Aubrey Beardsley and His World

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This US TV programme isn’t the greatest quality, and it’s blighted throughout with a large watermark, but it’s a revelatory piece both for Aubrey Beardsley enthusiasts and Oscar Wilde aficionados. Camera Three was a CBS arts show which presented Aubrey Beardsley and His World on 12th March, 1967, as a preview for the Beardsley exhibition which had just opened in New York. This was the same landmark exhibition that made such a splash the year before at the V&A in London, and V&A curator Brian Reade appears in the programme to discuss Beardsley’s importance with host James Macandrew. It’s good to see Reade again (he was also in a later BBC documentary) since his Beardsley monograph is a great favourite of mine; as is typical of the period, he looks and sounds very upper class but his scholarship is always authoritative.

Ordinarily this would be enough to satisfy me, even though the programme only runs for 27 minutes and doesn’t tell me anything about Aubrey that I didn’t know already. The great revelation comes near the end with the appearance of Vyvyan Holland, the younger son of Oscar Wilde. Holland not only admired Beardsley’s work but actually met him in 1895 shortly before the artist’s untimely death. Holland was 9 years old at the time, and was taken to visit Aubrey by his mother; he was 81 in 1967, and died himself later that year so we’re very fortunate that he was captured on tape at all. The programme also includes a short extract from Alla Nazimova’s 1923 film of Salomé, with costumes and decor all based on Beardsley’s drawings. Watch it here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
After Beardsley by Ryan Cho
Aubrey Beardsley’s Keynotes
Antony Little’s echoes of Aubrey
Aubrey in LIFE
Beardsley reviewed
Aubrey Beardsley in The Studio
Ads for The Yellow Book
Beardsley and His Work
Further echoes of Aubrey
A Wilde Night
Echoes of Aubrey
After Beardsley by Chris James
Illustrating Poe #1: Aubrey Beardsley
Beardsley’s Rape of the Lock
The Savoy magazine
Beardsley at the V&A
Merely fanciful or grotesque
Aubrey Beardsley’s musical afterlife
Aubrey by John Selwyn Gilbert
“Weirdsley Daubery”: Beardsley and Punch
Alla Nazimova’s Salomé

Beardsley and His Work

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Back in 2008 I wrote at some length about Aubrey, an excellent BBC TV dramatisation of the last years of Aubrey Beardsley’s life written by John Selwyn Gilbert, and screened once in 1982. Mr Gilbert himself added a comment to that post in which he mentioned that he’d written and directed a documentary which was screened in tandem with the play, Beardsley and His Work. I have the documentary on tape but it’s a copy of a copy and is also missing ten minutes or so of its opening so it’s good to find that the entire thing is now on YouTube. (Thanks to Dominique for drawing my attention to this.)

Beardsley and His Work is essential viewing for Beardsleyphiles since it’s the only place you’ll see Beardsley scholar Brian Reade—author of the huge monograph, Beardsley (1967)—and Brigid Brophy—author of two excellent studies, Black and White (1968) and Beardsley and His World (1976)—talking at length about the artist. In addition there’s another artist, Ralph Steadman, examining some of Beardsley’s original artwork and discussing the techniques of ink drawing. The fifty-minute film is divided into four chunks, unfortunately, but is otherwise complete:

Part one | part two | part three | part four

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Previously on { feuilleton }
Further echoes of Aubrey
A Wilde Night
Echoes of Aubrey
After Beardsley by Chris James
Illustrating Poe #1: Aubrey Beardsley
The art of Karel de Nerée tot Babberich, 1880–1909
Beardsley’s Rape of the Lock
The Savoy magazine
Beardsley at the V&A
Merely fanciful or grotesque
Aubrey Beardsley’s musical afterlife
Aubrey by John Selwyn Gilbert
“Weirdsley Daubery”: Beardsley and Punch
Alla Nazimova’s Salomé

Teleny, Or the Reverse of the Medal

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Bibliothèque Libertine edition (1996).

