The ‘Ukrainian Beardsley’, or A Study in Camp

Sasha Dovzhyk is a second-year PhD student at Birkbeck College, University of London. In her thesis funded by Birkbeck School of Arts, she explores the reception of the late-Victorian artist Aubrey Beardsley in Russia. She is a co-organiser of the conference Forgotten Geographies in the Fin de Siècle, 1880–1920, which is supported by the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS). The conference will take place at Birkbeck, 8–9 July 2016. You can follow the proceedings via @ForgottenGeo. You may also follow Sasha via @sasha_weirdsley.

The artist Vsevolod Maksymovych (1894–1914) has been recently called a ‘trump card’ of Ukrainian Secession. His paintings have been demonstrated at several international exhibitions in the US and Europe and acquired a central place in the collection of the National Art Museum of Ukraine (Kyiv). Nevertheless, our knowledge of Maksymovych is still centered on the following: he was an Art Nouveau painter who managed to produce a considerable corpus of works before committing suicide at the age of twenty; in the rare academic accounts, he has been repeatedly labeled a ‘Ukrainian Beardsley’.[1] It is the last title which cannot but capture the imagination of an Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898) devotee with a life-long record. Being thus biased, I believe that Maksymovych’s work is yet of interest to a larger Victorianist community – as a case of thought-provoking displacement of the yellow nineties’ aesthetics. After a few details on the artist’s obscure biography, I will examine his painting in relation to some of the most recognizable designs of the late-Victorian Decadence.

Born in the city of Poltava in central Ukraine, Vsevolod Maksymovych succeeded in adding a Decadent flavour not only to his sensuous works but also to the aesthetic (dis)organization of his life. As a young man, he met another painter, his would-be friend and mentor, Ivan Miasoiedov (1881–1953). An admirer of classical antiquity, athlete and nudist, Miasoiedov turned his Poltava house into a pleasure ground for local youth, calling it ‘The Garden of Gods’. The ‘Gods’’ activities included, but were not limited to, portraying each other nude, exercising, and acting out mythological plots.[2] From his teacher, Maksymovych adopted the fascination with mythology and body beautiful – apparent in the athletic physique of the Argonauts, Nymphs, and Apollos which inhabited his otherwise languid Art Nouveau pictures.

For the years 1912–1914, when Maksymovych produced most of his paintings, his style was sadly out-of-date. In Moscow, where the young artist moved in 1912, Maksymovych worked alongside such pioneers of abstractionism as Natalia Goncharova (1881–1962) and Mikhail Larionov (1881–1964). Larionov even filmed Maksymovych in the lead role in Drama in Cabaret No 13, which is considered the first cinematic experiment of the Futurists. There is little wonder that in 1914, when the emerging Avant-Garde had already boomed into notoriety, a solo exhibition of Maksymovych’s paintings in Moscow failed spectacularly. In the aftermath, the young man committed suicide by drug overdose and thus contributed to the statistics of the so-called ‘suicide epidemic’ which tormented the sons and daughters of Decadence in the Russian Empire at that time.[3]

While being somewhat overshadowed by the rise of the revolutionary Avant-Garde, Maksymovych nonetheless appeared in memoirs of his contemporaries. Moreover, the particular feature which made his works memorable was his adoption of Beardsley’s imagery. For instance, the writer Boris Lavrenev (1891–1959) recalled that Maksymovych’s paintings ‘were made of circlets and rings, tangled and intertwined, […] resembling a pile of […] soap bubbles’, undoubtedly, referring to their ornamental – and unmistakably ‘Beardsleyesque’ – backgrounds.[4] While the lace of Beardsley’s stylized graphic details was meant for print, Maksymovych magnified the so-called ‘circlets’ in his oil canvases, which reached 3½ meters in width. To cite John Bowlt’s observation, ‘if certain esthetic ideas did bloom late on Ukrainian soil, they tended to assume luxuriant, hybrid proportions’.[5]

Vsevolod Maksymovych. Self-Portrait. 1913. Oil on canvas. The National Art Museum of Ukraine, Kyiv

Vsevolod Maksymovych. Self-Portrait. 1913. Oil on canvas. The National Art Museum of Ukraine, Kyiv

For an illustration of this notion, one can look at Maksymovych’s impressive life-size ‘Self-Portrait’ (1913). The painting brings to mind Susan Sontag’s definition of Art Nouveau as ‘the most typical and fully developed Camp style’ in which objects ‘convert one thing into something else’: the lamp into a plant or the living room into a grotto. The oil painting appearing as a black-and-white illustration can be no less representative of the kind. With two diminutive sculls in the background, which convey the idea of decadence quite literally, the ‘Self-Portrait’ is also ‘dead serious’ as all the ‘pure examples of Camp’ are.[6]

