Aubrey Beardsley @ Tate Britain

Aubrey Beardsley must be the most distinctive British artist. If you see any of his mature works, they are immediately recognisable and almost always deeply satisfying, their elegance of line and composition emphasised by the stylish use of huge areas of unmediated black or white, and the sophistication of his sensually charged portrayal of the human figure.

The Black Cape, illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) Photo © Tate

This exhibition is a feast of Beardsleiana, bringing together 200 spectacular works to make the largest display of his original drawings in over 50 years and the first exhibition of his work at Tate since 1923.

The wall labels to the fifteen or so sections the exhibition is divided into are available online:

And it contains a detailed timeline of his career. Rather than repeat all that, I’ll just single out what were, for me, the key learnings or best bits.

Key learnings

As he turned 18 and needed a job, Beardsley got a job working in an insurance office which, as you might imagine, he hated. What other early modern ‘great’ worked in an insurance office, created a distinctive body of work, and died of tuberculosis? Franz Kafka

Arts & Crafts It is interesting to see Beardsley’s tremendous indebtedness to Arts & Crafts ideas of total design, and the importance of intertwining flower and stem motifs. And considering he was only 19!

Withered Spring by Aubrey Beardsley (1891)

Beardsley began his career just as William Morris was producing his luxury designed books from the Kelmscott Press. The curators usefully summarise the elements of a Kelmscott production as:

  • elaborate decorated borders
  • decorated initial letters
  • full page illustration

The hair-line style The exhibition shows how Beardsley quickly moved from this relatively ‘heavy’ line to move to the extreme opposite, to complex compositions which are covered in a crazy network of super-fine lines. The curators call this his ‘hair line’ style.

How Arthur saw the Questing Beast by Aubrey Beardsley (1893) Victoria and Albert Museum

It is also an early example of Beardsley slipping surreptitious rudeness or irrelevancies into his pictures. At the bottom left of the ‘river bank’, right up against the frame, is the silhouette of an erect penis and scrotum. Towards the top right is a concealed treble clef.

Morte d’Arthur The picture above is one of the Morte d’Arthur series which made Beardsley’s reputation. He was commissioned to make a hefty 353 illustrations for a new edition of the Morte by publisher J.M. Dent, including full and double-page illustrations, elaborate border designs and numerous small-scale ornamental chapter headings.

However, Beardsley quickly became bored and irked by the subject limitations and began introducing extraneous elements and flights of fancy. Thus the picture above is supposed to be of a medieval knight and a dragon though you wouldn’t really think so. Most disruptive of all is the presence of a pan or satyr from Greek mythology, absolutely nothing to do with medieval legend.

Japanese influence The exhibition includes one print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a lovely coloured woodblock which exemplifies the kind of Japanese influence which impacted European art from the 1870s onwards, and influenced everyone with their:

  • abstract depiction of pictorial space
  • linear intricacy
  • emphasis on flat pattern

Kakemonokakemono is a Japanese hanging scroll used to display and exhibit paintings and calligraphy inscriptions and designs mounted usually with silk fabric edges on a flexible backing, so that it can be rolled for storage. It is a distinctly different shape from traditional Western portrait shape, and Beardsley was to incorporate it into many later works.

Mantegna Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) was a key influence for Beardsley. The Italian was famous for his frescos and murals showing parades and processions and groups of people, and Beardsley used ideas and figures and compositions from Mantegna throughout his career. Even in his last accommodation, a hotel room in the south of France, he had a set of photos of works by Mantegna pinned to his wall. Indeed Beardsley produced several Mantegna-style processions, notably The Procession of Joan of Arc which was included as a foldout supplement to the second edition of The Studio magazine in 1892.

Wagnerite Beardsley was a keen fan of Wagner, attending productions of his operas and illustrating scenes from them. He had ambitions as a writer as well as illustrator and in his last few years worked at a text which was a comic version of the legend of Tannhäuser which Wagner had made into an opera. Given the working title of the Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, excerpts were eventually published in The Savoy magazine under the title Under The Hill, an oddly Hobbit-like title for such a grand Wagnerian subject.

Photo Lineblock Just as important for the quick evolution of Beardsley’s style was the introduction in the 1890s of the new technology of photo lineblock printing, a photomechanical process. Beardsley was disappointed at the poor reproduction of his washes and shading using this new method, but quickly adapted and made a virtue of leaving large areas of a page completely untouched, others pure black, and ensuring the lines and patterns were crisp and clear. The result is startling.

How la Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram by Aubrey Beardsley (c.1893) Alessandra and Simon Wilson

In fact this picture is singled out by the curators as exemplifying another of Beardsley’s traits which was his extraordinary ability to assimilate influences and make them his own. Thus the curators point out in this image:

  • Isoud resembles Jane Morris, with the classic pre-Raphaelite jutting chin and mountain of frizzy hair
  • the Germanic form of the desk is borrowed from Albrecht Dürer’s engraving St Jerome in his Study
  • the flattened use of space recalls the influence of Japanese prints
  • whereas the elaborate border of intertwining flower motifs recalls Arts & Crafts designs

Salomé In 1892 Beardsley made a drawing in response to Salomé, Oscar Wilde’s play, originally written in French and based on the biblical story. Wilde admired the drawing and he and his publisher, John Lane, chose Beardsley to illustrate the English translation of the play. Beardsley produced eighteen designs in total, of which only ten appeared in the first printing of the play. Publisher John Lane suppressed or censored three of Beardsley’s illustrations for their overt sexual references, in particular when female characters’ hands are wandering towards their privates, as if about to masturbate, or unnecessary depictions of the male characters’ phalluses.

The Climax – illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) by Aubrey Beardsley. Photo © Tate

The Yellow Book The exhibition clarified the timeline around the Yellow Book, and has an entire room devoted to it. Beardsley was made its art editor at its inception in 1894 and contributed the front and back covers for the first five editions. But Beardsley was closely associated with Oscar Wilde (having contributed a suite of illustrations for Wilde’s ‘immoral’ play about Salome), and so soon after Wilde’s arrest in May 1895, Beardsley was fired from the Yellow Book.

On one of the days of his trial, Wilde was seen going into court holding a copy of the Yellow Book and that clinched it for the angry mobs and journalists outside. The offices of the Yellow Book’s publishers, Bodley Head, were attacked by a mob who smashed its windows. In order tonsure the survival of the firm, and its staff, and the continuity of publication of the magazine and all his other titles, publisher John Lane had little choice but to distance himself from Beardsley. The sixth volume, of July 1895, still had the cover and several illustrations by Beardsley but he no longer worked for it. (Later it transpired that Wilde hadn’t been holding a copy of the Yellow Book at all, but a French novel, which tended to be published with yellow covers.)

The Yellow Book Volume I (1894) bound volume. Photo © Tate

It looks as if you can examine every volume of the Yellow Book, all its literary and art contents, online

The room has an example of all five volumes of the Yellow Book that Beardsley was involved with. I’ve read about it ever since I was a teenager at school forty years ago, but I don’t think I’d ever seen a copy before and certainly not six. I’d always envisioned it as magazine-size, but it does indeed look like a hardback book, in size and shape and leather binding.

Beardsley’s work desk The exhibition includes the very table or desk which Beardsley used during his glory years. Standing a few feet from it, it is hard to imagine that the man produced all these pitch-perfect works without the aid of architects’ tools or computers – just him, a ruler and a pen.