The quintessence of bliss can, therefore, only be enjoyed by beings of the same sex… Teleny

More Wildeana, and yes, it’s that painting againTeleny is an authorless and explicitly homoerotic novel often attributed to Oscar Wilde although what evidence there is regarding its creation points to it being the work of several hands. It was published in a limited edition by Leonard Smithers in 1893 then subsequently reissued in a variety of editions which, being illicit and copyright-free, suffered excisions and textual amendments. Smithers was a good friend of Wilde’s and in addition to being Victorian London’s most prominent pornographer (a sign in his Bond Street shop window proudly declared “Smut is cheap today”), also financed The Savoy magazine and kept Aubrey Beardsley solvent after the artist’s commissions dried up following Wilde’s imprisonment in 1895.

The convoluted history of Teleny begins with its mysterious origin, recounted here by Beardsley scholar Brian Reade in Philippe Jullian’s 1969 Wilde biography:

Charles Hirsch, a Parisian bookseller, came to London in 1889 and opened a shop in Coventry Street where he sold Continental books and newspapers. Wilde was a frequent customer of his, and Hirsch used to obtain for him Alcibiades enfant à l’Ecole and The Sins of the Cities of the Plain. Many of these were reprints of well-known works of this character. Towards the end of 1890 Wilde brought into the shop a thin paper commercial-style notebook, wrapped up and sealed. This he instructed Hirsch to hand over to a friend who would present his card. Shortly afterwards, one of Wilde’s young friends whose name Hirsch had forgotten by the time he recorded the incident called at the shop and after showing Wilde’s card took away the packed-up notebook. A few days later the young man came back and handed the manuscript to Hirsch, saying another man would call and collect it in a similar manner. In all, four men seem to have taken away and returned the manuscript, and the last left the wrapper undone. Succumbing to temptation, Hirsch opened the parcel and read the contents of the notebook, the leaves of which were loose. On the cover there was a single word TELENY; inside about 200 pages of a novel which appeared to be a collaborative effort. No author’s name was given. The handwritings were various; there were conspicuous erasures, cuttings-out and corrections. Hirsch believed that some of the writing was Wilde’s. In due course Hirsch gave the manuscript back to Wilde. He next came across Teleny when he found it had been printed by Leonard Smithers in an edition privately issued and limited to 200 copies, with only the imprint ‘Cosmopoli’ at the bottom of the title page, and the date 1893. In this printed version, Paris had been substituted for London as the scene of the action, and there were certain differences of detail. There was an added sub-title Or the reverse of the Medal, and the Prologue had been cut out. When Hirsch got to know Smithers in 1900, he asked about the book, and was told that Smithers had wished not to upset the self-respect of clients by leaving the story with a London background. There was also Des Grieux. A Prelude to Teleny which was announced for publication by the Erotica Biblion Society in 1908. One can go over the names and literary mannerisms of some of the better-remembered persons in his circle in 1890, but to associate any of them with the authorship of Teleny would be difficult. Copies of Teleny in the 1893 edition are very rare indeed. The British Museum has one, but those in private possession have been reduced in number no doubt by executors and others who considered them unfit for anything else than fire. A new edition was brought out by the Olympia Press of Paris, and in it Wilde was definitely, but mistakenly, credited with the authorship; and an expurgated version was produced in paperback form by Icon in 1966, with an introduction by Montgomery Hyde.

Neil McKenna in The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (2003) is convinced of Wilde’s involvement whereas Richard Ellmann firmly dismissed the notion. Some of the dissent is perhaps a result of competing agendas, in McKenna’s case a determination to establish a firmly gay persona for the author. McKenna explores Wilde’s sex life in detail, something that Ellmann frequently skates over. Ellmann, meanwhile, has a better grasp of Wilde’s literary prowess and evidently thought that Teleny didn’t adequately match the rest of the author’s work. I remain agnostic on the issue while being struck by the frequent use in Teleny of flower metaphors which the narrator deploys when describing the object of his affection. Having recently read McKenna’s book (which quotes throughout from Wilde’s letters), and re-read The Picture of Dorian Gray, it’s impossible to avoid Wilde’s continuous recourse to flower imagery when referring to people or even items of furniture. The most famous instance of this was his description of Aubrey Beardsley and sister Mabel in a letter to Ada Leverson: “What a contrast the two are—Mabel a daisy, Aubrey the most monstrous of orchids.” On the debit side I’d say that Wilde is unlikely to have invented the central relationship between Camille de Grieux and his Hungarian lover, René Teleny. McKenna’s book also makes it clear that Wilde preferred younger men, particularly teenagers, and would no doubt have outlined a different story had he been the sole originator.

