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From Decadence to Dissonance: The Aesthetics That Shaped The Late Victorian Era

Aug 13, 2008
The ideal meeting of the decadent movement might have been Oscar Wilde's short play Salome. Originally written in French in 1891, Wilde's tragedy tells in one act the biblical story of the beautiful Salome, the stepdaughter of the tetrarch Herod Antipas, and the final few days of the life of John the Baptist.

Told in elegant and powerfully symbolic prose, the play is often called Wilde's piece of "strange music". Oscar incited this idea himself by declaring in a letter that "the recurring phrases of Salome,... bind it together like a piece of music" Its flamboyance, its hypnotic rhythms, recurring lexical riffs and hauntingly melodic passages stitch the action together in such a way as to mimic some sort of dramatic aria.

When Salome was translated into English three years later the text was accompanied by highly stylised and erotic illustrations by the young Aubrey Beardsley. Perfectly capturing the attitude of Wilde's lyrical decadence and visual intensity, the etchings seem now almost inseparable from the original script.

Naturally, this movement wasn't limited to Britain, the roots had been stretching out on the continent for the past 20 years. The development of the decadent movement there lead to painters like the Viennese Gustav Klimt creating artwork that was inspired by the priceless mosaics of Byzantium. Influenced by their inherent 'flatness', Klimt creates patchwork canvasses of glittering gold and vigourous colours.

In fact, the lack of 'realist' perspective in famous works like The Kiss and the Portrait of Adele seem to be the beating at the heart of the genre; to disband with depth and background and to push everything to the shimmering fore. When, in these images and in Wilde's poetry, the visual intensity is forced to be so immediate and so beautiful, the allure of decadence suddenly becomes so directly apparent: these works are not concerned with representing anything, accurately or otherwise, they are concerned with creating art and nothing else.

This highly aesthetic approach is elegantly outlined in Wilde's preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, he claims there quite simply that: "The artist is the creator of beautiful things."

Of course this preoccupation with creating beauty was one that was not allowed to last. Salome was banned from the London stage before it even had the chance to premiere and Beardsley was hounded as a pedlar of filth and obscenity, forced to live out the rest of his tragically short life, a sickly Catholic convert, in Menton in France.

Wilde himself of course was tried and imprisoned for Gross Indecency on accounts of his homosexuality. Never truly recovering from the hard labour meted out at Reading Prison, Oscar Wilde died in Paris in 1900. So disgusted with Wilde's crimes were the wider public that, from the point of his conviction, not a single child was christened Oscar in Britain for twenty years.

The imposed repression of the Victorian era at far reaching consequences. Forced by the prevailing society to conform with certain values and tastes, decadent art was forced out of polite conversation and largely ignored. As Wilde's popularity receded, more 'wholesome' writers like Kipling and Hardy began to blossom.

In short, the century that followed seems totally at odds with the simple premise that Wilde laid down in his Preface in 1890. The world of Reading Gaol, of quantum mechanics, of Flanders, Ypres and the Holocaust often seems to have very little to do with artifice and beauty at all. Though Wilde's imprisonment was to protect the sensibilities of public, the impending modernism, with its catastrophic treatment of banality, would ironically lead to the some of the most vicious atrocities ever brought about.
About the Author
Samantha is a London theatre fanatic and regular West End theatregoer. She writes and researches some of the biggest London shows you can view examples of her work here Mamma Mia! and Show and Stay.
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