Beardsley’s address With the money he made from the Salome illustrations and a small legacy Beardsley bought a house at 111 Cambridge Street, Pimlico with his mother and sister, Mabel, to both of whom he remained very close throughout his short life. Only a few hundred yards from Tate Britain where this exhibition is being held…

Oscar Wilde Wilde was an established writer when he saw the first of Beardsley’s drawings and immediately liked them. He approved the suggestion that Beardsley illustrate the original French version of Salomé and they socialised. So far, so well known. I hadn’t realised that Beardsley satirised Wilde quite so much. There are straightforward lampoons of the increasingly fat and pompous aesthete, but he also slyly slips Wilde’s epicene features into numerous other illustrations, in one giving the moon the eyes and nose of Wilde.

The Woman in the Moon by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

The Rape of The Lock is the title of Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic 18th century satire. I suppose it’s worth clarifying that ‘rape’ in the title doesn’t mean rape in our modern sense, but the older sense of ‘theft’ or stealing away. Thus Pope conceived an extended poem which uses all the devices and machinery of the classical epic to describe how one jaded aristocrat cuts a lock of hair from the head of another jaded aristocrat, and this leads to a feud between their families. Believe it or not this elaborate literary joke extends to five cantos with many extended scenes. Beardsley created nine photo-engravings for an 1896 republication of the poem, five of which are on display here for the first time.

Beardsley had been a fan of 18th century rococo prints, maybe because they – like him – are sophisticated, worldly, stylish and much more open about sexuality than the Victorians. The exhibition shows us some of the original 18th century prints which Beardsley bought at auction in Paris, and then goes on to show all the Pope pictures.

The Dream by Aubrey Beardsley (1896) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

What’s immediately obvious is the that the stark clarity of the Salome illustrations has been abandoned for a much more elaborate style, characterised above all by the stippling that creates a sort of lace doily effect on almost all the fabrics. And look at the patterning of the carpet. A long way from the stark black and white of the Salome illustrations. Many critics thought these his best works as an illustrator.

Posters the 1890s were the glory decade for poster design in Paris, led by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret. I didn’t realise Beardsley produced a number of posters which modified his own style to take on board the need for a) size b) colour.

There’s a room devoted to half a dozen of his posters, none of which match the quality of Lautre or Chéret, and most of which are advertiser’s promotions of new ranges of childrens books or books by women, alongside promotional posters for The Yellow Book and several plays and operas. The section contains the telling quote:

I have no great care for colour, but [in posters] colour is essential.

‘I have no great care for colour’. Worth pondering. And relevant to the one and only oil painting Beardsley is known to have made.

Oil painting There’s a rare outing for Beardsley’s only oil painting and you can see why – it’s rubbish. His entire style was built around absences, around huge areas of untouched whiteness. Trying to translate that into oil, which specialises in depth and shadow, was a hopeless task.

Porn After Beardsley was sacked from The Yellow Book, almost the only publisher who would use his drawings was Leonard Smithers. Smithers operated on the fringes of the rare book trade, issuing small, clandestine editions of risqué books with the boast: ‘I will publish the things the others are afraid to touch’. Smithers encouraged Beardsley’s already growing interest in risqué French, Latin and Greek texts and commissioned drawings to illustrate the Satires of the late Roman poet Juvenal and, most famously, Aristophanes’s bawdy satirical play Lysistrata.

In Lysistrata the women of Athens go on a sex strike, refusing to have sex with their menfolk until they stop the ridiculous war against Sparta. Beardsley made eight outrageously sexual illustrations for Smithers’ edition. Among other subjects, this is the set which includes start, beautifully made black and white line drawings of ancient Greeks with humongous erect penises. Maybe if you’re very young or innocent these are ‘shocking’ images, but to the modern viewer they are vaguely reassuring, certainly humorous. The two figures on the right are mildly realistic but it’s the guy on the left who gets the attention, not because of  his phallus as such but because the entire character is obviously created for grotesque comedy.

Illustration for Lysistrata by Aubrey Beardsley (1896)

The grotesque He knew he was attracted to ‘the grotesque’ and there is a wall label which usefully explains the origins of the grotesque in art. Grotesque originally referred to the decoration of grottos, and came to denote the depiction of deliberately hybrid and monstrous forms, which often combined body parts from different animals, like a centaur or mermaid. As the man himself said:

I see everything in a grotesque way. When I go to the theatre, for example, things shape themselves before my eyes just as I draw them. .. They all seem weird and strange to me. Things have always impressed me in this way.

Foetuses Nobody knows to this day why he drew so many foetuses, either as insets in frames or as characters in the more grotesque illustrations. Maybe it was simply because they are a kind of quintessence of the grotesque.

My favourite Venus framed by two statues of male gods in the form of herms (a sculpture with a head and perhaps a torso above a plain, usually squared lower section’). I like it because of its formal precision, its symmetry which is, however, broken by the asymmetric sway of Venus’s long dress. I like it because there is no indecency, boobs or penises in sight. Instead there is a sense of genuine menace from the devil eyes of the two herms. And I like it because it is a kind of reversion or revisiting of the Arts & Crafts theme of incredibly ornately interwoven bushes, stems and flowers of (I think) roses. But mostly because it is a pleasingly complete, formal, complex and rather threatening image.

Venus between Terminal Gods (1895) Drawing with india ink by Aubrey Beardsley. The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford

Walter Sickert Almost the best thing in the exhibition is the full-length portrait painting of Beardsley made by the English painter Walter Sickert, after they’d both attended a commemoration ceremony for John Keats. Its sketchy unfinished quality makes it a haunting gesture to the memory of the dandy and artist who died aged just 25.

Aubrey Beardsley by Walter Sickert (1894)

Crucifix The exhibition includes the last photo of Beardsley, taken in the hotel room in the Hotel Cosmopolitain in Menton where he had gone in search of a warmer dryer climate which would be more favourable to his tuberculosis. The photo shows Beardsley looking tremendously smart in a suit and well-polished shoes opposite a wall on which are pinned reproductions of his beloved Mantegna, and a mantelpiece on which sits a crucifix.

Because although I’ve probably read it numerous times, I’d forgotten that in his last months Beardsley converted to Catholicism. He died holding a crucifix. Just a few days before he died he wrote a letter to Leonard Smithers asking him to destroy all of Beardsley’s risqué images, the Lysistrata illustrations etc. Smithers refused and so they were saved for generations of schoolboys to giggle over.

Who does a deathbed request to destroy his works which its address completely ignored remind you of? Franz Kafka.

Film There is a room with benches so you can watch Charles Bryant and Alla Nazimova’s 1923 silent movie version of Salomé immediately following the room of Beardsley’s illustrations. For some reason the gallery lights had been left on full power in this room which made it harder to see the image on the screen.

Legacy The exhibition closes with a sketchy overview of Beardsley’s legacy from his influence on the long sinuous lines of Art Nouveau via a string of now mostly forgotten book illustrators who copied his style (Harry Clarke, Hans Henning Voigt) through the revival of Beardley’s reputation and style which was sparked by a major retrospective of his work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1966 which led to the incorporation of Beardsleyesque black and white swirling lines into lots of psychedelic posters and, most famously of all, into the portrait of the four Beatles in the cover art for their LP Revolver.

Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley 1893 by Frederick Evans. Photo-etching and platinum print on paper. Wilson Centre for Photography

This is a long, very thorough, exhaustive and informative exhibition about a truly world class and utterly distinctive English artist.

Curators

  • Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, Curator of British Art 1850 – 1915
  • Stephen Calloway
  • with Alice Insley, Assistant Curator of Historic British Art

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

This is one of the most spectacular and dramatically staged exhibitions I’ve ever been to.

Normandie in New York (1935-39) Collection French Lines

Normandie in New York (1935-39) Collection French Lines

The golden age of the ocean liner from the turn of the twentieth century to the Second World War coincides with the evolution of key decorative trends of the 20th century – Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Modernism. This exhibition takes a systematic approach to showcasing not only the decorative arts movements but a whole range of elements connected to the rise of the great ocean liners. To name a few:

  • national prestige – European nations competed to have the biggest, most luxurious ocean liners
  • technical competition to, for example, cross the Atlantic in the quickest time and win the Blue Riband
  • engineering – with a room devoted to black and white films of liners being built, models of steam turbines and other technical aspects
  • quite a number of very big models of classic liners, some with cutaway views so you can see into everything from cabins and dining rooms down into engine rooms and cargo holds

But where the exhibition really impresses is in the extraordinary thoroughness with which the entire environment has been conceived, and the scale of some of its key rooms.

For example, the first room has a wall with a big wall label introducing the history and art of ocean liners. It took me a while to realise that the wall itself is painted black with a red line along the bottom and slopes gently outwards like the hull of an actual liner. In front of it is a metal bollard of the kind the liner would tie mooring lines onto, and down at ground level was a concealed light projecting the shimmering as of water onto the lower part of the wall. It is the hull of a ship. Next to it is a wall of posters, and some monitors showing footage of people getting on to old liners – and then, to continue the exhibition, you walk through a doorway cut into this imaginary hull. It’s clever and stylish.

The wall of stylish Art Deco posters at Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition

The wall of stylish Art Deco posters at Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition

The next room wonderfully recreates the dark wood feel of a pre-Great War liner, heavy with wood panelling and Art Nouveau glass, both which featuring motifs derived from Versailles Palace of Louis XIV, the Sun King.

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition

Another room examines smaller aspects of shipboard design as it developed from the 1920s through to the 1960s. This features a wonderful mural by English artist Edward Bawden (soon to be the subject of an exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery), as well as a monitor with footage showing how the stylish evening dress of the 20s and 30s declined into the relaxed casual wear of the 50s and 60s.

The Art Deco objects are thrilling and sleek – it is a style which never goes out of fashion – whereas the wall lamps and mounts from the 50s and 60s look tacky and dated.

The English Pub Mural for the SS Oronsay by Edward Bawden (1949-51)

The English Pub Mural for the SS Oronsay by Edward Bawden (1949-51)

On a similar scale is the room about Engineering and the War. The engineering element is conveyed by cutaway models of ships highlighting the enormous coal-powered turbines, by highly evocative black and white footage of shipbuilders working in the Clyde or Belfast shipyards.

But the attention to detail, to creating a total sensory and visual experience which I mentioned re the sloping hull-wall, comes out in the way the engineering ‘room’ has a deep thrumming sound in it, the sound engines actually beneath the ship’s decks – and by the way the floor changes from parquet to metal plate decking with chevron mouldings, giving just this room a more industrial feel. In one corner is an enormous model of a ship’s funnel painted black and red which also forms part of the wall of the next room. This room contains one of Stanley Spencer’s inspirational paintings of shipworkers on the Clyde.

Shipbuilding on the Clyde by Sir Stanley Spencer (early 1940s)

Shipbuilding on the Clyde by Sir Stanley Spencer (early 1940s)

It also contains a wall describing ocean liners in war, with a focus on the horrific sinking of the Lusitania by German U-boat on 7 May 1915 with the loss of 1,201 people. This section includes photos of the ship, a film recreation of the event, and the stirring patriotic poster which resulted.

'Enlist' by Fred Spear (1915)

Enlist by Fred Spear (1915)

This feel of a ‘sensaround experience’ – the opening room with its curving ship’s hull wall, the engine room with its humming engines – is reinforced by a wonderful Art Deco room adorned with strong vertical lights and displaying the enormous interior panel from the Smoking Room of the French liner, Normandie, created by leading Art Deco lacquer artist Jean Dunand. Photos show it in situ but none of them can convey the sheer scale of the thing itself.

Interior panel from the Smoking Room of the French liner, Normandie by Jean Dunand

Interior panel from the Smoking Room of the French liner, Normandie by Jean Dunand

But impressive though all these rooms are, they turn out to be mere foreplay for the stunning centrepiece of the show.

The V&A has converted a large room in the North Court into a kind of night-time fantasia of the gracious living to be found on the classic ocean liners. The high ceiling of this huge space has been covered in black felt and dotted with lights to recreate the sparkling stars to be seen at night-time far out in the light-free ocean. Reaching up into this night sky is a tower of huge video screens onto which are projected time lapse footage of a man in evening dress and a woman in an elegant gown stylishly descending imaginary stairs down to our (ground level).

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

This central column is surrounded on three sides with display cases showing all aspects of the luxury of life on a cruise: a whole load of evening gowns and dresses in beautiful Deco fashion, studded with pearls and jewels; earrings, necklaces, jewellery that would have been worn; and an entire wall dedicated to food with footage of the famous chef Auguste Escoffier preparing meals for his lucky passengers alongside luxury sets of plate, the cutlery and tea services you would have found in tip-top VIP accommodation.

But that isn’t all. You enter this enormous space by walking around a mock-up of a typical ocean liner swimming pool made of coloured glass, around which and in which are shop window mannekins wearing stylish swimsuits from the era. Behind them, and the length of one wall, is an enormous wide-screen projection of a liner sailing slowly across a panoramic view of a beautiful calm tropical sea.

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Wow! Just wow! I’ve never seen something so ambitious and overwhelming as this one huge display. You go around looking at the tea services and dresses and so on, but keep returning to just gaze in awe up at the tower of stylish evening-wear models or across at the stately liner in the blue sea, and are continually gobsmacked at the size and ambition of the whole space.

There are panels about the importance of class distinctions on the liners, about the difference in conditions, food and facilities for first, second or third-class passengers. There is another room full of the art inspired by ocean liners, including paintings by the likes of Albert Gleizes and Charles Demuth and some great black and white photos by Le Corbusier and Eileen Gray.

There are objets de luxe to coo over, like a precious Cartier tiara recovered from the sinking Lusitania in 1915 or the Duke of Windsor’s sumptuous 1940s Goyard luggage. There’s a little corner devoted to the wonderful Marlene Dietrich, including footage of her posing onboard a liner and a case containing a Christian Dior suit worn by the lady herself.

The show also includes what the museum describes as one of the most important flapper dresses in the V&A’s collection – Jeanne Lanvin’s ‘Salambo’ dress – a version of which was displayed at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925. The dress belonged to Emilie Grigsby, a renowned wealthy American beauty, who regularly travelled between the UK and New York aboard the Aquitania, Olympic and Lusitania throughout the 1910s and 1920s.

The silk georgette and glass-beaded Salambo dress designed by Jeanne Lanvin of Paris (1925)

Silk georgette and glass-beaded Salambo dress designed by Jeanne Lanvin of Paris (1925)

And for anyone (like my Dad) who likes big scale models of ships, this exhibition is nirvana.

