Raphael Kirchner’s Salomés

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This drawing by Austrian artist Raphael Kirchner (1876–1917) caught my attention for its apparent combination of the Salomé theme with an arrangement of stones and cypresses that bring to mind Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead. All supposition on my part since I can’t find any definite confirmation that the picture is meant to depict Salomé, while a stand of cypresses is often just a stand of cypresses. But the Salomé theme and Böcklin’s island were popular enough fin de siècle subjects to be gestured towards in this manner, even on a piece of postcard art. In one of Kirchner’s other alleged Salomé cards he has a building that resembles the Temple of Cybele in Rome so the cypresses may simply be there to signify Ancient-World-plus-Mediterranean-setting (which in itself contradicts the Judean setting of the Salomé story). Kirchner’s speciality as an artist was attractive young women, often in states of undress, so the Ancient World here and elsewhere is providing the same excuse for a straight audience as “Greek” themes provided for homoerotica in the 19th and 20th century. There’s a lot more of Kirchner’s tasteful cheesecake at Wikiart.

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Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Salomé archive

Oscar (1985)

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I’ve mentioned John Hawkesworth’s three-hour television biography of Oscar Wilde in previous Wilde-related posts, but was never able to point to a viewable copy until now. Oscar was broadcast by the BBC in three parts in 1985, and if it was ever shown again I don’t recall it; I certainly missed capturing it on tape. This was frustrating because I always remembered Michael Gambon’s portrayal of Wilde as being the best I’d seen, but the only reissues for home viewing were long-deleted tapes and discs produced for other countries. Having watched the drama again I’m pleased to find it as good as I remembered, possibly more so since I’ve read a several Wilde biographies in the interim so I’m better able to judge its accuracy.

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Oscar examining Aubrey Beardsley’s Salomé illustrations.

As a writer and TV producer John Hawkesworth specialised in period drama, creating and writing episodes for The Duchess of Duke Street, Danger UXB (about wartime bomb disposal), and the celebrated Granada TV Sherlock Holmes series featuring Jeremy Brett’s definitive portrayal of the detective. Oscar was based on biographical books by H. Montgomery Hyde, an MP who lost his seat for his campaigns in the late 1950s and 1960s against the British laws forbidding homosexual acts. Knowing this it’s significant that Hawkesworth’s opening scene in the first episode is a brief parliamentary discussion about the notorious Labouchere Amendment of 1885 (“The Blackmailer’s Charter”) which the narrator informs us would send Oscar Wilde to prison ten years later. Hawkesworth divides his drama into three distinct phases: Gilded Youth (concerning Wilde’s relationship with Alfred Douglas, his artistic success and the ire of the Marquess of Queensberry); Trials (the personal as well as legal variety); and De Profundis (imprisonment and its aftermath).

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In the dock at the Old Bailey.

The arc of tragedy is a familiar one, of course, but other dramatisations are seldom as well-balanced as here. Feature films about Oscar Wilde generally have shorter running times so devote their larger budgets to a recreation of the glamorous fin-de-siècle rise and the terrible downfall. Oscar is a typical BBC production of the period, mostly recorded on video in studio sets with occasional film work for exteriors. What we see of Victorian London appears sparse compared to the Sherlock Holmes episodes which were being filmed at this time. Hawkesworth may have been restricted by budget but three hours allows him to pay greater attention to the later episodes, especially the courtroom scenes. Oscar was the first screen biography to include the discussion of sexual details during the trial, as well as to show Wilde alone with a naked boy. This was a considerable advance at a time when gay sex of any kind was a rare sight on British television, and when even the straight variety could cause problems, as it did for Gambon and co. a year later when Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective inspired the contemptible Mary Whitehouse to complain to the BBC. Hawkesworth also runs through the later years to the very end, a period of decline usually avoided or, as in Brian Gilbert’s Wilde (1997), disingenuously truncated so as to provide a “happy” resolution. Given this, I would have preferred some of the earlier scenes to be longer and to offer a sense of Wilde’s status as a serious thinker about art and aesthetics. Wilde’s flamboyant persona made him famous but he was influential not for his dandyish manner but for his ideas and their articulation in essays, lectures and the plays; his aesthetic theories were the foundation of all his writing. The most famous line from his final poem is a statement of philosophic principle: “Yet each man kills the thing he loves”.

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Oscar and Bosie.

