Sasha Dovzhyk, “The Queer Little Grove: The Adoption of Aubrey Beardsley by Mikhail Kuzmin”

Abstract

This article explores one of the many aspects of Aubrey Beardsley’s (1872–1898) transnational legacy, focusing on his appropriation by Mikhail Kuzmin (1872–1936), a key modernist writer and a seminal voice of the emerging homosexual subculture in Russia. While Kuzmin often used Beardsley as a signifier of homoeroticism in his literary works and life-writing, it is in his play Little Grove (1922) that the queering of Beardsley is crystallized. My intermedial analysis of the piece will show how allusions to Beardsley shape Kuzmin’s representation of gender and sexuality and how the formal construction of Kuzmin’s publication echoes the formal features of Beardsley’s graphic designs.

He sits by the table and writes,

Here everyone’s a Beardsley and a Shakespeare.

(Kuzmin, Forelʹ razbivaet led 61)[1]

 

In his study of the “yellow nineties,” Holbrook Jackson pronounced the artist Aubrey Beardsley “entombed in his period,” “almost as sterile in art as he [was] local in point of time” (Jackson 104, 91). And yet, when the first edition of Jackson’s account was published in 1913, Beardsley’s elegant and easily-reproducible designs as well as his eroticized literary works had already reached and inspired audiences around the globe through international periodicals: Joventut in Barcelona, read by young Pablo Picasso; Der Amethyst in Vienna, collected by Franz Kafka and studied by Paul Klee; Mir iskusstva in St Petersburg, published by Sergei Diaghilev and his peers from the would-be Ballets Russes company; Vesy in Moscow, the mouthpiece of Russian Symbolism; and V mire iskusstva in >Kyiv, the key magazine of the Art Nouveau era in Ukraine.[2] Not only were Jackson’s insular views of Beardsley’s legacy limited by the confines of British culture, the memoirist of the “yellow nineties” did not foresee the numerous revivals of Beardsleyism happening over time. In the 1960s, the artist shed the reputation of a relic collected by connoisseurs to re-emerge as a fashion plate of the Swinging Sixties and a cover boy of the Beatles albums. The V&A exhibition of 1966 turned the fin-de-siècle Decadent into an icon of ultra-modern camp taste and radical sexual politics (Hext). The London and Tokyo exhibitions of Beardsley’s work as well as an upsurge in the academic “Beardsley industry” (Desmarais) in the 1990s marked the centenary of his death and inaugurated yet another wave of “Beardsley craze.” Linda Zatlin’s Aubrey Beardsley: A Catalogue Raisonné of 2016 and the Tate Britain show of 2020 prove Beardsley’s relevance in our days too. It is now the time to expand the disciplinary boundaries of our research in accordance with the transnational shift in the studies of the long fin de siècle.[3]

In this article, I discuss an aspect of Beardsley’s Russian afterlife and focus on his appropriation by a major modernist figure Mikhail Kuzmin (1872–1936). A poet and writer of fiction, composer and playwright, translator and remarkable adept of life-creation, Kuzmin was also a seminal voice of the emerging homosexual subculture and an ardent admirer of Beardsley. Kuzmin’s rise into fame was prompted by the publication of Wings (Kryl’ia, 1906), his novella about a young man’s acceptance of his homosexuality the first openly circulated work on this subject in Europe (Kuzmin; Malmstad 86). Due to Kuzmin’s key position in the Russian art milieu at the beginning of the twentieth century, his reception of Beardsley was interwoven with the Beardsley Craze of that period. Kuzmin’s involvements in the modernist cultural networks include his friendships with the World of Art circle, especially the two representatives of the urban homosexual subculture in St Petersburg, the Beardsley-enchanted artist Konstantin Somov and the secretary of the Mir iskusstva journal Val´ter Nuvel´; his connections with the Symbolist periodicals Vesy and Apollon and with major publishing houses, such as Skorpion and Shipovnik, that disseminated Beardsley’s work; and participation in aesthetic coteries organised by the Symbolist guru and advocate of bisexuality Viacheslav Ivanov. Later in life, and especially after the 1917 revolution, Kuzmin’s prominence faded; his work, however, became more experimental, developing an allusive modernist aesthetics as a counterbalance to the material and ideological constraints of existence in Soviet Russia.