But after looking at display cases showing all these items or explaining all the industrial, technological and social history of the ocean liner, from Isambard Kingdom Brunel to the Queen Mary, you keep returning to the Big Room, and the sheer scale of its awesome display of swimming models, night gowns, the moving footage, all unfolding under the mocked-up night sky.

This really is an amazing and dazzling exhibition.

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Installation view of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Curator: Ghislaine Wood


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

Art Deco by Alastair Duncan (1988)

Perhaps most significant to the development of a twentieth century aesthetic was the birth in the interwar period of the professional industrial designer… (p.118) In the 1920s commercial art became a bona fide profession which, in turn, gave birth to the graphic artist. (p.150)

This is one of the older volumes from Thames and Hudson’s famous ‘World of Art’ series, famous for its thorough texts but also, alas, for the way most of the illustrations are in black and white (this book has 194 illustrations, but only 44 of them in colour, most of them quite small).

Duncan also wrote the WoA volume on Art Nouveau, which I read recently, and has gone on to write many more books on both these topics, including a huge Definitive Guide to the Decorative Arts of the 1920s and 30s. He knows his onions.

Main points from the introduction

  • Art Deco was the last really luxurious style – people look back to Art Deco and Art Nouveau with nostalgia because they were florid, indulgent and luxurious – since the Second World War all styles have been variations on plain functionalism.
  • Art Deco is not a reaction against Art Nouveau but a continuation of it, in terms of ‘lavish ornamentation, superlative craftsmanship and fine materials’.
  • Received opinion has it that Art Deco started after the war, but Duncan asserts that it had begun earlier, with some indisputable Art Deco pieces made before 1914 or during the war. In fact he boldly suggests that, had there been no war, Art Deco might have flourished, peaked and been over by 1920.
  • Art Deco is hard to define because designers and craftsmen had so many disparate sources to draw on by 1920 – Cubism, Fauvism, Constructivism, Futurism, but also high fashion, motifs from the Orient, tribal Africa, the Ballets Russes, or Egypt, especially after the tomb of Tutankhamen was discovered in 1922.
  • Duncan distinguishes between the decorative styles of the 1920s which were luxurious and ornamented, and of the 1930s, when machine chic became more dominant, lines sleeker, more mechanical. The chapter on metalwork makes this clear with the 1920s work alive with gazelles, flowers and sunbursts, while the 1930s work copies the sleek straight lines of airplanes and steamships. In the architecture chapter he distinguishes between zigzag’ Moderne of the 1920s and the ‘streamline’ Moderne of the 1930s (p.195).
  • There’s also a distinction between the French style (the French continued to lead the field in almost all the decorative art) exuberant and playful, and the style of the rest of Europe and, a little later, America, which was cooler, more functional and intellectual. Throughout the book Duncan refers to the former as Art Deco and the latter as Modernism.
  • To my surprise Duncan asserts that Modernism was born at the moment of Art Deco’s greatest triumph i.e. the famous Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. The severe modernist Le Corbusier wrote an article criticising almost all the exhibits for their luxury and foppishness and arguing that true design should be functional, and mass produced so as to be affordable.
  • Duncan contrasts the attenuated flowers and fairy maidens of Art Nouveau with the more severe functionalism of the Munich Werkbund, set up as early as 1907, which sought to integrate design with the reality of machine production. This spartan approach, insistence on modern materials, and mass production to make its objects affordable, underpinned the Bauhaus, established in 1919, whose influence spread slowly, but affected particularly American design during the 1930s, as many Bauhaus teachers fled the Nazis.

So the entire period between the wars can be simplified down to a tension between a French tradition of luxury, embellished and ornamented objects made for rich clients, and a much more severe, modern, functionalist, Bauhaus style intended for mass consumption, with the Bauhaus concern for sleek lines and modern materials gaining ground in the streamlined 1930s.

In reality, the hundreds of designers Duncan mentions hovered between these two poles.

Structure

The book is laid out very logically, indeed with the rather dry logic of an encyclopedia. There are ten chapters:

  1. Furniture
  2. textiles
  3. Ironwork and lighting
  4. Silver, Lacquer and Metalware
  5. Glass
  6. Ceramics
  7. Sculpture
  8. Paintings, Graphics, Posters and Bookbinding
  9. Jewelry
  10. Architecture

Each of the chapters tends to be broken down into a handful of trends or topics. Each of these is then broken down into area or country, so that successive paragraphs begin ‘In America’ or ‘In Belgium’ or ‘In Britain’. And then each of these sections is broken down into a paragraph or so about leading designers or manufacturers. So, for example, the chapter on ceramics is divided into sections on: artist-potters, traditional manufactories, and industrial ceramics; each of these is then sub-divided into countries – France, Germany, America, England; each of these sub-sections then has a paragraph or so about the leading practitioners in each style.

On the up side, the book is encyclopedic in its coverage. On the down side it sometimes feels like reading a glorified list and, particularly when entire paragraphs are made up of lists of the designers who worked for this or that ceramics firm or glass manufacturer, you frequently find your mind going blank and your eye skipping entire paragraphs (one paragraph, on page 51, lists 34 designers of Art Deco rugs).

It’s a shame because whenever Duncan does break out of this encyclopedia structure, whenever he stops to explain something – for example, the background to a particular technique or medium – he is invariably fascinating and authoritative. For example, take his explanation of pâte-de-verre, something I’d never heard of before:

Pâte-de-verre is made of finely crushed pieces of glass ground into a powder mixed with a fluxing agent that facilitates melting. Colouring is achieved by using coloured glass or by adding metallic oxides after the ground glass has been melted into a paste. In paste form, pâte-de-verre is as malleable as clay, and it is modelled by being packed into a mould where it is fused by firing. It can likewise be moulded in several layers or refined by carving after firing. (p.93)

Having myself spent quite a few years being paid to turn a wide variety of information (about medicine, or botany, or VAT) into clear English, I am full of admiration for Duncan’s simple, clear prose. There’s a similar paragraph about silver which, in a short space, brings an entire craft to life.

By virtue of its colour, silver is a ‘dry’ material. To give it life without the use of surface ornament, the 1920s Modernist silversmith had to rely on interplay of light, shadow, and reflection created by contrasting planes and curves. Another way to enrich its monotone colour was by incorporating semiprecious stones, rare woods, ivory and glass. Towards the 1930s, vermeil or gold panels were applied to the surface as an additional means of embellishment. (p.71)

He tells us that the pinnacle of commercial Art Deco sculpture was work done in chryselephantine, combining bronze and ivory, and that the acknowledged master of this genre was Demêtre Chiparus, who made works depicting French ballet and theatre.

Duncan makes the simple but profound point that, in architecture, Art Deco tended to be applied to buildings which had no tradition behind them, to new types of building for the machine age – this explains the prevalence of the Art Deco look in so many power stations, airport buildings, cinemas and swimming pools. Think (in London) Battersea power station (1935), Croydon airport (1928), the Golden Mile of Art Deco factories along the Great West Road at Brentford, Brixton Lido (1937), Charles Holden’s Art Deco Tube stations, and scores of Odeon cinemas across the country.

I liked his wonderfully crisp explanation of costume jewelry.