The picture centers on the half-length figure of the artist wearing an immaculate black suite, who, like Beardsley, adopted the Baudelairean model of dandyism (‘absolute simplicity’ in dress and ‘aristocratic’ pride in attitude).[7] Even more mesmerizing than Maksymovych’s self-depiction is the backdrop which incorporates details – the distinctive ‘bubbles’ – from the illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1894). Besides being widely circulated in the early-twentieth-century journals and art books, those designs were included in several publications of the play in Russian, well-known in Maksymovych’s aesthetic milieu.

Aubrey Beardsley. The Peacock Skirt. 1894. Print. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Aubrey Beardsley. The Peacock Skirt. 1894. Print. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The arrangement of masses of black and white in the portrait’s background reminds of the curvilinear compositions of the Salome set (see The Peacock Skirt). Apart from that, the solid central figure with his gaze fixed on the viewer renders the painting static. As such, Maksymovych’s work contrasts with the dynamic of Beardsley’s designs. It is not only the space organization that makes Beardsley’s compositions unstable to the point of ‘metaphysical dislocation’, as his critics claim.[8] Beardsley’s drawings usually expose a dramatic interaction between the characters, a complicated play of innuendoes which involves shifting trajectories of power and desire. In the case of Maksymovych, all the tension is funneled into the image of the artist.

Aubrey Beardsley. J'ai baisé ta bouche Iokanaan. 1894. Print. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Aubrey Beardsley. J’ai baisé ta bouche Iokanaan. 1894. Print. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Placing himself at the centre of the spectacle, the painter performs his Decadent identity – as Salome performs her dance of the seven veils. The curved bottom line of the frockcoat gives an organic quality to the whole figure. Like a dark flower, the man rises from the lower edge of the picture – like the flower of evil which grows from the pool of blood under Jokanaan’s severed head. The man’s red lips – the only colour accent in the painting – evoke the passion of the Princess of Judea, her desire to kiss the mouth which was ‘like a band of scarlet on a tower of ivory’ – the desire captured in Beardsley’s first drawing for the play, ‘J’ai baisé ta bouche Iokanaan’ (1893).[9] Embodying the Dancer and the Reward, enacting the Beardsleyesque theatre of desire in a one-man show, Maksymovych’s portrait is a fascinating endeavour in Decadent self-stylization, innocent in its desire to corrupt.

The example of the ‘Ukrainian Beardsley’ illuminates that, for his foreign enthusiasts, the allure of the late-Victorian enfant terrible consisted not only in the stylistic peculiarities of his works. Constructed by Beardsley’s critics both in England and overseas, the image of the Decadent artist par excellence became a suitable model for identity performance.

______________

[1] Natella Voiskounski, ‘“They Dipped Their Brushes into Virtually Every Paint Can”’, The Tretyakov Gallery, 3 (2007), 70–81 (p. 46).

[2] A. Kovalenko, Ivan Miasoedov – Khudozhnik Serebrianogo Verka (Sevastopol’: Mir, 1998), p. 86.

[3] On the ‘suicide epidemic’ c. 1906–1914, see Irina Paperno, Suicide as a Cultural Institution in Dostoevsky’s Russia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), pp. 94–104.

[4] Cit. in V. N. Terekhina, ‘Vsevolod Maksimovich sredi moskovskikh futuristov’, in Russkoe iskusstvo: XX vek, 3 (Moscow: Nauka, 2009), pp. 147–56 (p. 151).

[5] John E. Bowlt, ‘National in Form, International in Content: Modernism in Ukraine’, in Ukrainian Modernism, ed. by Anatolii Mel´nyk and John E. Bowlt (Kyiv: Galereia, 2006), pp. 75–83 (p. 77).

[6] Susan Sontag, ‘Notes on “Camp”’, in Against Interpretation (London: Vintage, 1994), pp. 275–92 (pp. 279, 282).

[7] Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (London: Phaidon Press, 1964), pp. 27–28.

[8] Chris Snodgrass, Aubrey Beardsley, Dandy of the Grotesque (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 87.

[9] Oscar Wilde, Salomé (Bloomsbury Publishing, 1988) <http://www.dramaonlinelibrary.com/plays/salome-iid-131708/do-9781408182352-div-00000007&gt; [accessed 14 January 2016].

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