Aesthetics aside, the public perception of Oscar Wilde presents a hurdle for dramatisations which risk resurrecting the caricatures that flourished while Wilde was alive. Michael Gambon’s performance shows Wilde as a human being, not merely a charming dispenser of witty aphorisms. This has always seemed to me crucial for any actor; it’s not enough to merely look like Wilde—as Robert Morley and Stephen Fry did—but you have to be able to convey the horrors, the indignity (and, with regard to his wife, the culpability) of his later years. Stephen Fry is a good comic actor but he never could have played the Singing Detective. Gambon’s seductively purring voice is another plus, and he even allows a hint Irish brogue to slip through now and then. Of the other actors, Robin Lermitte looks more like Alfred Douglas than does Jude Law in Brian Gilbert’s film, but Law is better at conveying Bosie’s mercurial and tempestuous character; likewise Tom Wilkinson made the Marquess of Queensbury seem a little more human in Gilbert’s version, at least in the beginning, whereas Norman Rodway presents the man from the outset as a perpetually furious goblin. Missing from Hawkesworth’s drama are Wilde’s good friend Ada Leverson, and his mother, Speranza, whose urging him to stand tall and remain in England when the police were coming for him was one of the factors that sealed his fate.

Oscar may be seen here: Part One | Part Two | Part Three

For now, and possibly the foreseeable future, this is the only way to see this drama so I’d suggest downloading it if you can. It’s a rare work that could easily vanish once again.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Oscar Wilde archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Importance of Being Oscar

The poster art of Josef Vyletal

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The Hero is Afraid (1965).

Film posters by Czech artist Josef Vyletal (1940-1989) have appeared here in the past, but after watching Juraj Herz’s gloomily Gothic Beauty and the Beast (1978) at the weekend—a film for which Vyletal not only created a poster but also provided the title sequence and paintings seen within the film—I thought the artist deserved a post of his own.

Josef Vyletal was a prolific poster artist and designer—the Terry Posters website states that he created 115 designs for the cinema—who also worked as a book illustrator. Between commercial assignments he produced paintings in a macabre Surrealist style that filtered into his commercial work, the Herz titles included. The absence of barriers between private obsessions and commercial imperatives is what makes the film posters created by Czech and Polish artists so attractive, as well as so surprising to Anglophone viewers. There’s no sense of these works being produced by committee, of a gaggle of marketing executives fretting over details behind the scenes. Some of Vyletal’s interpretations are so extreme and uncompromising by Hollywood standards it’s impossible to imagine even an adventurous chain like Alamo Drafthouse commissioning them, never mind a risk-averse studio. One of the designs I singled out for an earlier post is an ideal example, a poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds which dispenses with any visual reference to the film in favour of a liberal borrowing of the bird-headed figures from Max Ernst’s The Robing of the Bride. It’s a commonplace when discussing the films of Jan Svankmajer to situate the director in the history of Czech Surrealism which remained a clandestine movement during the Communist years. But Vyletal’s paintings demonstrate a confidence that the average Czech filmgoer could accept Surrealist imagery when being tempted by the latest fare from Hollywood.

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The Naked Eye (1966).

Given my own tastes for Surrealist imagery many of the examples shown here tend in this direction. Vyletal was a versatile artist who utilised a number of different styles, including collage and a bold graphic style of black shapes on coloured backgrounds. In addition to borrowing from Ernst he also borrowed (or swiped) figures from Aubrey Beardsley on at least two occasions (see below). Most of the examples here are collages augmented by or combined with paint, collage being a quicker solution when faced with deadlines. Terry Posters has many more examples.

(Note: the name Vyletal should include an accent but the coding on this blog throws up errors when it encounters unusual accents. My apologies to Czech readers.)

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The Black Tulip (1967).

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968).

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The Trygon Factor (1968).

Continue reading “The poster art of Josef Vyletal”

Aubrey fakery

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Cover of Fifty Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley (1920).

I’ve long been fascinated by fakes and forgeries especially those one finds in the art world, when the ability to imitate another artist’s work succumbs to the temptation to defraud. Artistic forgeries succeed best when there are convenient gaps in an artist’s career, and when the historical record is vague enough to plausibly allow the existence of a lost or neglected work. The fake Aubrey Beardsley drawings that were presented by HS Nichols to the New York art world in 1919 are unusual for offending both these criteria. Beardsley and his work will be subject to renewed attention in March when Tate Britain stages the largest exhibition of his drawings for 50 years, and it was news of this that reminded me of the Nichols fakes. I know the drawings from an appendix in The Collected Works of Aubrey Beardsley (1967), edited by Bruce S. Harris, which presents almost everything that Nichols published in a subscriber-only collection, Fifty Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley, in 1920. Nichols had been in the Beardsley milieu in the London of the 1890s, and was for a short time a partner of Leonard Smithers, the publisher and pornographer who not only published Beardsley’s later works along with The Savoy magazine, but also commissioned the notoriously “obscene” Lysistrata drawings. Smithers was, by Victorian standards, a scoundrel, but also an aesthete, whereas Nichols seems to lack any redeeming qualities. One of the curators of the Tate exhibition, Stephen Calloway, describes Nichols in his 1998 study, Aubrey Beardsley, as “scurrilous”, and provides an account of the Nichols fakes:

That Beardsley’s style was more or less inimitable was sadly proved by almost all those, and there were many, who attempted to fake his work. From the period immediately after the First World War, at a time when AE Callatin and a number of other American collectors were beginning, really for the first time, to make Beardsley originals more valuable, forgeries began to abound. In 1919 a celebrated fraud was attempted when HS Nichols reappeared on the scene, claiming to have an important and sizeable cache of previously unknown Beardsley drawings. They were put on a show in New York. Considerable excitement was generated, especially when doubts about the authenticity of the works began to be voiced in several important quarters.