Costume jewelry differs from fine jewelry in that it is made out of base metals or silver set with marcasite, paste or imitation stones. (p.167)

Now you know. When he’s explaining, he’s wonderful.

Likes and dislikes

To my great surprise I actively disliked most of the objects and art shown in this book. I thought I liked Art Deco, but I didn’t like a lot of this stuff.

Maybe I’m a Bauhaus baby at heart. I consistently preferred the more linear work from the 1930s.

Then it dawned on me that maybe it’s because Duncan doesn’t include much about Art Deco posters (despite having authored a whole book about them). Indeed the section on posters here was remarkably short and with hardly any illustrations (7 pages, 6 pictures).

Similarly, the section on the scores of fashionable magazines and graphic illustrations from the era (Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar and countless others) is barely 3 pages long.

There’s nothing at all about movies or photography, either. Maybe this is fair enough since Duncan is an expert in the decorative and applied arts and that’s the focus of the book. Still, Gary Cooper is a masterpiece of Art Deco, with his strong lines ending in beautiful machine-tooled curves (nose and chin), his powerful symmetries – as beautiful as any skyscraper.

Gary Cooper, super duper

Gary Cooper, super duper

French terms

  • animalier – an artist who specializes in the realistic portrayal of animals
  • cabochon –  a gemstone which has been shaped and polished as opposed to faceted
  • éditeur d’art – publisher of art works
  • nécessaire – vanity case for ladies
  • objet d’art – used in English to describe works of art that are not paintings, large or medium-sized sculptures, prints or drawings. It therefore covers a wide range of works, usually small and three-dimensional, of high quality and finish in areas of the decorative arts, such as metalwork items, with or without enamel, small carvings, statuettes and plaquettes in any material, including engraved gems, hardstone carvings, ivory carvings and similar items, non-utilitarian porcelain and glass, and a vast range of objects that would also be classed as antiques (or indeed antiquities), such as small clocks, watches, gold boxes, and sometimes textiles, especially tapestries. Might include books with fine bookbindings.
  • pâte-de-verre – a kiln casting method that literally means ‘paste of glass’
  • pieces uniques – one-off works for rich buyers

Conclusion

In summary, this is an encyclopedic overview of the period with some very useful insights, not least the fundamental distinction between the French ‘high’ Art Deco of the 1920s and the ‘Modernist’ Art Deco of the 1930s (which flourished more in America than Europe). But it is also a rather dry and colourless book, only occasionally coming to life when Duncan gives one of his beautifully lucid technical explanations.

Probably better to invest in a coffee-table volume which has plenty of large illustrations (particularly of the great posters and magazine illustrations) to get a more accessible and exciting feel for the period.


Related links

50 Art Deco Works of Art You Should Know by Lynn Federle Orr (2015)

This is a new addition to Prestel publishing’s successful ’50s’ series (cf 50 Women Artists You Should Know, which I read a month or so ago) and it does just what it says on the cover.

First there’s a ten-page introduction to Art Deco – then 50 double-page spreads showcasing works from nearly every artistic medium, from paintings and photography to furnishings and film, with the work of art on the right and a page of introduction/commentary/analysis on the left – all topped off by a page of recommended further reading.

Exactitude by Pierre Fix-Masseau (1932)

Exactitude by Pierre Fix-Masseau (1932)

Some of these one page commentaries are really interesting. The one on the Bugatti poster starts with a fascinating overview of the phenomenal spread of cars, and the way they created an entire sub-culture of new roads, motels, gas stations, along with ads for all the necessary accessories, petrol, tyres, motoring gloves, goggles and so on, plus the new idea of racing cars, the popularisation of the Grand Prix races, with their attendant posters and promotions.

There are similar insights into the growth of luxury ocean cruises on ships which, with each passing year, grew larger, more impressive, including more modern conveniences – or of the promptness and stylish service aboard a new generation of luxury trains – again all promoted with stylish posters in the new Modern style.

From Art Nouveau to Art Deco

Art Nouveau felt old hat by 1905. Slowly a newer taste developed for more geometric designs, influenced by the arrival of motor cars and other new highly designed technologies on the one hand and, at the rarefied end of the spectrum, by the taste for the geometric among a whole range of avant-garde artists as different as the Cubists, Futurists, Constructivists and so on.

Worried that German designers and craftsmen were stealing a march on them, the French government subsidised the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts) held in Paris in 1925. 16 million visitors came to see over 100 buildings featuring about 15,000 exhibitors.

It was about escapism and luxury, new sleek fast cars, ocean liners, stylish cigarette lighters. It was about advertisements and posters for high-end, luxury products and experiences, for sleek transcontinental trains and transoceanic liners, for airplanes and autos, along with women shaped and designed in the same slimline moulded style, flat breasts, fashionable cloche hat, sparkly Jazz Age dresses.

Art Deco fell out of favour with the outbreak of World War II and afterwards a new, much plainer, brutally functionalist International Style dominated architecture and domestic design. It was, apparently, only in the 1960s that there was a revival of interest in between-the-wars style and that a book by historian Bevis Hillier publicised the name which came to describe it – Art Deco.

Art Deco pieces I liked

  • Finale by Demetre Chiparis (1925) painted bronze and carved ivory. Two classic flappers flanking a taller figure who looks like a classic goddess of speed.
Finale by Demetre Chiparis (1925)

Finale by Demetre Chiparis (1925)

  • La Danse by Maurice Picaud (1929) relief outside the Folies Bergère. I love well-defined lines, and love the space helmet roundel over her ear.
  • Bugatti poster by René Vincent (1930) A classic advertising image of speed and luxury, all wrapped in beautifully clean lines.
Bugatti poster by René Vincent (1930)

Bugatti poster by René Vincent (1930)

Art Deco pieces I didn’t like

Art Deco paintings I liked

  • Jeune fille aux gants by Tamara de Lempicka (1927) What’s not to love, especially her belly button!  The rather scrappy Futurist painters like Boccioni turned into a stainless steel dream, the face huge and expressionless as on a billboards, the hair like metal turnings from a lathe, the apple green dress as bright and artificial as can be.

Art Deco paintings I didn’t like

Art Deco dancing

Jazz, black chic, primitivism, the female, the nude and sexy and naughty (risqué) came together in the figure of the sensational dancer Josephine Baker, who had a great success dancing half-naked in Paris. She’s presented by Federle Orr as a liberated and liberating figure. I’m surprised and a bit confused. Matisse or Picasso using African masks in their paintings is ‘cultural appropriation’ and exploitation, but a theatre full of rich white people watching an almost naked young black woman, wearing only a skirt of bananas, feverishly dancing to fake African rhythms is… liberating?

Josephine Baker photographed by Dora Kallmus (aka Madame d'Ora)

Josephine Baker photographed by Dora Kallmus (aka Madame d’Ora)

Anyway, for me the core appeal of Art Deco is the sleek clean lines of its best sculptures and posters.

Art Deco architecture

Entrance hall to the old Daily Express building in Fleet Street (1930)

Entrance hall to the old Daily Express building in Fleet Street (1930)

Streamline Moderne

Apparently, the 1930s saw sleeker, longer, simpler lines, partly a stylistic restraint in response to the hard times of the Depression, partly due to the arrival of new stronger materials like chrome plating, stainless steel and plastic.

