Visual Interpretations of Oscar Wilde’s Salome at Delaware Art Museum


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Oscar Wilde had quite a reputation as a provocateur in late 19th-Century Victorian England — and it’s that reputation, as well as his wit and his sexuality, that people commonly remember today, even more so than his work.

In the early 1890s, shortly after the publication of his famous (and only) novel “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” Wilde became a success as a playwright. The one-act play  “Salomé” was written in French after a conversation about the Biblical story of John the Baptist inspired him. Wilde, of course, was Irish, and he usually wrote in English. He chose the language because of his love of France — the country he would retire to after he served jail time for “gross indecency with other men” just a few years later.

“Salomé” is short and brutal, centering around a beautiful young woman living with the stigma of her mother’s accused incestuous marriage to get stepfather, Herod II. When John (referred to as C) insults her mother and spurns her, she exacts her revenge: When Herod offers her anything she wants if she dances for him, she chooses Jokanaan’s head on a platter. Literally.

Salome was first published in English in 1894, translated by by Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, and with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. The translation was more flowery than Wilde’s style, the illustrations, compared to “the scribbles a precocious schoolboy” by Wilde himself, are sometimes over the top. In 2011, Salome was re-translated by Joseph Donohue, in a style that most agree more closely fits with the way Wilde originally wrote it in French. The illustrations for this version are by Barry Moser; the etchings, in contrast with Beardsley’s style, have an almost photo-realistic look.

The exhibit starts with Moser’s work. This seemed backward to me at first, but as I went through the room, it made sense. Moser’s illustrations, placed in chronological order tell the story in images. By the time you get to the last one, you have his idea of what Salomé was really about (the captions on the wall help if you’re not familiar with Wilde’s version of the story). Moser sets a dark mood, featuring a diverse cast of Romans, Nubians, Jews, and Nazarenes. The etchings convey the feel of a stage play, or at least the feeling that real people are being portrayed.

“Let me kiss your mouth” shows Jokanaan, the object of Salomé’s desire, despite his almost emaciated appearance, refusing her advances. Wilde plays with sexual objectification — Salomé is seen on both sides of it, and she commands the power position at all times, at least in her own mind. After Moser’s interpretation comes Beardsley’s. The two collections couldn’t be less alike, but, while Moser’s etchings are stunning, Beardsley’s are not inferior — just wildly different.

Beardsley’s illustrations have a look that moreclosely resembles political cartoons, and he was pretty clearly making some statements of his own that weren’t actually in Wilde’s work — for example, there is homoerotic imagery where there was none on “Salomé,” and Wilde is caricatured more than once (and not in a flattering way). In a couple of instances, Beardsley’s original submissions were rejected for being too bizarre, sexual, or off the map; the Rejected and Accepted versions are displayed together.

Despite Wilde’s criticism’s of Beardsley’s work, the lithographs are quite beautiful and captivating. “The Peacock Skirt” look as if it could be a high fashion illustration, but it does highlight the almost detached interpretation, as it doesn’t directly refer to anything in the play. As an exhibit as a whole, “Salomé” bridges over a century, showcasing a great difference in aesthetic. Some might argue that the Donohue/Moser update righted the wrongs of the 1894 Douglas/Beardsley collaboration — and there’s little doubt that the update more accurately captures Wilde’s words as they were intended. But to be able to look back on the 1894 artwork in conjunction with Moser’s enhances the timeliness of Beardsley’s work. It was both a reflection of and a rebellion against its time, which is something that can’t be truly captured in the 21st Century.