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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: tenth anniversary issue

Embler, Weller
[Rage against iniquity],   pp. [79]-93 ff. PDF (18.5 MB)

Page 88

88      promising young English artist; and it is
quite possible that during his visit
Beardsley saw The Beheading of St. John
the Baptist, which Puvis had painted in
1869, and he may well have regarded it with
respect. When, however, it was Beardsley's
turn to illustrate the legend, he placed
the emphasis, as Wilde had done, on
Salome's necrophilic obsession, whereas for
Puvis, the central vision had been the
saintliness of St. John.
No two styles could be more unlike than
those of Puvis de Chavannes and Aubrey
Beardsley; but the bond of the subject is
present, and the meaning is perhaps
essentially the same, innocence triumphant.
Puvis had long been subjected to bitter
criticism, and he, too, was sensitive and
had been wounded by the attacks upon him
and his paintings. Puvis' paintings, in the
mural tradition, are tranquil and full of a
mystical faith, similar in feeling to the
music of his contemporary Cesar Franck
(1822-1890). The flow of the pale colors,
modulating harmonically, is comparable to
the flowing chromaticism of Franck's music
and the quiet ecstasy of, for example,
passages in the Symphony in D minor.
Puvis' wall-paintings are tone poems in
subdued colors. The Beheading of St.
John the Baptist pictures St. John at the
moment of his martyrdom, the executioner
at the left with raised sword ready to
strike, Salome on the right poised more in
curiosity than lust or horror, and
St. John at the center, peaceful, devout,
certain in his faith.
It was not ecstasy or faith or mystical
feelings that inspired Beardsley when he
came to do his illustrations for Salome
(though as a matter of fact, Beardsley
was himself of a deeply religious nature).
If the Beardsley people cast a spell, it does
not last for long. They are purgatorial
ghosts who vanish when they are not
being looked at. It is difficult to remember
them. They are imprisoned on the
paper, as indeed they should be, being
ideas, phantoms of the erotic imagination.
In Salome he expressed Salome depraved,
Salome sly and monstrous in her appetite
for power over innocence. If Beardsley
thought of Salome as representing the
society of his time, then (to emend a
famous line of Lord Byron) society scorned
is, like Salome scorned, the embodiment of
Hell's fury. The Beardsley imps, the
Beardsley woman, the lucid Beardsley line
are statements, not of faith, but of fact,
the fact of social corruption.
One of the drawings for Salome is entitled
"The Stomach Dance," and it corresponds
with interesting similarity to Flaubert's
description of Salome's dance in his
story Herodias:
Her eyes were half-closed; she wriggled her
hips, and when she rolled her belly like
undulating waves, her breasts would quiver.
Her face remained impassive, but her feet
did not stop.'
In Herodias, however, Salome is merely an
instrument of the treachery of her mother.
As we have noted earlier, it was not
Salome who excited Flaubert's creative
imagination. Mainly, Flaubert describes the
behavior of the decadent life of the court of
Herod Antipas. The barbarism of the feast,
the lurking savagery in the conflicts between
the Jews and Romans, Samaritans and
Jews, Pharisees and Sadducees are
erudite evocations of a time and place.
It would be rash to suggest that Flaubert
had in mind his own age and society
when he wrote Herodias. There were many
differences between what he considered
the complacency, coarseness, and banality
of his environment and the scenes of
oriental sensuality, intrigue, and
barbarism in the religious and civil
conflicts of Roman history in the near
East. Nevertheless, there was something in
the legend of Salome and John the
Baptist that had enough meaning for
Flaubert to incite him to one of his finest
literary creations; and it is not impossible
that beneath the differences of costume and
custom, he saw likenesses of ambition,
callousness, and hypocrisy. He, too, had
been subjected to harsh criticism at the
hands of his detractors, and his writings
had been charged with immorality.
He, too, was a severe moralist, preaching
not in the guise of John the Baptist but
of an archaeological scholar.
Richard Strauss based his opera Salome on
Oscar Wilde's play, translated from the
French into German. The opera is a
rich musical mosaic of the story, and it is
faithful to Wilde's version of the legend.
Very possibly Strauss was inspired more by
the play's challenge to his musicianship

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