Thursday, January 14, 2016

Aubrey Beardsley at London's NPG

Miguel Cullen writes about an exhibition of Aubrey Beardsley's portraits at London's National Portrait Galley in The Catholic Herald:

A small exhibition of portraits of Aubrey Beardsley at the National Portrait Gallery reveals a touching detail involving the socialite illustrator’s premature death. There is a picture of him in the Hotel Cosmopolitan, in Menton, France, where he died of tuberculosis aged 25. To the left is a crucifix: Beardsley had converted to Catholicism a year previously, and died with a rosary in his fingers. The next day his mother and sister arranged a Requiem Mass for him at Menton Cathedral; he was buried in the adjacent cemetery.

Beardsley’s passage “from Decadence to Catholicism” was one that was well-trodden. After him came Lord Alfred Douglas; John Gray, the poet and translator of Verlaine’s Catholic poems; the writer Ernest Dowson and Oscar Wilde’s friend Robbie Ross. All were artist-converts of fin-de-siècle England.

Beardsley was the ultimate Victorian hipster. He drew spindly, Japonism-inspired subjects taken from mythology on a flat perspective. His circle was inextricably linked with Oscar Wilde’s. When Wilde was arrested at the Cadogan Hotel, headlines screamed : “Oscar Wilde Arrested: Yellow Book Under His Arm”. Beardsley was art editor of The Yellow Book, an avant-garde magazine. In the public’s eye, they were arrogant, too-clever-by-half peddlers in obscenity (according to the Daily Mail). On the day of Wilde’s arrest, offices of the similarly “obscene” Yellow Book were vandalised by crowds.

With that list of "artist-converts of fin-de-siècle England" moving "from Decadence to Catholicism" Cullen almost references the title of Ellis Hanson's 1998 book from Harvard University Press, Decadence and Catholicism, which included Beardsley's "The Ascension of Saint Rose of Lima" on its cover. At least one reviewer found it a deeply flawed and confusing work, noting that:

In Decadence and Catholicism, there is no faith but Catholicism and these decadents are its prophets. Hanson frequently uses 'Catholic' as a synonym for 'Christian,' slipping between these terms in the same paragraphs (68, 231, 368-369). Indeed, virtually any reference to souls, faith, religion, guilt, spirit, or sin is triumphantly adduced as proof of underlying Catholicism -- regardless of the fact that these terms were fashionable in their own right in the nineteenth century or that they occupied a common lexicon shared by anyone with religious training or operating in the Anglican-based cultural environment of nineteenth-century Britain. In Hanson's world, anyone with the slightest interest in the soul must be a closet Catholic. Nor does he ever extend to other religions the kind of respect he gives Catholicism. Any decadent man who is not Catholic is just a proto-Catholic or a might-as-well-be Catholic, with no understanding of how an upbringing in particular Protestant denominations (or, in Raffalovich's case, in Judaism) might have specifically shaped religious experience. This unremitting Catholic-centrism leads him to make identifications that are unintentionally funny, as when he calls Gilbert and Sullivan's "Patience" a "religious satire" (242) -- presumably because "Patience" parodies the medieval revival, which Hanson equates with ritualism, thus Anglo-Catholicism, and therefore Catholicism itself.

While Hanson tends to spy Catholics under every bed, he is curiously ambivalent about their faith. With an introduction and conclusion sure to alienate Catholic scholars with its provocative attack on the Church (amongst other things, he views the Church as a corporate behemoth and "the bulwark of reactionary politics throughout the world" (371)), he spends the rest of the book giving heartfelt, emotional testimony about the power and beauty and necessity of what he calls 'the Faith' in a way sure to make poststructuralists uneasy.

Men and women don't convert to any religion because of the aesthetics of art and architecture, ritual and music--those change. Gerard Manley Hopkins protested that his conversion was not to the beautiful liturgy and churches of Catholicism; the newly re-established Catholic church in England didn't offer those glories. If he wanted beautiful churches and liturgy, the ritualistic movement of the Tractarians provided that, with incense and candles and ceremony.