This sleeker 1930s version, with its curving forms and polished surfaces, is sometimes called Streamline Moderne, a term generally applied to buildings with characteristic rounded edges e.g. the Hotel Normandie in Puerto Rico, itself inspired by the look of the French passenger liner mentioned above.

Hotel Normandie in Puerto Rico

The Hotel Normandie in Puerto Rico

Summary

This is a fun book, a colourful introduction to, but only really a taster for, the vast world of Art Deco architecture, interior design, furnishings, household accessories, cars, trains, movies, posters and much much more.


Related links

Art Nouveau by Alastair Duncan (1994)

This is one of the extensive ‘World of Art’ series published by Thames and Hudson. On the plus side the texts in this series are always readable and authoritative. On the down side, most of the illustrations are in black and white, and very small. It’s a series in which to read about art and art movements, but not necessarily to enjoy the actual art.

A revolt against Victorian mass production

Duncan emphasises that Art Nouveau wasn’t a style, it was a movement. What he means is that around 1890 a whole generation of designers, illustrators, craftsmen, architects and artisans right across Europe revolted against the heavy hand of mass-produced industrial products, dull designs and routine architecture, and against the Victorian home filled with a horrible mish-mash of clutter and bric-a-brac from all styles and periods – and determined to produce something fresh and new, and integrated in style and look.

He attributes the revolt against mass-produced, machine-made, shoddy tat, and the call to return to the values of hand-crafted, beautiful objects, created in a unified style – to William Morris, who emerges as one of the most influential men in the history of Western Art. Right across Europe, designers, artisans, ceramicists, decorators, fabric-makers and so on took up his Art and Crafts ideas with a passion.

The ubiquity of the impulse and its Europe-wide provenance is reflected in the bewildering variety of names given to it.

In Austria it is known as Secessionsstil after Wiener Secession; in Spanish Modernismo; in Catalan Modernisme; in Czech Secese; in Danish Skønvirke or Jugendstil; in German Jugendstil, Art Nouveau or Reformstil; in Hungarian Szecesszió; in Italian Art Nouveau, Stile Liberty or Stile floreale; in Norwegian Jugendstil; in Polish Secesja; in Slovak Secesia; in Russian Модерн (Modern); and in Swedish Jugend.

The name Art Nouveau simply comes from the Maison de l’Art Nouveau (House of the New Art), a gallery opened in 1895 by the Franco-German art dealer Siegfried Bing to publicise and sell objects made in the ‘new style’, such as the ground-breaking new jewelry by René Lalique. The interior was designed by Henry van de Velde and the American, Louis Comfort Tiffany, supplied the stained glass. The gallery became the place for rich and fashionable Parisians to buy objects in the ‘new look’.

A few years later the art critic turned entrepreneur, Julius Meier-Graefe, who had founded the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) magazine Dekorative Kunst in 1897, opened La Maison Moderne, a gallery that showcased Art Nouveau works in Paris in 1898. These two boutiques led the fashion.

Elements of Art Nouveau

Although Duncan goes into immense detail about the regional variations in the style, I looked in vain for a really definitive verbal description of the characteristic Art Nouveau ‘look’, so recognisable when seen, so hard to put into words.

So I drew up a list of common features. Art Nouveau consists of linear simplicity, but the lines are always curvilinear, with tall sinuous curves explicitly or implicitly based on the stems of flowers – the word ‘tendrils’ recurs, and ‘stems’. The ‘eyes’ in the tails of peacocks became an obsessive motif. 

Chair by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (1883)

Chair by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (1883)

The slender, parallel black lines in Mackmurdo’s pioneering chair design (above) anticipate Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations from the 1890s (below). The Beardsley drawing below actually features a peacock as the source of the peacock-feather head-dress worn by Salome and the luxurious long arabesque lines ending in stylised versions of peacock ‘eyes’.

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

As an example in a different medium, take this Peacock vase produced by the undisputed master of Art Nouveau design in glass and glassware, the American Louis Comfort Tiffany. He had signed an exclusive contract with Bing and via Bing’s boutique became the latest thing in glassware.

Peacock vase by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1896)

Peacock vase by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1896)

Japonisme was important. The fashion for Japanese style derives from the treaty signed between the Japanese and American governments in 1854 which opened up the country for trade after centuries of self-imposed isolation. World fairs held in the 1860s and 70s included more and more Japanese products, but it was the delicacy, the deliberate flatness and decorative design of Japanese woodcuts by the likes of Hiroshige and Hokusai which influenced European artists and designers.

Blossoming Plum Tree with Full Moon by Ando Hiroshige

Blossoming Plum Tree with Full Moon by Ando Hiroshige

Slender, tall, undulating, curving lines with a flower motif underpin the most famous aspects of the style. New at the time, just looking at something like this makes you feel how heavy it would be and how…. dated. The kind of thing you see in junk shops, tarnished and striking but totally out of place in a modern home.

French Art Nouveau glass and bronze table lamp by Emile Gallé

French Art Nouveau glass and bronze table lamp by Emile Gallé

The Glasgow School which flourished from the 1890s was dominated by The Four, comprising the painter and glass artist Margaret MacDonald, architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, MacDonald’s sister Frances and Herbert MacNair. The Four defined the Glasgow Style’s fusion of influences including the Celtic Revival, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and Japonisme. Among their works were the wall decorations for the Glasgow Tea Rooms, which highlight the movement’s interest in tall, elongated figures, in slender, elegant curved lines, in highly stylised flower imagery, and in simplified human features (‘ghost-like visions of attenuated young women’, p.50, ‘attenuated virgin maidens’, p.71). Note the heavy heads of hair of the maidens in this painting, similar to the hair in Beardsley, ornate and heavy like flower-heads.

The Wassail (1900) by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

The Wassail (1900) by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

In Paris the most famous Art Nouveau artifacts to be seen today are Hector Guimard’s entrances to a number of Métro stations. Note the curves, the flower and plant motifs in the ironwork – and also the wonderful lettering.

Hector Guimard's Art Nouveau entrance to the Abbesses station of the Paris Métro

Hector Guimard’s Art Nouveau entrance to the Abbesses station of the Paris Métro

There was never an Art Nouveau school of painting. Art Nouveau was a way of thinking about design, not fine art. That said, many painters shared Art Nouveau themes such as: the simplification of form, the flattening of space, the evocative powers of an undulating line and an affinity for the decorative elements of symbolism.

Duncan singles out Gauguin’s technique of flattening the subject into areas of raw colour divided by strong black lines, before going on to describe the work of his devotees, the self-styled Nabis painters of Paris, and then goes on to namecheck Odilon Redon, Jan Toorop, Burne-Jones, Gustave Moreau and Ferdinand Khnopff – pretty much the same roll call of artists I’ve just worked through in two books about Symbolism.

He ends with Gustav Klimt, the nearest thing to a real Art Nouveau painter, for his use of surface decoration, flowing curves and rich ornamentation, ephemeral beauty, and symbolic female imagery tinged with decadence.

Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt (1907)

Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt (1907)

Art Nouveau was more at home in commercial posters than in painting. The big names are the pioneer Jules Chéret, who produced some 1,000 posters in the 1880s, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec who produced 32 highly distinctive posters in the 1890s, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlein (who I know from Sue Roe’s book In Montmartre was one of Picasso’s favourite artists) and the great Alphonse Mucha.

