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Book Reviews THE LENS OF THE GROTESQUE Ewa Kuryluk. Salome and Judas in the Cave of Sex. The Grotesque: Origins, Iconography, Techniques. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1987. Cloth $49.95 Paper $21.95 Although Ewa Kuryluk has used, largely, Aubrey Beardsley's work—in words and in images—to represent a stage in the artistic use of the grotesque in Western culture, her real subject proves to be the mythmaking mind of Beardsley himself . A learned exploration of the decadent dimension of our collective psyche in the late nineteenth century, it may be more narrowly useful as a scholarly equivalent to a cinematic "fantastic voyage" within the consciousness of a single individual. Future studies of Beardsley will not be able to ignore it. A long introduction on the origins of the grotesque as an outlet for antisocial impulses, and how the grotesque has manifested itself since the first cave drawings, is followed not by examining its use among fin de siècle writers and artists in general, but almost wholly as Beardsley employed it. Even here, two Beardsley works are singled out for minute examination, one primarily prose, the other entirely pictorial—the Venus and Tannhaüser story as told and illustrated in Under the Hill, a somewhat sanitized version of which appeared in The Savoy (1896), and the drawings for Oscar Wilde's notorious play Salome (1893), made far more notorious by Beardsley's art. (Max Beerbohm even quipped that Wilde's text served to illustrate Beardsley's pictures.) There is no question but that the grotesque dominates Aubrey Beardsley's art. "The moving force of the grotesque world," Ewa Kuryluk tells us, "was eros. It was injected into landscape and architecture, and allegorized in different ways; it appeared as a winged boy or a homed satyr, a chevalier or a beast, a dwarf and an embryo who explored the female garden, island, or planet of love, a subterranean paradise." Further, she concludes, the artists of the grotesque , preoccupied as they were with death as well as with love, "oscillated between sadism and masochism but had a stronger inclination for the second." The reason, she claims, was their sense of being surrounded, from womb to tomb, by a need for the female which left them feeling the inferior sex, whatever the clouds of male chauvinism which obscure such dependency. She does not explain how, in Beardsley's case, that need was so special and so overwhelming that it suffused almost everything he drew or wrote. Why did Beardsley, the presiding genius of fin de siècle decadence, direct his art—and his entire career, self-acknowledged as brief, for he knew at twenty that he was dying—into the grotesque tradition? Why did no other artist of his time work in the grotesque so brilliantly—or so mischievously? And how was 191 31:2, Book Reviews he able to do so with an awesome display of erudition, although his training went no further than an indifferent and abbreviated public school education (he was a surveyor's clerk at sixteen), and a few months of intermittent nightschool art classes? Speaking not generally, Ewa Kuryluk says only that "Grotesque ornamentation, because of its affinity with the complicated structure of organic life and the opaque and highly eroticized nature of the inner self, offered a refuge for ambiguous, unverbalized feelings. . . . The grotesque could act as a vehicle for emancipation and, significantly, exploded in times of unrest and spiritual crisis. . . . The subterranean was too authentic and thus too strong to be eradicated." By the close of 1893—Beardsley was twenty-one and had already accomplished his nearly six hundred drawings and decorations for the Morte d'Arthur and for Salome—he was already beyond visits to libraries and galleries. If not bedridden he was housebound; his tuberculosis was acute and worsening, and there was no cure. "Grotesque artists," Kuryluk writes, "were lovers of the esoteric, scholars of the hermetic, and specialists of the absurd and obscene. The wild fantasies were nourished by curio cabinets and rare books. . . ." First, however, such fantasies had to have been fed from within, yet she refers only to "the peculiar character of the grotesque artists, their unscholarly...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 191-195
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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