There has to be some content, some meaning beyond the surface if the conversion is going to be real, effective, and lasting. A surer guide to conversion than Walter Pater's aesthetics or the pre-Raphaelite fascination with the Middle Ages was needed, and this author suggests it was Blessed John Henry Newman, but even he doubts the depths of these decadent conversions:

John Henry Newman (1801–1890) had a considerable impact on English Catholic thinking throughout the Victorian period and after. For fin de siècle Catholics, he was the glorious forebear and the fatherly reference. As the leading figure of the Oxford Movement, he played an essential role in the Tractarian attempt at restoring a sacramental spirituality and re-establishing the authority of tradition. The Movement, whose ideas were expressed in the Tracts for the Times published between 1833 and 1841, was in the end torn by internal conflicts that led to a number to conversions to Roman Catholicism, the most famous of which being Newman’s in 1845. The Ritualistic phase followed the Tractarian moment in the second half of the century, focusing on liturgical reforms and introducing ceremonials in which the sacramental emphasis marked an appropriation of Roman doctrine. 

All fin de siècle Catholic literature is influenced by Tractarian thought. The Decadents share with the Oxford theologians the rejection of modernity and religious liberalism. They are also highly receptive to the Tractarian focus on rituals and sacraments, on the sacred role of the ordained priest, and on the antiquity of the Christian religion; they also have the same admiration for the mediaeval Church as Tractarian authors like Richard Hurrell Froude. The refusal of any form of compromise with contemporary society and the importance given to the liturgy had a profound impact on the vision of Catholicism that can be found in Decadent writing. The ritualistic dimension of late Tractarianism certainly left a more lasting imprint on fin de siècle converts than the dogmatic and ecclesiological reflection with which the movement had started and which they did not show much interest in, with the notable exception of Lionel Johnson, who was according to W. B. Yeats the theologian of the group (“Lionel Johnson was to be our critic, and above all our theologian, for he had been converted to Catholicism and his orthodoxy, too learned to question, had accepted all we did.”) . . .

The Decadent converts drew their inspiration from a variety of sources, preferring the “Art-Catholic” works of Rossetti, the French poetry of Parnassians and Symbolists and the writings of Newman over the great English and Protestant tradition represented in the 19th century by Arnold, Ruskin, Browning and Tennyson. And of course, there is also the seminal influence of Pater, which led many critics, most famously T. S. Eliot in his essay on Arnold and Pater, to dismiss fin de siècle conversions as superficial and unsubstantial. Eliot’s rebuttal of “aesthetic religion” is unfair, though, as these authors’ various spiritual itineraries often reflect a real and profound search for religious meaning. Although their quest was expressed in aesthetic rather than theological terms, although the subjectivity of experience often took pre-eminence over the sense of ecclesiastic belonging, although their beliefs and modes of life were at times rather eccentric, their religion was in no way less valid than the more orthodox and dogmatic faith of later Catholic writers such as G. K. Chesterton or Hilaire Belloc. The importance given to aesthetic emotions as part of religious experience is not only the fruit of a superficial reading of Pater’s writings, as T. S. Eliot seems to imply: it also bears the imprint of a theological tradition going back to Newman (who is rarely accused of shallowness), which places the emphasis on the personal dimension of faith rather than on intellectual obedience. One might argue that this focus on the individual over the ecclesial is fundamentally Protestant. The literary converts of the Decadence, despite their vocal rejection of the Reformation’s heritage, were all deeply marked by their Protestant upbringing, and their writings often represent a rather un-Catholic Catholicism, as if their vision of the Roman Church was distorted through a Protestant prism. The over-dramatic, romanticised religion that they describe is often closer to the depictions that can be found in the Gothic novel and in anti-Catholic pamphlets than to the actual faith practised by the average Catholic under Victoria’s reign.

Father John Henry Newman, among the working-class families of Birmingham, would have been a model for that "actual faith".

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