Michael Gibson’s big book of Symbolism has an interesting section on Mucha which contains several black-and-white photos Mucha took of his female models, placed next to the resulting finished posters. What is immediately obvious is how Mucha made the poster girls not only prettier than the models they were based on – more simple, sweet and innocent – but also more curvilinear – shoulders or arms which are more or less straight in the photos life were given curves and contours to soften them.

In this poster note the elaborate framing of the central image, which echoes the curvilinear and plant-like design of the ironwork in the Guimard Metro entrance, above.

Poster Advertising 'Lefevre-Utile' Biscuits by Alphonse Mucha (1896)

Poster Advertising ‘Lefevre-Utile’ Biscuits by Alphonse Mucha (1896)

If flowery maidens were much in evidence in Mucha’s posters, naked young ladies swarmed across Art Nouveau sculpture. New techniques of manufacture and an interest in new materials, especially combinations of metals with glass or wood or marble or ivory or shell, led to an explosion in objets d’art which featured lithe, elongated nymphs with perfect bodies and rose-tipped breasts.

The book includes examples of nymph-adorned table lamps, electric lamps, inkwells, candle holders, dishes, candelabra, vases, wall brackets, tobacco jars and clocks.

Obsession and Dream, gilt bronze candelabra by Maurice Bouval (1898)

Obsession and Dream, gilt bronze candelabra by Maurice Bouval (1898)

Architects built buildings in the new style all across Europe. Something I noticed many of them had in common was a kind of semi-circular arch above the windows, often ballooning out wider than the window itself. Plus the inevitable fantastical, slender curved lines of the cast iron balcony.

Villino Broggi-Caraceni, Florence by Giovanni Michelazzi (1911)

Villino Broggi-Caraceni, Florence by Giovanni Michelazzi (1911)

It’s a zoomorphic look which finds its climax in the genuinely weird Casa Batlló in Barcelona designed by the great but eccentric Antoni Gaudí in 1904, a building which is evolving into a living organism, made up of biomorphic surfaces and undulating forms.

Casa Batllo, Barcelona by Gaudi (1904)

Casa Batllo, Barcelona by Gaudi (1904)

The decline of Art Nouveau

A key aspect of Art Nouveau is how brief it was. Its high point was the Paris World Fair in 1900, where Siegfried Bing displayed a series of ensemble rooms created by his three top designers, Colonna, de Feure and Gaillard, showing how every element in a modern room could be tailored to the new look. The Fair featured the glassware of Tiffany and the jewellery of Lalique, which were at their peak of popularity.

By 1905 it was all over. Meier-Graefe closed his shop in 1903, as sales fell off. Bing closed his gallery in 1904 and died the next year. The Belgian Art Nouveau, La Libre Esthétique, had dissolved by 1904. Morris died in 1896, Beardsley in 1898, Whistler the great devotee of Japonisme in 1903, Émile Gallé the leading Art Nouveau glass-maker in 1904. Mucha, the great Belle Époque posterist, returned to his native Czechoslovakia in 1910.

It had all seemed so new and exciting in 1895 – but seemed old and boring by 1905. One Mucha poster looks sensational – twenty begin to look predictable. In furniture, lamps, wallpapers, art and architecture, ‘the look’ began to seem tired, not least because (ironically) these lines and motifs had themselves been absorbed into the consumer capitalist machine, copied and mass produced in huge numbers of inferior versions, and in such quantities that the market was flooded. The rich, who set the pace, were looking for new thrills.

Looking back on it from a century later, Art Nouveau – which saw itself as reacting against Victorian clutter and tastelessness – itself seems merely a variation on the same over-stuffed world. Photos of Art Nouveau interiors – a revolution to their contemporaries – now look just as wooden, dark and cluttered as their immediate predecessors.

Art Nouveau dining room at the Casa Requena

Art Nouveau dining room at the Casa Requena (1905)

It’s only with De Stijl, Russian Constructivism and the emergence of the Bauhaus after the Great War, that we feel we are in an entirely new century of open, uncluttered space and modern streamlined furniture.

Key phrases

In trying to nail down what Art Nouveau really means, I noted down tell-tale phrases Duncan uses about architecture, interiors, furnishing, lamps and lights and so on:

  • serpentine configurations… abstracted plant gyrations… curves and fancies… curvilinearity… elaborate and complex ornament… sculpted decoration… integrated design… lavish mouldings and sculpted decoration… the use of nature, specifically the flower and its components… flair for the bizarre… floriform…

And two new terms struck me:

  • Femme-fleur – The dream-maiden with long strands of hair resembling vegetation tendrils, often intertwined with marine-like plant-forms, found in Art Nouveau designs.
  • Femme-libellule – dragonfly lady or damsel.
Femme Libellule by René Lalique (1898)

Femme Libellule by René Lalique (1898)


Related links

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)

Heart of Darkness was published in three monthly instalments in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in February, March and April of 1899. (The Victorian Web has an essay describing the other articles which Heart of Darkness appeared among.) The final text was still divided into three equal sections when it was published in book form in 1902.

Heart of Darkness is a masterpiece and as such can be approached from scores of different angles, interpreted in countless ways.

In line with my earlier comments about Conrad, I think its success is partly because, in the horrific facts of the Belgian Congo which he experienced on his 1890 trip up the river, Conrad found external realities which, for once, justified the extremity of his nihilistic worldview and the exorbitance of his style.

The Congo really was a vast immensity of suffering and pain. When he uses his almost hysterical language about Almayer’s daughter abandoning him, or Willems’s native mistress seeing through him, or Hervey’s wife leaving him, Conrad’s lexicon and syntax seem overwrought, hyperbolic. In King Leopold’s Congo there really was a subject which justified the obsessive use of words like ‘horror’, ‘suffering’, ‘immense anguish’ and so on.

Frame device

In Youth Conrad invents the frame device of the group of five mature men of the world sitting around smoking after-dinner cigars while one of them, Marlow, sets off to tell a long yarn.

Having come across this device in Youth Conrad immediately reused it for House of Darkness. Precisely the same five good fellows who we met in Youth are aboard the yacht Nellie, moored in the Thames at dusk, as Marlow recounts the story of his trip up the  Congo.

So the book has two narrators: the anonymous one who describes the ‘we’, the five chaps; and then, via his narrative, we hear Marlow’s story – a story within a story.

Matching the tale to the teller, and creating subtle ironies between the actual events and the way they are told, are devices as old as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Boccaccio’s Decameron, older. Thus, once Marlow finishes his story, the narrator returns for the concluding paragraphs, to describe the haunting final vision of the darkness of the Thames after sunset, when the full repercussions of Marlow’s story sink in.

The frame device:

  • guarantees a happy ending – we know that Marlow returned alive
  • guarantees a kind of sanity – periodically, when Marlow’s story rises to heights of absurdity or psychological stress, the narrator reminds us of the calm, bourgeois, urban setting the tale is being told in:

There was a pause of profound stillness, then a match flared, and Marlow’s lean face appeared, worn, hollow, with downward folds and dropped eyelids, with an aspect of concentrated attention; and as he took vigorous draws at his pipe, it seemed to retreat and advance out of the night in the regular flicker of the tiny flame.

  • above all, it replaces suspense – what happened? – with reflection – what does it mean? It legitimises the way Marlow frequently stops the tale to ponder the meaning of his experiences, or stops to tell his audience how he’s struggling to convey the feelings he experienced – something that would be harder for an omniscient narrator to do.