Figure 1: Aubrey Beardsley. The Battle of the Beaux and the Belles. Reproduced in Mir iskusstva, vol. 3, no. 7–8, 1900, p. 76. British Library, London

Like many of his contemporaries, Kuzmin was enchanted with Beardsley’s echoes of eighteenth-century style and playful eroticism (Figure 1), highlighted by the editorial strategies of the pioneering vehicle of Russian Beardsleyism, the journal Mir iskusstva.[4] In 1912, Kuzmin translated Beardsley’s poems “The Three Musicians” and “The Ballad of a Barber” into Russian (“Tri muzykanta”; “Ballada o Tsiriul´nike”). Moreover, the author incorporated the fascination with the fin de siècle English Decadent into his literary works, self-stylization, and life-writing, often using Beardsley as a sign for homosexual desire. This article refers to Kuzmin’s play Little Grove (Lesok, 1922) in which the queering of Beardsley is crystallized. By first addressing the play’s opening scenes, I demonstrate how they foreground the piece’s major theme of unorthodox sexuality and its link to Kuzmin’s model of Englishness. I then take a closer look at the play-within-a-play “Venus and Adonis,” showing how Beardsleyesque allusions shape its representation of gender and sexuality and how the formal construction of Kuzmin’s text echoes the formal features of Beardsley’s graphic designs.

Little Grove was written in 1921 and published in 1922 with a dedication to Kuzmin’s partner, the writer and artist “Iurochka” Iurkun (real name – Iosif Iurkunas). The slim volume was designed and illustrated by the artist Aleksandr Bozherianov. Kuzmin’s preface introduces Little Grove as “a series of musical chamber pieces united by their poetic content” (n.p.).[5] Subtitled “a lyrical poem for music with explanatory prose in three parts,” the play escapes generic categorization, like much of Kuzmin’s mature experimental work. Involving several other arts (music, theatre, and poetry), Little Grove engages in intertextual play with some of the key writings of the Western canon, including Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Goethe’s Faust, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In its book form, it also presents a case of complex interaction between text and illustrations. Notwithstanding other visual, musical, and literary sources, Little Grove is representative of Kuzmin’s reception of Beardsley’s work and, more broadly, of English culture.

Regarding the play’s intricate structure, Little Grove consists of three parts: the Shakespearean, Hoffmanean, and Apuleiusian “groves” (Figure 2). The first, English part of the play most perceptibly responds to Beardsley. This “Shakespearean grove” is a set of eleven short pieces in prose and verse; the fifth to ninth pieces are singled out as a play-within-a-play titled “Venus and Adonis.” Whereas “Venus and Adonis” is central to my analysis of the appropriation of Beardsley, it is useful to begin by discussing the first four pieces of the “Shakespearean grove,” foregrounding its key themes of erotic play and gender ambiguity.

Figure 2: Table of Contents for Little Grove. Translation from Russian to English by Sasha Dovzhyk. British Library, London.

Little Grove opens with the song “Invitation,” which calls the readers into the Forest of Arden, replete with “Shakespearean miracles.” The second piece, titled “Lovers’ Encounters,” offers a further elaboration in prose on the grove’s “miracles.” The narrator speaks of a range of captivating Shakespearean characters naming, in particular, Viola, Rosalind, and Julia. These female impersonators are singled out because they “move in small steps wearing male dresses (muzhskikh plat´iakh), trying to speak in boyish voices” (Kuzmin, Lesok 12). Their femininity is briefly acknowledged (their steps are “small”) only to be straight away problematized by the sartorial disguise which, in turn, presents another gender paradox. The Russian word plat´e is gender-neutral and means an outer piece of clothing, especially attire fit for some special rank or profession. However, a more widespread meaning indicates a woman’s dress. Thus, the gender signifiers in this description of the Shakespearean heroines are fluid. A key point to remember is that Kuzmin presents cross-dressing as a source of amorous delight. The author, therefore, departs from the notion of natural gender roles and, like Beardsley in his drawings, counters the values of nature and authenticity with the creative potential of masquerade, artifice, and theatricality.