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left: Gay Men’s Press edition (1986); right: La Musardine edition (with Egon Schiele cover, 2009).

Everyone who discusses Teleny, however, is agreed that its prose is far more finely-wrought than much general writing of the period, never mind the era’s pornography. The sexual description is powerfully erotic and gives the lie to that canard (perpetuated by the egregious Auberon Waugh and his annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award) that describing sex is almost always a mistake. Describing anything poorly is a mistake, the challenge is to do the thing well, and Teleny describes the encounters of its pair of lovers better than many writers would manage today.

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Genuine (left) and pastiche (right) Beardsley designs.

With such an intriguing work it’s always a boon if there’s further discussion on the subject, and the Wilde connection pays off here with a whole section of the Oscholars website being devoted to the book. Of particular note is John McRae’s introduction to a revised and textually corrected edition published in 1986 by London’s Gay Men’s Press. Jason Boyd, meanwhile, argues that the book could never be wholly attributed to Wilde. Also present is a page showing different cover designs for the various editions, some of which are shown above. As well as the inevitable Wilde portraits and Beardsley designs there’s the surprise appearance of Flandrin’s Jeune Homme Assis au Bord de la Mer on several editions. Other pages at Oscholars include plates from an illustrated edition of the book whose publisher and illustrator, Uday K Dhar, forbid reproduction elsewhere, an all-too-common example of copyright paranoia which ensures the audience for their work remains a limited one. By contrast, artist Jon Macy has an entire site devoted to his comic strip adaptation of Teleny. His black-and-white drawing and attention to detail combine to make his book another item for the shopping list.

Update: The Oscholars site appears to have folded so the links now connect to archived pages.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Oscar Wilde archive
The recurrent pose archive

Beardsley at the V&A

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This battered item is my copy of the V&A guide to the landmark Aubrey Beardsley exhibition held at the museum from May to September 1966. That exhibition introduced Beardsley to a new public and made his work very trendy for a while, helped by the Beardsley-styled sleeve of the Beatles’ Revolver album which was released the same year, and a general resurgence of interest in fin de siècle style. Aside from a rare unfinished drawing, there isn’t anything in the booklet which hasn’t been reprinted many times elsewhere but it does contain an excellent overview of the artist’s career by Beardsley scholar Brian Reade.

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The V&A website has gained a new feature recently which allows you to search their collections with either a specific search or a random browse. The results don’t give the kind of high-resolution results which I’d like (unlike the British Museum) but the Beardsley works can now be seen in something like their actual condition, edge of the paper and all. Also present is the above piece of Beardsley trivia, a yellowed sheet of wallpaper manufactured by Arthur Sanderson & Sons Ltd in 1967. The Deansgate office of Savoy Books was once covered in this stuff but had unfortunately been papered over by the time I arrived on the scene.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Merely fanciful or grotesque
Aubrey Beardsley’s musical afterlife
Aubrey by John Selwyn Gilbert
Beardsley’s Salomé
“Weirdsley Daubery”: Beardsley and Punch
Alla Nazimova’s Salomé

Kafka’s porn unveiled

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Pages from Der Amethyst (1906) showing Reh-Inkarnation by Thomas Theodor Heine.

Okay, don’t get too excited, I simply wanted to make a couple of points of order while this story is still causing a stir. I noted earlier the recent (London) Times piece about James Hawes’ new book, Excavating Kafka, described as a work which:

seeks to explode important myths surrounding the literary icon, a “quasi-saintly” image which hardly fits with the dark and shocking pictures contained in these banned journals.

Hawes claims to have been surprised, if not shocked, by the discovery—new to him but not to Kafka scholars, it seems—of Kafka’s collection of Franz Blei publications, The Amethyst and Opals. Blei published Kafka’s short stories as well as other literary works and fits the mould of many small publishers (Leonard Smithers and Maurice Girodias come to mind) who financed poorly-selling literature with erotic titles. Kafka may well have been “paid” for his writing with these books. However:

Even today, the pornography would be “on the top shelf”, Dr Hawes said, noting that his American publisher did not want him to publish it at first. “These are not naughty postcards from the beach. They are undoubtedly porn, pure and simple. Some of it is quite dark, with animals committing fellatio and girl-on-girl action… It’s quite unpleasant.”

