hallucinated head  of John the Baptist. The painting was mentioned in the breviary of Decadence J.K Huysmans A Rebours and Oscar Wilde caused a sensation with the staging of his opalescent and fantastic rendition of the biblical tale, Salome in Paris (the play was originally written in French). The painting and Moreau’s work in general was a favourite of the Surrealists as his brand of avant-garde Symbolism was a clear antecedent for the part that the unconscious plays in the creative process.