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Figure 1: Lucian's Strange Creatures Fetus-Shape, masked Pierrot.Wilde caricature and Whistler buttlefly (Reade, 256) Congruous Incongruities: The Wilde-Beardsley "Collaboration" ROBERT SCHWEIK SUNY College at Fredonia THE HISTORY OF RESPONSES to Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations of the first English edition of Oscar Wilde's Salome clearly reveals a widespread feeling that those illustrations were in many respects irrelevant to the text of Wilde's play.1 In fact, with few exceptions, even most revisionist critics have limited themselves to no more than brief assertions that Beardsley's illustrations are in some way appropriate for Wilde's Salome.2 Recently, however, Elliot L. Gilbert and Linda Gertner Zatlin both have argued that Beardsley's illustrations are altogether suited to the themes of Wilde's play and that they are the result of a remarkably successful collaboration. Specifically, Gilbert has claimed (1) that both Wilde and Beardsley were engaged in creating solipsistic, self-referential worlds in which each character is "the sole author of the universe in which he exists"; (2) that they both did this while mounting "an attack on the conventions of patriarchal culture even as they express their horror at the threatening female energy which is the instrument of that attack"; and (3) that, as a result, "in Salome, we see... one of the most successful collaborations of poet and illustrator in history."3 Although Zatlin fully agrees with Gilbert's conclusion, she does so for reasons which contradict some of his major assumptions: While I agree with Elliot Gilbert that the collaboration between Wilde and Beardsley for Salome was "one of the most successful collaborations of poet and illustrator in history," I do not believe that the drawings or the text reveal their "ambivalent responses.. to an aggressive female sexuality" (159). Wilde has Herod order Salome's death not "in a burst of revulsion" (154) but in a calculated move to restore patriarchal order. Beardsley's drawings track the assault on that order, concluding with the clever image which exposes the ELT 37:1 1994 brutality of the way with which objections to authority are put down. Neither the play nor the drawings are ambivalent.4 It is certainly indicative of the extraordinarily complex relationship of Beardsley's illustrations to Wilde's text that claims that they constitute "one of the most successful collaborations of poet and illustrator in history" should be based on radically conflicting readings of that relationship . Nor is it surprising that such claims depend upon sweeping generalizations that are not supported by a close consideration of Wilde's Salome and Beardsley's illustrations: in fact, both Wilde's play and Beardsley's drawings undermine efforts to find in them some thesis, subvert undertakings to locate social arguments in them, and thwart attempts to read into them some sexual agenda. Here, I intend to consider just one notable element in the complex relationship between Wilde's play and Beardsley's illustrations—the innovative way both artists conjoined strikingly incongruous elements in their respective versions of Salome.5 At the same time, I will to call attention to how such incongruities subvert recent efforts to idealize and politicize the Beardsley-Wilde "collaboration." First I want to point out how persistently Wilde makes use of oddly matched elements in his play, so that even the self-reflexive and solipsistic features in it are undermined by other elements incongruous to them, as are what have been called the play's "anti-patriarchal" details.6 Second, I will consider a similar persistent incongruity in Beardsley's illustrations—not as a sign of some special "collaborative" effort he made but as evidence of a more general characteristic of his art in the period when he illustrated Wilde's play. The point I wish to make is that, dissociate as Beardsley's drawings often are from Wilde's play, there is nevertheless a curious appropriateness to those illustrations because, like Wilde's play, they too contain elements which have a peculiar incongruity, a striking "lack of match" within themselves. In this respect both Wilde's and Beardsley's Salomes foreshadow that exploitation of incongruous elements characteristic to some of the most notable exemplars of twentieth-century modernist art...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 9-26
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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