I am no collector of paintings or prints, and I am definitely not the type to sit in front of a Rothko painting for hours finding depth in the three layers of colour in Rothko number 205. Still, even I, in my self-righteous disdain for pictorial art’s bourgeois appeal, recognize the potency of art.
The art of painting or print is preoccupied with representation of the real and true object on a two dimensional plane. This representation obviously suggests a masking of reality and creating a mirage of the truth, which is also ultimately decadent literature’s main feature. Inversion and the concept of the mask as the ultimate truth are two defining hallmarks of decadence, and through close reading and analysis of the fin du siècle texts we have explored both rather extensively this quarter. It is no wonder then that alongside decadent literature existed an entire art movement that attempted to represent the scenes from the fin du siècle texts. The lithographic prints of scenes from Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Redon for instance, not only immortalize the texts in pictorial form, but also provide a medium suited to the nature of the texts. In his portrayal of the flagellation scene, Redon’s usage of the lithograph blurs the scene and hides a true nature of the events unfolding in the scene. This obscuring of events offers suggestions of an inverted reading into the scene—a reading that might suggests an inversion of good and evil or a celebration of crime and vice.
Since the lithograph is in a two-dimensional plane, the depth perception becomes blurred, warping the entire scene. The man performing the whipping appears far from the woman, and one cannot discern the position of his arm, because of the flat plane medium. The scene looks impossible in that the man appears unlikely to cause harm to the woman, suggesting that the flagellation is not necessarily a punishment, but maybe a tease, which the woman is coyly accepting. This obscuring of the scene allows for an alternate reading of the scene, in the same way Gustave Flaubert’s text also presents the scene somewhat ambiguously.
Another example of this parallel between the decadent texts and their illustrations lies in the work of Audrey Beardsley in illustrating Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Though consociates, the two artists were not friends and in spite of the impression of Wilde’s play on him being so potent as to spur him to illustrate its climactic moment entirely autonomously, Beardsley shared the opinion of many of the two men’s contemporaries that the originality of Wilde’s work was questionable. This artistic feuding aside there are great parallels in the Beardsley’s illustrations and Wilde’s preceding text. In Beardsley’s illustrations, he presents a self satisfied Salome, smugly sitting on a phallic symbol, sneering at the symbol. She is portrayed with a very composed hairstyle to depict her control in the situation and there is a confident air in her presentation. The representation of the Salome in Beardsley’s work is that of a woman who is powerful, comfortable and satisfied with her newly discovered power. This is the Salome in the play by Oscar Wilde, and in this situation again, prints represent the fin du siècle text. Her satisfied expression can also be attributed to self pleasuring activity (similar to the seemingly masturbatory scene in Monsieur Vénus), for it can be argued that her dress is disguising just that beneath it, perhaps symbolising the gratification she feels in her dominion in negotiations with Herod.
Also rather unfortunately, a self-proclaimed artless unenlightened individual has spent quite a little time writing about the impact of artistic representation. Perhaps my disdain is my mask.
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