Transnational Nation-building & Orientalism
Aubrey Beardsley's illustration of "The Stomach Dance" depicts Oscar Wilde’s Salomé performing the Dance of the Seven Veils. The Middle-Eastern veiled belly dance, usually performed by dancing girls as well as dancing boys, who appear indistinguishable from the girls, in itself threatens the Western gaze with their ambiguous gender expression. Salomé’s character has often been interpreted as a male transvestite, thus engendering the threat of male homosexuality. In Beardsley’s illustration, Salomé's erotic movements are conveyed through the swirling of her dress, and captured in the sensually curved androgynous body of the exoticized oriental dancer. Her transgressive sexuality oozes out of her unveiled body, that exposes the breasts and stomach. A grotesque figure wearing clothes sporting phallic designs accompanies Salomé by playing a presumably oriental stringed instrument. The instrument resembles to certain extent the erhu, the sitar, and the violin, thus further revealing Beardsley’s tendency of essentializing the markedly distinct Oriental cultures.
Salomé's peacock feather headdress, and the roses floating around her constitute examples of Beardsley's Japonisme, characterizing all his Salomé illustrations. It further emphasizes his Orientalist vision, which is both at odds, and commensurate with, Wilde’s own Decadent Orientalism. The femme fatale's dangerous sexuality, coupled with her ambiguous gender expression, threatens the Victorian heteropatriarchal social order with its unbridled queerness.
Aubrey Beardsley’s initial vignette for Sydney Smith and R. Brinsley Sheridan’s Bon-Mots (1894) reveals aesthetic influences of Manga, or Random Sketches by the nineteenth-century Japanese woodblock artist, Katsushika Hokusai. Using Hokusai’s monsters with prolonged necks, contorted bodies, and protruding eyeballs, Beardsley depicts the arduous, comical, but painful process of tooth extraction.¹
The vignette depicts the deformed and concave figure of a dentist bolstered by his assistant as he pries a tooth from the crawling patient. This satirical visualization of fear captures Beardsley’s idea of the grotesque. While the sharp profile of the dentist shows he is already unclad, the sketch focusses on the ongoing disrobing of the patient vaguely draped in Japanese clothing as he suffers in the forceful action of push and pull. The illustrator’s use of contrasting black and white colors—a prominent art style in Hokusai’s Manga—to detail the obi belt coming undone around the patient’s waist reveals the sensuous and homoerotic undertones of the sketch.
Beardsley interweaves Decadent elements of queerness, eroticism, horror, humor, and pain to mock British pride in perpetually keeping a stiff upper lip.² His emulation of Hokusai’s art shows the rising popularity of Japanese culture in nineteenth-century England.
1. See p. 87 in Linda Gertner Zatlin, “Aubrey Beardsley's “Japanese” Grotesques,” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 25, no. 1, 1997, pp. 87–108., doi:10.1017/S1060150300004642.
2. See also p. 88 in Zatlin.