The Key To Aubrey Beardsley, Salomé & Me
I was driving home from work this evening, and I glanced down at my key ring, eyeing the skeleton key to the back door of my childhood home. I always get asked about this key due to it's size and obvious antiquity. When my parent's sold the first house I knew, the house I learned to walk in, I took the duplicate key to have a memento of my past. The writer Vladimir Nabokov wrote a book of his childhood memories called Speak, Memory. Later he was to say that while he told everything about himself in the book, it wasn't a very pleasant portrait. "All that chess and those butterflies. Not very interesting." Nabokov was haunted by his past. "The act of vividly recalling a patch of the past is something that I seem to have been performing with the utmost zest all of my life."
Staring at the key, remembering words I had written the other day about my upbringing and the strictness imposed by my parents (as opposed to my friends and their lives), the next thought in my head was "my bedroom door." How could I have forgotten that door? When I was 16 years old, I first learned of Aubrey Beardsley. I found a book about Art Nouveau in the library with a huge section devoted to Beardsley, his work and his life. I was immediately smitten with his black and white drawings with their sensuous lines and subject matter.
Beardsley did the bulk of the work that earned him fame in his early twenties. By age 25, he was dead of a lifelong struggle with tuberculosis. Aubrey Beardsley Through work he did in art publications, he came to the attention of Oscar Wilde, and at age 21 he was asked to illustrate Wilde's Salomé, a joint venture that proved scandalous and almost became his professional ruin.
One day I returned home from school: it was autumn, and I remember retrieving a piece of lime green poster board that I had on hand, sitting down with a felt marker, and drawing Beardsley's "The Climax," from the Salomé book, with no pencilling in or guide. In retrospect, it's bizzare that I wouldn't wait until I could purchase white paper, but the lime green was all that I had available, and the image had to come out. I had this overwhelming feeling that I could draw it. No doubts. My hand was steady. I worked without a net.
In retrospect how odd for a Washington, D.C. school girl to have such a strong reaction to these fin de siècle images, that I could reproduce one without reference or outline. It was almost as if I were channeling this coughing aesthete. It is moments like this that drive people to analyze the creative process. Where did it come from? I only remember this overwhelming understanding of technique and knowing I could do it. It went beyond knowing I could do it, into knowing I had to do it. Obviously the work had sounded something deep inside me, to the point I knew these drawings with my entire being. The drawing was a success. My friends demanded that I show the school art teachers. Within a day or two of completing the drawing, I stopped at an art supply store on my way home, bought black enamel paint in small bottles and several finely feathered sable brushes.
This part stands out in time. I arrived home, changed clothes, and I began painting this same image of Salomé onto my bedroom door. I did not discuss it with my parents. I did not seek permission. I just painted. I remember this very distinctly, as well. If you study the image, I can tell you I began painting from the upper left corner, which was highly stylized clouds, and I worked down the painting from an angle, always working from an angle, into the southeast portion of the picture. You can't see the detail from the image I secured, but there are many tiny dots around Salomé's head, and many minute hatch marks along the edge of water that curves into the sky. It took me about two weeks, all told, to complete the work. It wasn't easy. It was the first time I had ever had to paint upright, and the door wasn't coming off it's hinges. It couldn't be tilted at an angle to ease the control of the brush. I had to contort my body to adapt to the work. I didn't even think to remove the door, to be honest. I told my friends about my project, they came by, then they told other friends, and it became a pilgrimage for people to be knocking on the door asking if they could see the work in progress. During all of this time my parents never uttered one negative word about what I was up to. Given the subject matter, Salomé holding John the Baptist's head, in my very religious parent's home, I can't believe they reacted the way that they did. Parents can surprise you. The painting remained and wasn't even painted over when the house was shown for sale. The house stands. I am sure the painting is long gone, but the memory isn't.
....The Climax, from Salomé by Aubrey Beardsley