Fostering the associations with the 1890s’ Decadent milieu, the third section “Willie Hughes as Rosalind” makes a reference to Oscar Wilde. In a footnote, Kuzmin explains that Willie Hughes is “a young actor of Shakespeare’s acting company who played women’s roles” (Lesok 12). The author alludes to “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.,” a short story by Wilde, in which the heroes are haunted by the “true secret” of the dedication of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Assuming the roles of literary detectives, they argue for and against the theory that the poems’ true addressee was not, as scholars believed, Lord Pembroke but Willie Hughes, “the boy-actor for whom he [Shakespeare] created Viola and Imogen, Juliet and Rosalind, Portia and Desdemona, and Cleopatra herself” (Wilde, “The Portrait of W. H.” 6). This intertextual reference develops the motif of doubles, prominent in Kuzmin’s texts of the 1920s.

As Joseph Bristow and Rebecca N. Mitchell show, the plot of “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.” is based on the act of artistic forgery. Cyril Graham, the first passionate advocate for the boy-actor theory in Wilde’s story, orders a fake portrait of the object of his obsession in order to convince his friend Erskine of the existence of Willie Hughes. Upon Erskine’s discovery of the fraud, Cyril commits suicide. Erskine, disillusioned, passes the obsession with the boy-actor to the story’s narrator. Enchanted with the theory, the latter also engages in a close reading of the poems. Searching for textual evidence of Willie Hughes’s existence, the narrator simultaneously elaborates a fictitious image of the Sonnets’ “onlie begetter” (Wilde, “The Portrait of W. H.” 2). According to Bristow and Mitchell, the “hypothetical presence of ‘Mr. W. H.’” becomes a screen on which the narrator projects “his own . . .   highly personal desires and passions” (Bristow and Mitchell 284). Their essay persuasively argues that it is in this field of enchantment with “perfect representations” (292) and supreme artistic fictions that homoerotic desire is “transmitted” between the story’s literary detectives, Cyril, Erskine, and the narrator (288). As regards the “Shakespearean grove,” Kuzmin is also preoccupied with populating the fictitious forest with classic examples from the homoerotic cultural tradition. The reader’s interest is similarly incited by the flickering of artful deceptions, such as the girl-crossdresser Rosalind impersonated by the boy-actor Willie Hughes.

Finally, a commentary on “Intermezzo,” a three-stanza song preceding the play-within-a-play “Venus and Adonis.” This part of Little Grove is particularly important since it claims Kuzmin’s construct of England as a cultural homeland for himself and for his lover Iurkun. As Lada Panova has observed, allusions to English culture usually code homoerotic motifs in Kuzmin’s oeuvre (Panova 108). The last stanza of the song reads:

“A whole chain of lives”

There is a novella by Iurkun…

From an incredible homeland

Today’s moon. (Lesok 13)

Figure 3: Aubrey Beardsley. The Woman in the Moon. Plate I from “A Portfolio of Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings illustrating Salome by Oscar Wilde.” Second issue. Published by John Lane, London [1907]. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The line “A Whole Chain of Lives” refers to Iurkun’s unpublished novella of the same title. However, as Joachim Baer compellingly suggests, this line also encapsulates the “conception” of “Shakespearean grove” as the text which brings the reader into contact with a chain of imaginary “lives” (Baer 9). The song ends with a mention of the “moon,” one of the key tropes in Wilde’s Salome (1894) which was also accentuated by Beardsley’s illustrations “Woman in the Moon” (Figure 3) and “Platonic Lament” (Figure 4) (Wilde, Salome). Another interesting correspondence to consider in relation to the moon “from an incredible homeland” is the Russian writer Vasilii Rozanov’s influential sexological work People of the Moonlight (1911). The book discusses the issue of same-sex desire and elaborates the category of “spiritual sodomites” or “moonlight people.” Rozanov’s line of reasoning has been summed up by Evgenii Bershtein: “Excluded from reproductive existence and the satisfaction it provides, people of the moonlight sublimate their inverted sexuality in spiritual, cultural, and political activity” (Bershtein 211). By evoking the moon in the last stanza of “Intermezzo,” Kuzmin brackets Beardsley and Wilde as the successors of the Shakespearean homoerotic thread in English culture. A dreamlike vision of this idealized tradition is again evoked in “Moonlight,” the tenth vignette of “Shakespearean grove:”

Figure 4: Aubrey Beardsley. A Platonic Lament. Plate VII from “A Portfolio of Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings illustrating ‘Salome’ by Oscar Wilde”. Second issue. Published by John Lane, London [1907]. Royal Academy of Arts, London.

