Roots Of Charleston Renaissance, Including Oscar Wilde, Revealed At Gibbes Museum Of Art

Arts & Celebrities

A pair of lesser-known and connected art movements come together at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston during the exhibition “Something Terrible May Happen: The Art of Aubrey Beardsley and Edward Ned I.R. Jennings.” Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898) was a famed English illustrator associated with the British Aestheticism Movement. Charlestonian Edward “Ned” I.R. Jennings (1898–1929) designed costumes and sets for local theaters, taught art classes, and fostered the Charleston Renaissance.

Though hardly unknown, the British Aestheticism Movement and the Charleston Renaissance possess nothing of the notoriety of, say, Art Deco or the Harlem Renaissance, which coincidentally occurred at roughly the same time.

The Aesthetic Movement in Britain (1860–1900) aimed to produce art that was aesthetically beautiful rather than serving some deeper moral or allegorical purpose–’Art for Art’s sake.’ It unsettled and challenged the values of mainstream Victorian culture defined as it was by a prudish repression and rigid separation of the genders and classes in society. Aestheticism’s poster boy was the wildly colorful, flamboyant, famous, and gay playwright, novelist, and poet Oscar Wilde (1854–1900).

The Charleston Renaissance occurred between the World Wars when Charleston shook off its Reconstruction stupor and flourished as an arts hub, producing iconic works like Debose Heyward’s novel “Porgy,” which inspired Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.”

“This (renaissance) included not only the visual arts, but a boom in writers, architects, and preservationists,” Chase Quinn, Co-Director of Education and Programs and Curator of Special Projects for The Gibbes Museum, told “It is also credited with helping spur the city’s tourist industry. Jennings’ work is distinct because when many of his contemporaries were depicting romantic landscape and floral designs in the Japanese woodblock style, Jennings was illustrating daring costume designs, grotesque masks, and even introducing abstract gestures into his compositions.”

By examining the stylistic affinity between Jennings and Beardsley, the Gibbes’ presentation, for the first time, establishes the British Aestheticism Movement, defined by its call for artistic, sexual and political experimentation and close association with Wilde, as an important influence on the visual arts of Charleston.

“Jennings’ work is a part of the Gibbes Museum’s permanent collection, and upon seeing his work, I immediately recognized something familiar in it and wanted to get to the bottom of it,” Quinn said. “It was the uncanny stylistic similarity that Jennings’ work bore to that of Beardsley that served as the initial breadcrumb that would lead to deeper research into this story and ultimately build the bridge between these two time periods.”

Aubrey Beardsley and “Ned” Jennings

Beardsley’s iconic black ink drawings depicting the grotesque, the decadent and the erotic became a hallmark of British Aestheticism. His most famous illustrations concerned themes of history and mythology including his illustrations for Wilde’s play, “Salome,” which premiered in Paris in 1896 and from which the Gibbes exhibition takes its title.

“Salome” dramatizes the story of the beheading of St. John the Baptist. King Herrod’s daughter, Salome, instigates the beheading.

“At the beginning of the play, a young Syrian, taken with Salome’s otherworldly beauty remarks to a page, ‘How beautiful is the Princess Salome to-night!’ To which the page remarks, ‘You are always looking at her. You look at her too much. It is dangerous to look at people in such fashion. Something terrible may happen,’” Quinn explains. “In Wilde’s hands, Salome becomes a symbol of the dangerous and potentially corrupting influence of art and beauty, with the power to lead people to obsession, depravity, and dissolution.”

Anathema to a Victorian Britian obsessed with order, modesty, and its Puritanical “stiff upper lip.”

Only a decade after Beardsley’s death, Jennings’s imaginative style, characterized by his use of mythological creatures and fanciful landscapes verging on surrealism, would distinguish his artistic voice from the more picturesque expressions of his Charleston contemporaries. During his 10-year career, he would create some of the most original artwork of the period, including a significant body of work ranging from theatrical sets, costume and mask designs, watercolors, and pastels.

Jennings would be appointed curator of the art department at the Charleston Museum. He taught art classes at the Gibbes and gave private lessons to a select artists including a young William Halsey. During the last two years of his life, Jennings made increasingly bold forays into modernism.

“It only made sense to put the two in conversation,” Quinn said. “In addition to a shared visual vocabulary, the two artists also shared subject matter, with Jennings actually designing the costumes for a production of ‘Salome’ in his own time.”

Their personal lives mirrored each other as well.

“They would both die tragically young, Beardsley (at 26) from (tuberculosis) and Jennings after taking his own life at the age of 31,” Quinn added. “They both experienced great isolation in their own time periods–having such vibrant and literary imaginations–because Beardsley dealt with persistent health issues and Jennings had a severe cleft palate which left him with a speech impediment.”

Oscar Wilde Comes to Charlestown

Oscar Wilde has become an icon of literature, fashion, and queer culture as well. In 1895 he was put on trial for “gross indecency,” having engaged in a homosexual affair with a British aristocrat. Homosexuality was illegal in England at this time. The “scandal” further earned the Aestheticism Movement public scorn in the sexually repressed, Biblical nation.

Remarkably, Wilde visited Charleston in 1882 as part of his American lecture tour.

“He was wildly famous, and Charleston was his 102nd stop on what was only supposed to be a 55-stop tour,” Quinn explained.

Wilde spoke on the decorative arts at the Academy of Music, an event which may have prefigured the Charleston Renaissance, still a few decades off. A local newspaper that same year referenced the influence of “aesthetic fever” on Charlestonians.

To whatever extent Wilde specifically influenced the Charleston Renaissance, queer culture broadly absolutely did. “Something Terrible May Happen” explores these queer influences.

“This exhibition will shed a provocative new light on our understanding of the underpinnings of the Renaissance and examine the influence of queer culture and aesthetics more broadly,” Quinn said. “Whether or not these artists identified as LGBTQ, there is much evidence to support that they were influenced by queer culture.”

In the exhibition, the term queer describes an expanse of cultural practices that disturb the conventions of heteronormative mores and values, practices it would not be difficult to trace back to Wilde.

“Something Terrible May Happen: The Art of Aubrey Beardsley and Edward Ned I.R. Jennings” will be on view through March 10, 2024.


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