Wednesday, January 1, 2020

440. Ricketts in Academia

Charles Ricketts's oeuvre continues to attract the attention of scholars, whether because of his book designs for Oscar Wilde, his costumes for plays by Yeats, or as an example of a partner in a (partly) homosexual household in Edwardian England, his name appears in indexes and his letters and essays are quoted.

One of the newer monographs - published last year - discusses the relations between decadence and modernism and 'radically heterogeneous moments of literary dynamism': Decadence in the Age of Modernism is edited by Kate Hext and Alex Murray, and Ricketts is already quoted in the introduction on page 3.

The book includes an excellent and inspiring article by Ellis Hanson on 'The Queer Drift of Firbank', an essay that immediately takes you to Firbank's work to reread chapters. That was my intention anyway, after I recently visited his grave in a cemetery in Rome, and I wasn't disappointed.

Ricketts is dealt with in chapter two of  Decadence in the Age of Modernism, an analysis of the various performances of Wilde's Salome, as the introduction points out:

Aubrey Beardsley, Salome and the head of Iokanaan (detail)
Ellen Cromwell focuses on the halting and derided appearance of Iokanaan's severed head in productions of Wilde's Salome between 1896 and 1908. As Crowell explains, the naturalistic appearance of the severed head was controversial in large part because of its contrast with the symbolist aesthetic that defined both these early productions and the simile-laden dialogue of Wilde's play. In examining this appearance, she argues that Salome brings naturalism and symbolism together in a rejection of nineteenth-century realism, rooted in the text of Wilde's play but only realized in production.
(p. 21)

This chapter is titled: 'The Ugly Things of Salome' (pp. 47-70), and Ellen Crowell is referring to the severed head of Iokanaan to be shown at the end of the play:

Even when a production garnered general praise for all other production aspects - acting, lighting, sets, costumes, choreography, musical accompaniment - the prop heads designed for productions of Salome in the early modernist period inspired merciless mockery.
(p. 49).

Charles Ricketts, design for Oscar Wilde's Salome (1896)
[location: Courtauld Institute, London]
Ricketts has made designs for Salome several times. A stage design dates back to around 1896, but that remained unexecuted. In 1906 there was a performance in London for which Ricketts enjoyed visiting the mysterious, messy studio of the theatrical property man. This 1906 performance for which he provided costumes and stage designs was successful, only the head of Iokanaan was severely criticised. Max Beerbohm thought it was a stylistic break in a symbolist play. Ellen Crowell doesn't agree:

As an early aesthetic experiment in deliberate tedium, dullness, and irritation, Salome works by not working, and by making us think about how it is not working. With its final tableau compounded of equal parts "enervation and shock," Wilde's decadent experiment in meta-response may have been lost on his early modernist audiences. But in the work of later twentieth-century artists, including Bertolt Brecht, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Andy Warhol, and John Cage, we again find artists pursuing productive aesthetic failure as catalyst for the creation of new generic forms.
(p. 67)