And the moonlight sheds its traditional eloquence, which has not yet become tiresome, over the willow park, over the incredible lawn, a fruit of the century-old culture, over the hotbed of tall and blond young people, football players who read Euripides in Greek, over the Oxford and Cambridge universities, over the dark Thames and hares jumping on the glade. (Lesok 15)

It is necessary to recall that, in “Intermezzo,” Kuzmin acknowledges this culture as his and Iurkun’s homeland – “nebyvalaia otchizna” – where nebyvalaia can be translated as “incredible,” but also as “might-have-been,” as something that might have been the case (13). In the piece “Moonlight,” he repeats the epithet “nebyvalyi” in the description of the lawn, “the fruit of the century-old culture.” We can therefore construe that “Shakespearean grove” promises to take the reader to the spiritual homeland of Kuzmin and his lover.

Moving to the central piece of “Shakespearean grove,” “Venus and Adonis,” it is now possible to unpack its allusions to Beardsley. As a multilayered and intermedial piece, this play-within-a-play explores not only the themes and subjects of Beardsley’s particular drawings, but also the techniques specific to Beardsley’s graphic art. While Baer indicates Titian’s painting of the same name (1560s) as the source of visual “inspiration” for Kuzmin (Baer 10), it also proves rewarding to read “Venus and Adonis” in conjunction with Beardsley’s drawings. The intermedial analysis of Kuzmin’s text and Beardsley’s designs helps us shed light on the construction of female sexuality and its place in the homoerotic “grove.” Moreover, such a comparison shows to what effect the medium-specific structures of Beardsley’s designs were evoked in the narrative fragmentation of Kuzmin’s play. This effect is best grasped through the concept of “intermedial reference,” which has been developed within German literary studies and adeptly explicated in English by Irina Rajewsky. It concerns the crossing of the boundaries between media where “the given media-product thematizes, evokes, or imitates elements or structures of another, conventionally distinct medium through the use of its own media-specific means” (Rajewsky 53). This approach expands the useful “bitextual” methodology Lorraine Janzen Kooistra introduced to the study of fin-de-siècle illustrated books for probing “how the dialogue between picture and word produces meaning within a network of cultural discourses” (Kooistra 5).

“Venus and Adonis” represents a scene between the goddess and her reluctant young lover who flees from her embrace, more interested in a hunt. Even before the characters of the play-within-a-play are introduced, the stage direction makes clear that one of these characters is out of place in the “grove:” “One can get an idea about the Shakespearean plays’ stage arrangements from a thousand volumes of Shakespearean societies. Listen instead to the warm, full, sumptuous, and mournful voice of male passion weighed down by the Windsor dew” (Lesok 13). Insofar as the “male passion” is in the limelight, Venus is excluded from Kuzmin’s staging of desire. The sentence which follows this preliminary remark—being also the opening sentence of the play-within-a-play—reads: “Venus is constraining Adonis” (14). The heroine of the inner play is, therefore, introduced as an obstacle to the realization of the same-sex desire between men.[6]

It is important to consider the setting of “Venus and Adonis.” Although the scene takes place in a forest, Kuzmin accentuates a decadent motif by putting the heroine on a low sofa amongst down pillows and bedspreads. In addition to Titian’s painting, this choice of scenery can also allude to the artificial world of Beardsley’s novella Under the Hill (1896), published posthumously by Leonard Smithers as The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser (1907). In his Decadent reworking of Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser (1845), Beardsley elaborates on the eponymous character’s sexual adventures in the realm of Venus. A great proportion of the text and all the illustrations are dominated by the representations of impossible coiffures and garments. The lush rococo depiction of Beardsley’s Tannhäuser, the knight who reveals sexual interest not only in Venus but also in his young boy attendants, exemplifies the story’s Decadent excess (Figure 5). After this illustration was reproduced in Vesy with the translation of Beardsley’s novella in 1905, the image became a token of homoeroticism in Russian literary and art circles (Berdslei, “Pod Kholmom” 32).[7]

