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Beardsley’s The Wagnerites & Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday 8 February 2014 | 4:19:00 am

"Shaw does mention the fact that the leitmotif which accompanies Brünnhilde’s renunciation of the ring and her glorification of Siegfried’s love during the apocalyptic ending of the opera is the same as that which we hear when Siegfried’s birth is predicted in Die Walküre, he sees no particular sense in this. It was no coincidence, however, that Wagner, a composer renowned for his masterful use of the leitmotif technique, linked Shaw’s anarchic liberator and the revelatory power of love (which leads to the renunciation of worldly power and capitalism, symbolised by the ring) in this way. The strength that was able to break Wotan’s spear and reject Alberich’s riches is incomplete without the wisdom of love." 

Face(t)s of British Wagnerism: Aubrey Beardsley’s drawing The Wagnerites (1894) and George Bernard Shaw’s essay The Perfect Wagnerite (1898), Siri Kohl

In the 1890s British Wagnerism was at its height. The works of Richard Wagner were admired and condemned equally for their daring musical innovations and unusual subject matter; namely, the artist’s precarious position in society in Tannhäuser, eternal love against all conventions in Tristan und Isolde, the end of divine rule and man’s ascent in the Ring of the Nibelung tetralogy. The Decadent movement reacted strongly to Wagner’s portrayals of eroticism, morbidity and suffering, as apparent in Aubrey Beardsley’s oeuvre (1872-98). Other artists, such as George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), rejected these aspects in favour of socio-political readings of the operas. Through their works, this essay will explore some of the debates about Wagnerism and the implications of being a ‘Wagnerite’ in late 19th-century Britain.
G. B. Shaw
When Richard Wagner’s operas were performed in England from the 1870s onwards, many heard in them ‘the voice of the future, especially as it announced itself as such’. What came to be known as ‘Wagnerism’ did not only denote enthusiasm for Wagner’s musical innovations but also for his theoretical writings, which aimed at opera as a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) in which poetry and music no longer competed for attention but formed an organic whole. The realisation of these ideas in Wagner’s music dramas seemed artificial and tedious to many who believed that Wagner the artist stifled his creativity by trying to make 
his works conform to the preconceived ideology of Wagner the thinker. It was, however,precisely this artificiality that appealed to those who, like Oscar Wilde, believed that ‘to be natural … is such a very difficult pose to keep up’and that personality, like an artwork, was actively constructed by each individual. In this essay I explore the discussions Wagnerism triggered in fin-de-siècle Britain and how these were reflected in two works by major artists of the period: Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98) and George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950).

When Beardsley published his drawing The Wagnerites in 1894, he had already become a leading figure of the British Aesthetic (or ‘Decadent’) movement, whose members reacted to the perceived ‘philistine hypocrisy’of the Victorian era by works that valued the artificial instead of the naïve, emphasising poses and mannerisms and drawing attention to issues outside the mainstream, such as gender and (deviant) sexuality. Simultaneously, the term ‘decadent’ was used in morally charged discourses to denote degeneration,
homosexuality , and ‘effete’ aesthetic sensitivity. Many British Decadents were Wagnerites, such as Wilde, Beardsley and the poet John Gray, who was considered by contemporaries to have been the inspiration for Wilde’s character Dorian Gray (himself a Wagnerite). Their enthusiasm for Wagner’s music and writings contributed to Wagnerism being identified with and suspected of causing ‘degeneration’ by scientists such as Max Nordau, who in his magnum opus Entartung (Degeneration, 1892), accused Wagner of ‘megalomania and mysticism; … anarchism, a craving for revolt and contradiction’.
Aubrey Beardsley

It was in this socio-cultural climate that Aubrey Beardsley, in 1894, co-founded the quarterly periodical The Yellow Book, featuring contemporary literature (e.g. stories by Henry James) and art (e.g. Beardsley’s own works). The title left no doubt about the magazine’s intended audience and programme as ‘yellow was … the decor … of the allegedly wicked and decadent French novel’.The Wagnerites (fig. 1) was part of a group of four works by Beardsley (Portrait of Himself, Lady Gold’s Escort, The Wagnerites, and La Dame aux Camélias) which appeared in The Yellow Book’s third volume in October 1894.

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