The Savoy as a Subversive Work of Art

 

A whole greater than the sum of its parts…” 

 

The term Gesamtkunstwerk was first introduced by German composer Richard Wagner in the 19th Century.  Wagner’s goal was to create a work of art wherein each component contributed to the overall piece so that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Gesamtkunstwer translates to “Total Work of Art,” and is now known as a German aesthetic ideology that reaches far beyond its origin. Little magazines from the 19th century, such as The Yellow Book and The Savoy are also deemed total works of art. They were considered as such because magazine editors had to combine text, art, and physical components of each magazine into a cohesive unit. I find this concept of a total artwork fascinating and would like to explore what themes draw little magazines together. I am focusing on The Savoy, volume 2 (1896) and exploring how the editor, Author Symons, integrated medium and message to produce a “Total Work of Art” constructed of unrelated artistic expressions. 

Figure 1: Cover image. The Savoy, Volume 2, Aubrey Beardsley (1896).

In the case of volume 2, I believe one of the most influential components of cohesion was Aubrey Beardsley’s artwork. Volume 2 features cover art, back art, and an image insert all drawn by Beardsley. I think Beardsley’s ever-present hand in the volume, coupled with his reputation as a satirist, thematizes the magazine as societal satire. I will focus on the cover image (see figure 1) and Beardsley’s “Rape of the Lock” (see figure 2) to analyze how these images provide an aesthetic cohesion that questions societal norms. 

Beardsley’s work was known for subtle sexual innuendos that subverted stagnant Victorian ideals. He questioned gender norms and explored sexuality in his artwork, relying heavily on the concept of “art for art’s sake” in the Decadence movement. Beardsley’s subversive artwork is what makes The Savoy a “Total Work of Art.” Upon first glance, 19th century readers recognize Beardsley’s intricate style on The Savoy’s cover (see figure one), and with this recognition comes his reputation of being a satirist. Moreover, I think the cover image itself is a caricature of middle – upper class society that represents distorted versions of elegance. When I first observed the cover, I initially believed it to be a child servant helping aristocratic women, thus symbolizing the nobility. However, the body of the child servant is a distorted representation of the male and female genders. I think that depicting hermaphroditism amongst the high class is Beardsley’s way of challenging Victorian gender ideals, thus satirically introducing the volume to readers upon first contact.

 

I noticed that the theme of social subversion is continued throughout volume 2 by Beardsley’s illustration of the mock-heroic narrative poem, “Rape of the Lock,” by Alexander Pope. The original poem itself is a satire of high class society, which is why Beardsley may have deemed it worthy to draw. Beardsley furthers the satire function of the poem by illustrating the scene with intricate lavishness. The subjects’ hair and clothing are voluminous and their jewels aplenty, which I think is to depict high society as excess in its wealth. 

Figure 2: “The Rape of the Lock.” The Savoy, Volume 2, Aubrey Beardsley (1896).

Beardsley’s influence on The Savoy continues to the end, where the back images are Beardsley’s front covers of volume 1 and 2. I think Symons, as the editor, and Beardsley, as the art editor, collaborated to present volume 2 of The Savoy as a “Total Work of Art” with satire being the unifying theme. I think that Beardsley’s reputation as a satirist, combined with the constant presence of his subversive art, cohesively ties volume 2 of The Savoy together as a “Total Work of Art” that panders to a liberal audience.