Figure 5: Aubrey Beardsley. The Abbé, 1895. Pen and Indian ink on white wove paper, 24.9 × 17.6 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The inclusion of the emphatically unnatural elements in the natural landscape in “Venus and Adonis” resonates with Kuzmin’s as well as Beardsley’s subversion of naturalized heteronormative desire. Mocking pornography’s generic convention “to paint heroes who can give a lady proof of their valiance at least twenty times a night,” Beardsley remarks that his Tannhäuser “had no such Gargantuan facility.” After an amorous encounter with Venus, the hero felt “rather relieved” when the duty of satisfying the goddess was reclaimed by her retinue (The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser 59). Kuzmin’s Adonis displays a similar lack of amorous enthusiasm. The explanation for the character’s behaviour should be sought in the misogynist language and intertextual allusions Kuzmin employs in his description of Venus: “She is not the Venus of Botticelli, not Willie, but a redhead woman with a milk-white body, her roses are purplish [lilovaty]” (Lesok 14). The diminutive suffix “-ish” (“-ovat”) is used here to a slighting effect. Likewise, the repeated negative conveys disappointment at the heroine’s otherness, at her being not like the objects of desire, at her sexual difference. Venus’s physique is contrasted with the androgynous charm of Willie Hughes and adolescent grace of Botticelli’s Venus. For Kuzmin’s readership, the latter comparison could also elicit an association with Beardsley.

Apart from Kuzmin who often mentioned Beardsley and Botticelli side by side,[8] many turn-of-the-century Russian authors saw a resemblance between the aesthetics of the two artists, especially if the ideals of femininity were concerned. For example, Aleksandr Benois, who was the editor of the journal Mir iskusstva and Diaghilev’s associate, allied Beardsley and Botticelli as the emblems of the respective decadent strands in the European fin de siècle and the Italian Renaissance. Benois’s interpretation relied heavily on Beardsley’s conversion to Catholicism in 1897. Two prodigal sons of the Roman Church, Beardsley and Botticelli were believed to picture a morbid type of beauty and reveal a “tragedy of human soul” which was torn between the “lures of Venus’s grotto” and the redemption promised by Catholic faith (Benua, Istoriia zhivopisi 44). Botticelli’s Venuses prefigured, according to Benois, a morbid and unmistakably modern type which became conspicuous in the works of Benois’s contemporaries, namely, Beardsley and his Russian follower Konstantin Somov, the artists who were notably preoccupied with the subject of sexual ambiguity (Benua, “K. Somov” 272). By distinguishing between Botticelli’s famously androgynous Venus and the Venus of his play-within-a-play, Kuzmin underlines his heroine’s incongruous position in the “Shakespearean grove.”

While the abundance of color details such as the goddess’s “red” hair or the “lilac” coverlet in which her legs are “clumsily and pathetically” caught can indeed point to Titian’s painting, the scene also evokes some characters from Beardsley’s drawings. For example, Venus’s legs are unfit, “unlike Diana’s, unused to walking on earth” (Lesok 14). One of Beardsley’s popular drawings, “Atalanta in Calydon with the Hound” (1896), has also been known under the title “Diana” (Figure 6). Unlike the vulnerable recumbence of Kuzmin’s Venus, Diana’s pose in Beardsley’s drawing expresses a determined advance. Her leg, in a playfully anachronistic ankle-boot, is rendered in bold lines and conveys forward movement. As Ian Fletcher and Linda Zatlin note, Beardsley parodies the “diffuse androgyny” of the huntress of A. C. Swinburne’s poem “Atalanta in Calydon” (Zatlin 376) by supplementing the image of the heroine with a phallic leaping dog. Such a sexually-ambiguous character as Beardsley’s Diana-Atalanta would fit seamlessly in the “Shakespearean grove.” The soft-necked Venus whose arms are “plump” and “without muscles” presents a contrasting image of femininity.

Figure 6: Aubrey Beardsley. Atalanta in Calydon with the Hound. Reproduced in The Later Work of Aubrey Beardsley, Plate 157.