Plot

Marlow takes a commission from a Belgian company to captain a steamboat up the Congo to find one Mr Kurtz, a prize ivory trader. Before he’s even set foot in Africa he sees signs of the greed and folly of the European imperial mission to Africa – ta lone warship pointlessly firing cannon randomly into the jungle – and as soon as he arrives at the first station up-river he finds the building of the so-called railway a shambles where Africans are chained like slaves and worked to death.

When Marlow reaches the legendary Kurtz he finds he has sunk into horrific barbarity, savagely marauding through neighbouring country, killing natives and stealing their ivory, his campong lined by stakes on which are impaled human heads.

The young idealist Kurtz had written an eloquent pamphlet on how to bring ‘civilisation’ to the natives. Across the bottom the older, degraded Kurtz has scrawled, ‘Exterminate all the brutes.’

Kurtz is a symbol of the hypocritical cruelty and absurd folly of imperial enterprises. Marlow gets his native bearers to carry the sick and dying Kurtz onto his steamer, turns around and heads for the coast. Kurtz dies onboard and his last words – ‘The horror, the horror’ – have become classic, referenced by T.S. Eliot, the climax of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 movie adaptation, ‘Apocalypse Now‘, I’ve seen them on t-shirts.

Not British

Although Conrad doesn’t name the colonial power, he gives broad enough hints that it was Belgium. The Congo was the personal possession of King Leopold of Belgium, who modern historians nowadays place alongside Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot as one of the great modern mass murderers of all time, with an estimated 8-10 million Africans dying in the Congo as a direct result of the slavery he instituted during his reign (1885-1908).

But the point is – it isn’t British. This genocidal regime wasn’t British. Conrad was anxious about how his blistering critique of Imperialism would be received in his new home, the greatest empire the world had ever seen.

Later the same year Heart of Darkness was published, in October 1899, the Boer War broke out and whipped the country into a furore of Imperialist jingoism. Conrad knew it was impossible to criticise the British Empire, and he certainly goes out of his way in the opening pages to emphasise that he is NOT talking about the British Empire, and that the British Empire is qualitatively different from the imperial folly he attributes to Belgium.

‘On one end a large shining map, marked with all the colors of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red – good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there…’

What’s more, the opening pages contain a great and deliberate hymn to the history and integrity of the British Empire.

I wonder what obligation Conrad felt under to clarify that, although he appeared to be saying that all empires are hypocritical, rapacious follies… he in fact meant, all empires except your empire of course, chaps.

‘The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled—the great knights-errant of the sea. It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen’s Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests—and that never returned. It had known the ships and the men. They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, from Erith—the adventurers and the settlers; kings’ ships and the ships of men on ‘Change; captains, admirals, the dark “interlopers” of the Eastern trade, and the commissioned “generals” of East India fleets. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.’

Furthermore, at a few key moments in the story, the English auditors interrupt the story to object to Marlow’s tone and implications.

These interruptions mark the boundaries, indicating not so much to the fictional audience but to us, the readers, that even Marlow’s overflowing style and withering irony has limits, is safely contained. That Conrad knows where the borders of taste are and is policing them:

‘I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for –  what is it? half-a-crown a tumble – ‘
‘”Try to be civil, Marlow,” growled a voice, and I knew there was at least one listener awake besides myself.
‘”I beg your pardon,” [said Marlow]

Style

Because the bulk of the narration is meant to be spoken by Marlow, an Englishman telling his story to other Englishmen, Conrad is forced to rein in his style.

Much more of the narrative deals with facts, factually conveyed, than in his earlier texts such as the lyrical Youth, the first Marlow text.

Coming fresh from reading Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands and Karain, the style of Darkness seems mercifully sober and controlled.

But coming from outside Conradworld, to most ordinary readers the style will still seem extraordinarily florid, with long descriptive passages larded with lush adjectives, and Marlow’s comments on his experiences forever tending to the same nihilism and fatalism which drenched the narratives of Almayer, Outcast, Karain, Lagoon and The Return.

There include the liberal use of triplets –

‘all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.’

The long sentences which use multiple sub-clauses to repeat and amplify the message of despair.

Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.

And the endlessly creative ways he finds to express the same underlying mood of despair:

…my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the uniform somberness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion.

…in and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair.

A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse.

The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence.

…a gesture that took in the forest, the creek, the mud, the river, – seemed to beckon with a dishonouring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart.

The pattern itself

There are insights to be had about the role of women – about the contrast between the savage woman of the jungle and the white purity of Kurtz’s Intended who Marlow visits back in Brussels and whose innocent, naive love for Kurtz he is compelled to preserve.

There’s also a lot to write about the concept of the Voice – Marlow experiences Kurtz as predominantly a fluent, deep, authoritative voice – but then Marlow himself becomes nothing but a voice on the deck of the unlit yawl – the two are ironically yoked together.

Books can and have been written about Conrad’s racism, his fundamentally insulting opinion of Africans or ‘savages’ etc.

In all three ‘issues’ or themes or motifs (and in a host of others) Conrad deliberately creates multiple ironies, multiple systems of comparison and contrast. But however easily these patterns can be reduced to feminist or post-colonial or post-structuralist formulas, rewritten to support early 21st century political correctness, I also regard the patterning of the text as almost abstract, as an end in itself which can be enjoyed for itself.

The repetition of key words and phrases – the repetition of leading motifs – the multiple ironies i.e. the ubiquitous techniques of doubling and comparison – because they are expressed in words are susceptible of logical interpretation. But I suggest they can also be seen as abstract designs, comparable to the Japanese designs so appreciated by contemporary Aesthetes – or to the new languid style of Art Nouveau, the delicate intertwining of tracery meant to be enjoyed for its own sake and nothing more.

I think of the turn to patterning of a painter like Edward Burne-Jones who, in his final years, acquired a symbolist depth. His later paintings are full of grey-eyed women in increasingly abstract patterns or designs.

Symbolist poetry and painting was the new thing in the 1890s, paintings and poetry full of shimmering surfaces to be appreciated for their own beauty, without any straining after meaning. Like the intricate line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley where the style is much more important than the ‘subject matter’; or the ‘impressionist’ music of Claude Debussy.

Conrad hints as much in an oft-quoted passage right at the start, where the anonymous narrator is setting the scene and introducing Marlow:

The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

In 1917 Conrad wrote prefaces to a new edition of his works, and wrote the following about Heart of Darkness, explicitly comparing it not to a tract, a fiction, even to a painting, but to music:

Heart of Darkness is experience, too; but it is experience pushed a little (and only a little) beyond the actual facts of the case for the perfectly legitimate, I believe, purpose of bringing it home to the minds and bosoms of the readers. There it was no longer a matter of sincere colouring. It was like another art altogether. That sombre tone had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.

In my opinion, you can write whole books about Conrad and Women, Conrad and Empire, Conrad and Race, and these will be interesting investigations, but all these approaches can (should?) be subsumed by a sensitive, receptive appreciation of the multiply-layered phrasing, of the styling and patterning of motifs and rhythms, tones and colours, words and clauses, sentences and paragraphs, of his grandiloquent and haunted prose style.

To appreciate it like a work of art or the intricate patterning of an exquisite piece of music. To penetrate to a deeper appreciation of the sheer sensual pleasure of this extraordinary text.


Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

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