Saturday, 13 July 2013

The Influence of Aubrey Beardsley

Salomé (1893)
by Aubrey Beardsley
(from CerebusWiki, December 2004)
I was certainly aware of Aubrey Beardsley's work through Jaka’s Story and Melmoth but he had too much of a core perception of the "illustration as the totality of the narrative" to be a touchstone for a sequential narrative, in my view. There's certainly a sense of everyone being "rooted" in their place in the page - partly as a means of slowing things down - which might be thematically linked with Beardsley. I considered using some of his flourishes and affectations but there was always the problem of making it fit with what Gerhard was doing in the background that would compel me to stick to much narrower parameters of the literalism "straight and narrow" than "doing" Beardsley would have allowed, I think. If I was to show Gerhard Beardsley's Salomé pictures, as an example, and say “here’s what we’re doing on this page” the reaction would be that it was wrong. The perspectives and the proportions are off because Beardsley was doing the Whole Picture in a fine art sense, rather than a composed picture in a geometric sense. Beardsley's picture’s design was the content was the shape was the point was the outline was the relationship of black to white was the perspective was the proportion, was the idea, was the net effect etc. etc. To communicate that to Gerhard bearing Gerhard's working methods in mind I'd have to find some analogous background "look" with structure to it - probably Virgil Finlay. Finlay was the logical outcome of Beardsley's approach if you’re looking at the style from Gerhard's side of the fence. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I steered Gerhard toward pointillism in the course of the book. He's so thorough that that just constitutes needless cruelty unless you have a solid motivation for it: like the single instance of showing in The Last Day how blurred Cerebus' vision had become. I had to do one panel on my own to show him "Go deep into the page, but not too deep, about this deep - don’t hurt yourself." If I just said "Cerebus' vision is really blurry so do that whole end of the room in pointillism," he’d do it and it would be mind-boggling but it would take him five or six days and he would need stomach surgery by the end of it. 

I'd say if there's anything that I took away from Beardsley it was his artistic irreverence for Oscar Wilde since, as I say, a reverent treatment would have been the kiss of death. He did Oscar as one of the figures in one of the Salomé pictures and it sure wasn't something Oscar would have put on his Christmas cards that year. He had a very low opinion of Wilde and Wilde had a low opinion of Beardsley. One of Wilde's letters concerns the scandalous number of telegrams they sent each other when they had their famous "set to" over Wilde's critiques of Beardsley’s drawings for Salomé. I think it was Salomé, anyway. Trying to get the last word in at each other so that the telegraph company was delivering message after message after message which would certainly be enough to attract the wrong sort of notice in Wilde's Chelsea neighbourhood. Wilde considered Beardsley's work Byzantine and thus inappropriate for illustrating his own work. Wilde still saw pictures through Whistler's eyes - faux Orientalism was his forte. Beardsley either wasn't far enough East, for Wilde, or he was too far East depending on which way you were traveling. They were, as Old Joe put it in A Christmas Carol "well met". There was an intrinsically grotesque quality to Beardsley’s work that suited the degradation Wilde had embarked upon and which he was attempting to wed to his inherent love of beautiful things. Beardsley is arguably the prettiest illustrator of grotesqueries from that or any other time period. The fact that everyone else thought the grotesque look of Beardsley's work was very well suited to what Wilde was writing should have set off warning bells for Wilde, but didn't.

Find out more about Aubrey Beardsley in Beardsley and His Work, a fifty minute film available in four YouTube chunks, featuring Beardsley scholars Brian Reade and Brigid Brophy talking at length about the artist. In addition Ralph Steadman examines some of Beardsley’s original artwork and discusses the techniques of ink drawing. Part one | part two | part three | part four

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