Bozherianov’s illustration mediates the link between the text and some of Beardsley’s drawings. It is interesting to note, for example, that the hound from Beardsley’s “Atalanta” is echoed by the dog in Bozherianov’s headpiece design (Figure 7). Furthermore, his headpiece foregrounds the affinity between Kuzmin’s play and Beardsley’s drawing “Cinesias Entreating Myrrhina to Coition” from the Lysistrata (1896) set, underlining the destabilization of the traditional gender and sexual categories in the “grove” (Figure 8). The subject of Beardsley’s design, similarly to the central theme of “Venus and Adonis,” is frustrated sexual desire. In the comedy of Aristophanes, Athenian women headed by Lysistrata refuse sex to their husbands so long as the men participate in futile bloodshed. Beardsley’s illustration depicts Cinesias “in a terrible plight” (Lysistrata 47), with a grotesque aroused phallus. The man tries to catch his wife Myrrhina who, after erotically teasing him, takes flight. It is not difficult to see how Cinesias’s unfulfilled passion corresponds with Venus’s longing for Adonis in the “grove.”

Figure 7: Aleksandr Bozherianov. Headpiece, 1922. Reproduced in Mikhail Kuzmin, Lesok, p. 11. British Library, London.

This thematic parallel is reinforced by Bozherianov’s drawing where the figure of the running hunter echoes the image of Beardsley’s Myrrhina. The headpiece reuses several structural elements from Beardsley’s illustration for Lysistrata. Most notably, it repeats the angular shape of the prey’s scarf which touches the pursuer’s headpiece enclosing the characters in the circuit of unsatisfied desire. The foliage hanging above the body of Venus in Bozherianov’s design resembles Cinesias’s opulent hairdo. As the plumed coiffure of the Athenian man mimics his painfully aroused penis, so the featherlike foliage points at Venus’s genitalia signifying her sexual want. The teasing tassels of Myrrhina’s gown are repeated in the quasi-theatrical frame of Bozherianov’s illustration. Formed of these tassels as well as flowers and stylized theatrical curtains, the frame also teases the reader-viewer into entering the scene and taking part in the performance of desire. After entering the play, however, the audience finds the gender roles reversed.

Figure 8: Aubrey Beardsley. Cinesias Entreating Myrrhina to Coition, 1896. Pen, brush, and ink on white wove paper. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The sexuality of Beardsley’s Cinesias is transmitted to Kuzmin’s Venus. At this point, Bozherianov’s illustration diverts from the textual representation raising some of the play’s implications with regard to female sexuality. While Kuzmin describes the heroine as harmless and merely pathetic in her unrequited love, Bozherianov supplies the image of Venus with the attributes of the castrating woman. The gap formed by her spread knees is furnished with threatening tusks. A similar dented pattern wraps the contours of her body. Bozherianov’s headpiece reaffirms the male as the object of desire, and the female as the source of sexual danger.

The central piece of the inner play “The Hunt of Adonis” portrays the beautiful young man breaking free from Venus:

The face of Adonis is like that of Lord Pembroke or young Douglas, perhaps, like that of a rough poacher’s on the grounds of these lords. Beardsley will dream of it. He throws his hair back and is frisky as a schoolboy who has escaped from school. The boar understands nothing in love, art, or beauty. Or maybe, he is attracted by the curved round thigh of the young man. It is exactly to this place that the stroke of his tusks is directed. Maybe, he does understand something. (Lesok 14)

This passage’s direct reference to Beardsley indicates the artist’s key role in the “Shakespearean grove:” he is the one who, in his dreams, crafts the image of beautiful Adonis, the “grove’s” embodiment of erotic attraction. Capable of giving visual expression to the matter of his dreams through the medium of his drawings, Beardsley is positioned as an artificer of Kuzmin’s homoerotic fantasy-world.

By mentioning the assumed dedicatee of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Lord Pembroke, Kuzmin includes another allusion to “The Portrait of Mr W. H.”: at the first sight of the forged painting of Willie Hughes, the narrator of Wilde’s story compares the depiction to the portrait of Pembroke (Wilde, “The Portrait of W. H.” 2). The ironic blurring of distinction between the lords and the lowborn poachers who violate their private “grounds” can be read as a reference to the notorious liaisons of English aristocrats, such as Lord Alfred Douglas, with the working-class young men; it can also allude to Beardsley’s parody “The Bacchanals of Sporion,” the cross-class orgy described in The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser. The setting is “a remote Arcadian valley” where satyrs, shepherds, and shepherdesses participate in Priapic worship. Excited by their performance, a group of exquisite dandies and smart women from the audience invades the stage in order to “taste the unknown sweet treats while seducing naïve shepherds or satyrs.” Beardsley’s description of the “combination of silk stockings and hairy legs, rich brocaded kaftans and plain blouses, artful coiffures and uncombed locks” undoubtedly appealed to the homosexual subculture whose codes Kuzmin came to shape and express (Berdslei, “Pod Kholmom” 49). Among the writer’s comrades par amour such as Diaghilev and Somov, it was common to seek sexual encounters with working-class and military men in specially-marked urban territories.[9] Beardsley’s playful subversion of class codes resonated with the professed egalitarianism of Kuzmin’s urban homosexual milieu.

