Pictures of Dorian Gray, Images of Oscar Wilde; Part Three: Beardsley, Russell and Salomé

Posted by on May 19th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One, Part Two.

Oscar Wilde’s works have long been illustrated.  Aubrey Beardsley did the first, scandalous illustrations to Salomé; Max Beerbohm worked up his own pictures for the play as well. George Percy Jacomb-Hood and Walter Crane illustrated the first edition of The Happy Prince.  Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon provided drawings for A House of Pomegranates; Ricketts went on to illustrate The Sphinx, and did the frontispiece for The Portrait of Mr. W.H.

Of these, only Beardsley’s work really stands apart from the standard illustrations of the time.  As Wilde commented, “his muse had moods of horrible laughter.  Behind his grotesques there seemed to lurk some curious philosophy.”  The other artists produced work that was pretty and fine, but Beardsley’s demonstrates a bold, dreamlike, and sometimes morbid vision — “fantastic grace, and the charm of the unreal” is how Wilde described it.  Beardsley’s image of Salomé kissing the severed head of the prophet Jokanaan perfectly captures the feel of Wilde’s play.  It is as lovely as it is gruesome.  Other artists have since done wonderful things illustrating Wilde’s work — especially the fairy tales.  (A favorite of mine is Charles Robinson’s art in the William Morrow edition of The Happy Prince.)  But no one has matched Beardsley’s Salomé.  As Wilde said,  “It has about it the seduction of strange sins.”

Until recently, comics adaptations of Wilde’s works have been somewhat rarer — though the French seem to have taken a head start. The Catenterville Ghost has appeared as a French comic, Le Fantome de Canterville, three times – in 1980, 2003 and 2007.  Le Crime de Lord Arthur Savile likewise saw comics production in 1988.  And the magazine Je Bouquine adapted Dorian Gray in 1997 and The Birthday of the Infanta (L’Anniversaire de l’Infante) in 2003.  (Here is a partial bibliography.)

The artist who has, without rival, done the most to bring Wilde’s work into comics is P. Craig Russell.  He has adapted four volumes of Wilde’s fairy tales, including The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant.  Russell’s adaptations are really very good, and they demonstrate his range as a comics artist.  His images are elegant and subtle, with careful detail and even weight, when it’s called for; and they are rounder and more playful, more cartoonish, when that suits the story better.  He quietly shifts along this scale, finding just the right pitch, and adjusting the visual style frequently within a given story, or sometimes, even, on a single page.  Russell also did a version of Salomé for the third volume of his Opera Adaptations.

In keeping with the play’s ancient, Biblical setting, Russell rendered it in the style of a classic fantasy adventure comic.  It lacks the lovely horror of Beardsley’s work, but, on the other hand, it is much better than some stage productions.  Amusingly, Russell also inserted an image from Salomé into a fairy tale, The Birthday of the Infanta.  The children watch “some Italian puppets appear[ing] in a semi-classical tragedy.”  The image depicts the climactic scene; but with cartoon puppets it looks ridiculously cute — even the severed head, with Xs for eyes.

all images ©2010 their respective copyright owners

Next:  Illustrating Dorian

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