Interview with Aubrey Beardsley of his 1893 pen and ink illustration titled, “The Peacock Skirt” for Oscar Wilde’s one-act play Salome.
E: Hi, Aubrey! How’re you doing? Please, get comfy. Anything to drink? Water?
(Aubrey smiles) I’m doing well, thank you.
E: Here you go… Well that’s great to hear. It’s so wicked having you here, I’m practically a fan girl. Those patterns are insane!! I mean look at them!
I, ha, yes I’m quite well acquainted with them. Thank you, you’re very kind.
E: Your illustration for Oscar Wilde’s one-act play-
E: Yeah! Salome. “The Peacock Skirt” is probably my favourite of your illustrations and trust, it was no easy choice. Your use of contrast is especially dope because the clash of black and white on the canvas really bring out those sweet embellishments. I love what you did with the placement of the skirt and all of the sick details in the feather crown. The stippled halo against the blank upper half.. SO rad.
So ra… I beg your pardon?
E: True, my bad. What I mean to say, Aubrey, is that you have a keen eye for effectively using negative space and contrast. I notice and really admire how your art conveys both extremes of plain, simple lines and intensely detailed patterns. I absolutely love that you combine stippling and solid line work to complement that impressively meticulous design.
Yes I get that quite a lot, actually. Meticulous. My dear friends so often poke fun at my yellow gloves because I never travel far without them. I’m a suit, hat and tie sort of man, I like a neat appearance. I suppose that isn’t the norm, but that’s to be expected from an eccentric fellow like me isn’t it?
E: So I’ve heard. To be fair I’m lucky if my socks match on any given day. Anyway let’s get right to the good stuff! How’d this project begin? Were you good buddies with Mr. Oscar Wilde?
Well, not initially, no. Mr. Wilde originally wrote Salome in French in 1891, if I do recall, and we were both in Paris around at the time. Did you know the play was prohibited from theatrical display in all of England, on account of the depiction of biblical characters?
E: I did not.
I was inspired by Salome so much in fact that I made an illustration on my own accord. It was printed with eight others of mine in the first 1893 issue of “The Studio”, featured in an article by Joseph Pennell if you’ve heard of him. Lovely man. So I had named the piece “J’ai baise ta bouche, jokanaan”, which in French means “I have kissed you, Jokanaan”, and I suppose Mr. Wilde, upon seeing it, discovered that my style resonated with him. It was utmost flattering that in his letter, he recognized me as a kindred spirit of sorts. Quite flattering indeed. He wrote to me to request a commission to illustrate the first edition of the play, which was published in 1894. “The Peacock Skirt” was one of quite a few.
E: Wow! Pretty cool to have Oscar freaking Wilde say that about you. Considering your fondness for the play and happily granted artistic freedom, would you say this was one of your favourite projects?
E: So Aubrey, what was it about you or your art that evoked that kind of response from Oscar? Did he say?
Oh it has been some time now, I couldn’t possibly remember all of the details in that letter.
E: Yeah to be fair a hundred and twenty years is a pretty long time.
My art stood out to him for its… eccentricity. Its perverse and grotesque nature. That was truly the greatest compliment one could receive, to be appreciated exactly as I am and as I express my creativity. The general public and critics found my artwork fervently controversial, particularly the erotica, but I have one aim-the grotesque. If I am not grotesque I am nothing.
E: Absolutely, and that’s what I love about your work as well. Although the piece we’re talking about today isn’t dark or erotic appearing at all, is it? This one highlights instead your deft skill in line work, story telling, and the highly selective contrast in your aesthetic. I’m a real sucker for costume design. What inspired the patterns depicted here?
Frankly my attire isn’t the only expression of my… meticulousness (Aubrey smirks). I love the complex patterns, the finer details. At the time of Salome’s emergence, a novel style of art was only beginning to flourish across Europe, especially England and France. You may know it as Art Nouveau, though it went by a few other names, and it was characterized by natural and curved lines such as those you would observe in plants, flowers… nature. Lines with character, if you will. I was also enormously inspired by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Parisian fashion for Japanese prints.
E: That makes total sense. Well hey, it was amazing having you here. I know you’re a busy man, I’ll get out of your hair. Thanks so much for the Q and A!
The Q… N… A?
E: The interview.
E: Have yourself a lovely evening, Aubrey!
You as well!
B, N. “Aubrey Beardsley.” Find A Grave, www.findagrave.com/memorial/2971.
Harvard. “Harvard Art Museums / Fogg Museum | Bush-Reisinger Museum | Arthur M. Sackler Museum.” From the Harvard Art Museums’ Collections Emperor Trajan, www.harvardartmuseums.org/art/297895.
Sherwin, Skye. “Aubrey Beardsley’s The Peacock Skirt: a Bold Vision of Female Sexuality.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 21 Apr. 2017, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/apr/21/aubrey-beardsley-peacock-skirt-bold-vision-female-sexuality.