Finally, it is fascinating to note how the representational mode of Beardsley’s graphic designs is echoed by Kuzmin’s text. The technique and structure of Beardsley’s images is understandably conditioned by the medium in which the artist worked. In other words, the black-and-white ink drawing on paper restricted by a linear frame is confined to capturing a singular event and not a process or a sequence of events. For instance, the borders that cut off the figures of Diana-Atalanta and Cinesias in Beardsley’s drawings define the images as partial. The viewer is confronted with the fragmentary nature of representation, with the fact that any continuation, the before and after of the given image can only take place in the viewer’s imagination. Rajewsky applies the term “framed-ness” to this type of visual artworks (59).

While working in a medium that presupposes development of plot, Kuzmin, nevertheless, organizes the story of Venus and Adonis into a series of semi-autonomous, seemingly disconnected tableaux. The anticipated representation of action is substituted with a set of static images. Instead of recounting how the wild boar fatally wounded young Adonis, the narrator’s attention wanders from one frame to another: the young man’s face, the young man’s thigh, the stroke of boar’s tusks. Some of the few verbs are used in passive voice, thus securing the descriptive mode of the passage (“the stroke is directed” (Lesok 14)). Logical connections between these frames are not articulated. The sections of “Shakespearean Grove,” switching between prose and verse and differing in literary styles, are not put into self-explanatory sequences. We can easily imagine his literary-theatrical vignettes translated into the visual language of Beardsley’s designs.

Kuzmin’s “Shakespearean grove” invites the reader to take a journey into the dreamlike queer homeland where the Beardsleyan-Shakespearean gender and sexual metamorphoses take place. Evoked through thematic and stylistic references, Beardsley is the cornerstone of the play’s aesthetics, the writer’s fellow-traveler across epochs and beyond the physical reality, a visionary ascribed with ultimate creative power. Furthermore, Kuzmin’s modernist appropriation of Beardsley as a signifier of homosexual desire develops our understanding of the artist’s legacy as a potent cultural phenomenon not only beyond Western Europe but also beyond the temporal confines of late-imperial Russia and its thriving turn-of-the-century enclaves of Symbolist and Decadent arts. The play Little Grove is but one example of Beardsley’s resonance within early-Soviet culture. Further research of Soviet modernism will doubtless prove rewarding for the scholars of Beardsley and for those interested in the surprising afterlives of the English “yellow nineties.”

published May 2020

Sasha Dovzhyk completed her PhD in English and Comparative Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. She is currently transforming her thesis The Afterlives of Aubrey Beardsley in Russia (1899–1929) into a monograph, and her article “Beardsley Men in Russia: Modernising Decadent Masculinity” is forthcoming in Modernist Cultures (2021). She is the organiser of The Eve of St Aubrey: Re-Collecting Beardsley (2018) and La Maladie Fin de Siècle: Decadence and Disease (2019) and the editor of ab2020.org.

HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)

Dovzhyk, Sasha. “The Queer Little Grove: The Adoption of Aubrey Beardsley by Mikhail Kuzmin.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].

WORKS CITED

Baer, Joachim T. “Mixail Kuzmin’s Lesok: A Rococo Work in the Twentieth Century.” American Contributions to the Eighth International Congress of Slavists: Zagreb and Ljubljana, September 3-9, 1978, edited by Victor Terras, vol. 2, Slavica Publishers, 1978, pp. 7–23.

Beardsley, Aubrey. “Ballada o Tsiriul´nike.” Obri Berdslei: Risunki, povesti, stikhi, aforizmy, pis´ma, monografii i stat´i o Berdslee, edited by M. Likiardopulo, translated by M. Kuzmin, Skorpion, 1912, pp. 119–24.