Denounced as fakes by Callatin, Joseph Pennell and other connoisseurs, these hopelessly inept specimens of the forger’s pen were vigorously defended by Nichols, who claimed in the New York Evening Post, “I know a great deal more about Beardsley than either Mr Pennell or Mr Callatin, but I absolutely decline to make known to the world what I do know”. In fact, he claimed to have had more intimate dealings with the artist than even his erstwhile partner Smithers. The drawings, fifty in number, were published in an expensively produced album, like the Van Meegeren Vermeers; it is difficult now, with hindsight, to see how anyone could possibly have been taken in even then. But, in spite of a useful essay on How to Detect Beardsley Forgeries by the great Beardsley scholar RA Walker, which specifically alludes to these efforts at deception, examples from this very group and others of their like still circulate and surface from time to time.

The note in the Harris book refers to a dismissal of the fakes by Oliver Brenning in the September 1919 edition of Vanity Fair, an article which may be read here (PDF). As for the Nichols book, this turned up recently at the Internet Archive so it’s now possible to see all the fakes in one place. Whoever was responsible for the Nichols drawings (I’ve seen Nichols himself credited) isn’t merely a bad imitator but is also a bad artist, with many of the drawings being remarkably graceless and inept. Beardsley’s art, especially his early work, is often grotesque (“I am nothing if I am not grotesque,” he once said) but it is never ugly. When they’re not being ugly the Nichols fakes assault one’s credulity by showing a pair of young women wearing clothes of a style unknown in the 1890s (Plate 15: “The Twins”), or plagiarising Alphonse Mucha (Plate 49: “Design for a Church Window”). I haven’t checked but I think another of the drawings may be a copy of a piece by Eugène Grasset.

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Whistler by unknown artist (not by Aubrey Beardsley, despite the signature).

Stephen Calloway is correct when he says that the fakes continue to circulate today, mechanical (and digital) reproduction having given them a life they really don’t deserve. (This post might be accused of extending that lifespan.) The Whistler portrait above is one of the more convincing examples which no doubt explains why it was credited to Beardsley in Nick Meglin’s The Art of Humorous Illustration (1973), a book from a reputable New York publisher, Watson-Guptil.

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When Virago published Keynotes & Discords by George Egerton in 1995 they used another of the fakes on the cover. This was particularly ironic when Egerton’s stories had been first published in John Lane’s Keynotes series, a line of books that not only took their name from the first Egerton volume but which were illustrated by Beardsley himself. The worst example of proliferation I’ve seen in print was the Beardsley postcard book published by Taschen in the 1990s which scattered the Nichols fakes among genuine Beardsleys, thus ensuring that the uninitiated would continue to litter the world with the things. Today we have Pinterest, home of the erroneous credit. I doubt the Tate exhibition will draw any attention to the fakes but now that Nichols’ book is online it’s easier for those who suspect an attribution to assuage (or confirm) their suspicions.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Under the Hill by Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley and His World
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

Under the Hill by Aubrey Beardsley

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Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings are reprinted endlessly but his writings receive less attention even though he lavished as much care on his literary efforts as he did on his illustrations. The major work is his unfinished novel, Under the Hill, a book whose descriptive filigree is as detailed as the drawings which accompany the text, and whose erotic passages ensured that the story was never published in full during his lifetime. Extracts appeared with illustrations in The Savoy, the magazine for which Beardsley was art editor; after Beardsley’s death a longer expurgated version was published by John Lane in 1903, together with Beardsley’s other writings including two pieces of verse, The Three Musicians and Ballad of a Barber.

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The Lane volume is a recent arrival at the Internet Archive, and while most of the material is familiar to me it does feature a few pages of Beardsley’s table talk which I’d never seen before. The expurgated Under the Hill is worth reading as an introduction to Aubrey’s florid writing style (and his obsession with clothing) but so much is missing that it can’t be considered representative of the author’s intentions. Under the Hill was published in full in 1907 in a private edition by Leonard Smithers, but the book had to wait until 1959 to receive a more public presentation when Olympia Press added it to their famous Traveller’s Companion series. The Olympia edition has the additional benefit of being completed by John Glassco, a bisexual Canadian poet, and accomplished pasticheur of erotic literature. Glassco not only matches Beardsley’s style while completing the story, he also provides a detailed history of the text, and a defence of its value as literature. If you’re a Beardsley enthusiast who already has most of the artwork then the Olympia book is worth seeking out.

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New English Library reprint, 1966.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
Aubrey Beardsley and His World
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