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The Climax is an 1893 illustration by Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), a leading artist of the Aesthetic movement during the 1890s. It depicts a scene from Oscar Wilde's play Salome (play), in which the femme fatale Salome has just kissed the decapitated head of John the Baptist, which she grasps in her hands. Elements of eroticism, symbolism, and Orientalism are present. This illustration is just one of the few Beardsley created for the series Wilde commissioned him to create for the publication of his play. The series is considered to be Beardsley's most celebrated work, created at the young age of 21.
Aubrey Beardsley was born in Brighton, England in August 1872. He led a very short-lived career as he died from tuberculosis at the young age of 25. Despite that, he was the most influential artist of the 1890s, leading the Aesthetic and Decadent movements. These movements centered on the idea of art for art’s sake, and they also held a strong fascination with sex and a fear of its power, as well as an interest in the perverse and degenerate aspects of a society that was nothing but respectable at the time. Beardsley became a well-known figure in the eye of the public when his works were featured in the artistic journal, The Studio. Beardsley’s earlier version of The Climax, J’ai baisé ta bouche Iokanaan, was featured in the journal, and this caught the attention of writer Oscar Wilde, another leader of the Aesthetic movement. Oscar Wilde then commissioned Beardsley to illustrate his play Salome.
The Climax consists of strong, precise lines, decorative motifs characteristic of the developing Art Nouveau style, and the use of only black ink. Beardsley's style was influenced by Japanese woodcuts also known as Ukiyo-e, which comes through in the flatness of imagery, compositional arrangement, and the stylistic motifs. Elements of eroticism and symbolism are also apparent. The main focus of this illustration, Salome, floats in midair and in her hands she holds the head of John the Baptist. Her hair billows in tendrils around her as she stares powerfully into the eyes of John the Baptist whose decapitated head drips blood into the murky black pool of liquid that fills the bottom of the frame. Composing the background behind these two figures is a white, cloud-like mass that appears to evolve into a black and white bubble-like or biomorphic design that takes up the top left corner of the frame.
When it comes to symbolism, this work features a very common theme of the 1890s; the femme fatale. Beardsley depicted Salome in a way that emphasizes her sheer power over man. She is a sadistic and empowered woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants by threatening men with the loss of power and manhood. Not only is this scene symbolic of the imagery presented in Wilde's play, but it is also symbolic of the changing culture of the time. Salome as a femme fatale is symbolic of the changing role of women in the traditionally patriarchal society. The Climax is Beardsley’s attempt at embodying the fears men had about losing their power to women. Salome is completely representative of this as she reigns over John the Baptist and emphasizes the superiority of women. These fears of men can be seen in the way that Beardsley presents Salome as a monster-like figure, reminiscent of Medusa.
- Stephen Calloway, “Aubrey Beardsley and the 1890s Scene,” in Aubrey Beardsley (London: V&A Publications, 1998), 10.
- Miriam Benkovitz, Aubrey Beardsley: An Account of His Life. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1981), 57.
- Brigid Brophy, Beardsley and His World (New York: Harmony Books, 1976), 65