———. “The Ballad of a Barber.” The Savoy, vol. 3, July 1896, pp. 91–93.

———. “Istoriia Venery i Tangeizera: Romanticheskaia novella.” Vesy, translated by M. Likiardopulo, vol. 1, 1908, pp. 61–69.

———. “Pod Kholmom.” Vesy, vol. 11, 1905, pp. 30–49.

———. The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser. [Smithers], 1907.

———. “The Three Musicians.” The Savoy, vol. 1, Jan. 1896, pp. 65–66.

———. “Tri muzykanta.” Obri Berdslei: Risunki, povesti, stikhi, aforizmy, pis´ma, monografii i stat´i o Berdslee, edited by M. Likiardopulo, translated by M. Kuzmin, Skorpion, 1912, pp. 117–18.

———. “Under the Hill.” The Savoy, vol. 1, Jan. 1896, pp. 151–170.

———. “Under the Hill.” The Savoy, vol. 2, Apr. 1896, pp. 187–196.

Benua, Aleksandr. Istoriia zhivopisi. Shipovnik, 1912.

———. “K. Somov.” Istoriia zhivopisi v XIX veke: Russkaia zhivopisʹ, Znanie, 1901, pp. 271–74.

Bershtein, Evgenii. “The Notion of Universal Bisexuality in Russian Religious Philosophy.” Understanding Russianness, edited by Risto Alapuro et al., Routledge, 2012, pp. 210–31.

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ENDNOTES

[1] Very little of Kuzmin’s experimental mature writing has been translated into English. All translations from Russian into English are my own. In order to ease the flow of the text for English readers, the original quotations in Russian have been omitted. For selected poetry and prose in English, see, for example, Kuzmin, Wings.

[2] See Riquer for Beardsley’s circulation in Joventut. Five drawings by Beardsley were reproduced in the first volume of Franz Blei’s almanac Der Amethyst. For the first reproduction of Beardsley’s drawings in Russia, see Diagilev 54; I discuss Beardsley’s circulation in Mir iskusstva in detail in my forthcoming article, “Aubrey Beardsley in the World of Art: The Launch of Russian ‘Beardsley Craze’.” For circulation in Ukraine, see G. B. and A. K.

[3] On the transnational turn in the studies of Decadence and Modernism, see Kwok; Gagnier; and Jaillant and Martin.

[4] A lengthy essay on the artist by the Scottish critic D. S. Maccoll was illustrated with the examples of Beardsley’s neo-rococo style: see Mek Kollʹ. Vesy dedicated the eleventh issue of 1905 to Beardsley, reproducing his designs and translating his literary work.

[5] The pieces were never performed. After the revolution of 1917, Kuzmin fell out of pace with the Soviet ideology, was gradually marginalized, and relied on literary translations for living.

[6] Despite its shortcomings, the biographical interpretation of Venus’s exclusion is not to be completely dismissed due to the blurring of boundaries between “art” and “life” in Kuzmin’s work. Little Grove was written in 1921 when Kuzmin’s partner Iurkun began a love affair with an actress and artist Ol´ga Gil´debrandt. Kuzmin and Iurkun’s union had to be reimagined. Unable to part with his lover, Kuzmin accepted the presence of Gil´debrandt in their life and, in the course of time, grew fond of her. However, Little Grove was written at the time when their relationship had not yet been settled. Kuzmin’s representation of Venus’s love as fatal for Adonis might, therefore, be based on the events of the author’s personal life.

[7] Several chapters of Beardsley’s unfinished erotic novella, first published in the Savoy (Beardsley, “Under the Hill”), were translated into Russian by the editor of Vesy, Mikhail Likiardopulo in 1905, see Berdslei, “Pod Kholmom.” When an expanded version of the novel became available in 1907 (see Beardsley, The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser), Likiardopulo circulated additional fragments in Vesy (Berdslei, “Istoriia Venery i Tangeizera”).

[8] For instance, in a letter of 1907 which “come[s] close to being the artistic credo Kuzmin never wrote as such” (Malmstad and Bogomolov 138), Kuzmin noted: “In painting, I like old miniatures, Botticelli, Beardsley” (Malmstad and Bogomolov 139).

[9] For the geographies of the “little homosexual world,” see Healey 29–35.