Read the rest of the breathless saga here. The Times doesn’t show any of the pictures in that piece but the paper edition showed a drawing which looked like the usual erotica of the period, a slightly cruder version of the kind of thing done so well by artists like Franz von Bayros. So not photographs, then, but drawings. Sure enough, descriptions of Blei’s books list well-known names such as Aubrey Beardsley, Alfred Kubin, Thomas Theodor Heine, Karl Hofer, Félicien Rops, and von Bayros. Yesterday’s Guardian examined some of the reaction to Hawes’ assertions from other Kafka scholars which is generally hostile, their counter-assertion being that he’s making a mountain out of a molehill. That piece includes another description of the depraved contents:

They include images of a hedgehog-style creature performing fellatio, golem-like male creatures grasping women’s breasts with their claw-like hands and a picture of a baby emerging from a sliced-open leg.

Hmm…Beardsley, sliced-open leg? That could only be Aubrey’s illustration for Lucian’s True History. Sensitive readers may wish to avert their gaze.

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Birth from the Calf of the Leg. Illustration intended for Lucian’s True History (1894). Not used, but published in An Issue of Five Drawings Illustrative of Juvenal and Lucian by Leonard Smithers, London (1906).

Shocking stuff. Allow me to veer from the point for a moment with Beardsley scholar Brian Reade’s explanation of that drawing:

This illustration (was) rejected from the 1894 and 1902 editions of Lucian’s True History. At the time when it was drawn the artist was obsessed by foetuses and irregular births; creatures derived from the foetus form occur in the Bon-Mots series, in The Kiss of Judas, in Salome and elsewhere. That he chose to illustrate this subject suggests that there may have been a latent strain of homosexuality in Beardsley. Lucian describes in his True History the way in which children are born in the kingdom of Endymion on the Moon. “They are not begotten of women, but of mankind: for they have no other marriage but of males: the name of woman is wholly unknown among them: until they accomplish the age of five and twenty years, they are given in marriage to others: from that time forwards they take others in marriage to themselves: for as soon as the infant is conceived the leg begins to swell, and afterwards when the time of birth is come, they give it a lance and take it out dead: then they lay it abroad with open mouth towards the wind, and so it takes life: and I think thereof the Grecians call it the belly of the leg, because therein they bear their children instead of a belly”. Lucian also explains that “their boys admit copulation, not like unto ours, but in their hams, a little above the calf of the leg for there they are open”.

The other drawings mentioned by the Guardian don’t sound familiar but may well be by Alfred Kubin who produced a number of curious erotic pieces, one of which is in my Art of Ejaculation post. Meanwhile Die Welt Online reproduces some of the Félicien Rops pictures in a small gallery, all of which are rather innocuous depictions of prostitutes.

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Rops could be a lot weirder and wilder than this. (See his Octopus drawing of 1900.) I haven’t seen Hawes’ book yet, but going on this evidence it seems the Kafka scholars may have a point about his inflated claims. Much of this work was shocking at the time, of course, and open publication of some of it would have been an invitation to an obscenity prosecution. But I’ll let the Kafka scholars haggle over Franz’s reputation, quasi-saintly or not; the main point for me was that the works in question are very familiar to anyone who knows the art of the period. So in place of rancour, here’s a nice homoerotic painting by another of the artists published by Blei, Karl Hofer, in style and colour reminiscent of Picasso’s Rose Period pictures.

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Drei Badende Jünglinge by Karl Hofer (1907).

Update: this volume finally turned up in the Savoy Books office so I was able to look through it. The Beardsley picture above is indeed among the very few examples of “Kafka’s porn”, used without any credit and Beardsley receives no mention in the index. There’s also a Félicien Rops drawing with a caption which says it “may be Victorian”, along with a couple of other pieces, all equally uncredited. Yes, that’s the level of the scholarship at work here; the author couldn’t even be bothered to research the art in question. Summary: worthless.

Previously on { feuilleton }
A postcard from Doctor Kafka
Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker
Hugo Steiner-Prag’s Golem
Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka
Kafka and Kupka
The art of ejaculation
The art of Félicien Rops, 1833–1898