Monday, February 23, 2009

Affectionate Study

Max Beerbohm was that most unusual of caricaturists whose best and most telling likenesses were often his most affectionate. Perhaps his most famous and frequently reproduced series, Rossetti and His Circle, published in 1922 (and handsomely reprinted by Yale University Press in the edition I own from 1987,) depicts the generation previous to his own with a fondness he did not always show for his contemporaries. All the great personalities of the period are rendered, if not gently, warmly, and in particular the great stolid, Pre-Raphaelite beauties are all recognizably posed in attitudes appropriately medieval, however Victorian their costume, delicately drawn, and painted in watercolors intended as much as tribute to the art they inspired as to lampoon the style of the time. The only genuinely unkind drawing in the collection is the last, of Beerbohm's friend, shown in unflattering profile, in knee-britches and pumps, holding a lily, and lecturing a room full booted rubes. The caption reads:

"The name Dante Gabriel Rossetti is heard for the first time in the Western States of America. Time: 1882. Lecturer: Mr. Oscar Wilde."

Wilde was long dead by the time this picture appeared, but Beerbohm drew him many times, living and dead, though seldom with more deadly accuracy than here.

My favorite picture is not the Wilde, nor even perhaps the funniest, captioned "Rossetti's Courtship. Chatham Place, 1850 - 1860." which shows the huge artist, elbow on mantel, slippered feet crossed at the ankle, looking rather glumly away from the funereal beauty before him, her limp orange hair and massy blue dress accentuating her thin neck, her pale skin, her hooded eyes and expressionless kisser. My favorite (sadly unavailable to me on the internet, else I'd put it here,) shows Rossetti, his arms spread wide, the room strewn with brilliant fabrics, and his sister glumly before him, all in black, down to her gloves and furled umbrella. The dialogue is as follows:

D. G. R. "What is the use, Christina, of having a heart like a singing bird and a watershoot and all the rest of it, if you insist on getting yourself up like a pew-opener?"

C. R. "Well, Gabriel, I don't know -- I'm sure you yourself always dress very quietly."

It is no easy thing to make a joke as perfect as that. To make not just a joke on each Rossetti, brother and sister, but on a whole period, on its piety, its poetry, it's art, its extravagance... and to do so with such endearing sympathy for the lot, is to elevate amusement to equal satire, even surpass it in its power to pin down the particulars of a period and person in a way that sets forever after what one thinks of when the subject is recalled. It is Beerbohm's Rossetti who stands proudly next to his Beata Beatrix, and the lady from "Rossetti's Courtship" who fascinates the poet in that famous painting. And while it is the beautiful portrait of her by her brother that sets Christina Rossetti in her poetry for me, conjured up in lines such as ""When I am dead my dearest, sing no sad song for me," just as the music of Gustav Holst sets "In the Bleak Midwinter" eternally in my memory, it is Beerbohm's narrow little lady, all in black, who wrote "The Goblin Market," and who became so much the favorite of the feminist critics of my brief college days, long ago.

Had Beerbohm been less interested in his subjects, had he misunderstood or dismissed them, as he did the politics of the post WWI Europe in a series of his least funny and ugliest drawings, or had he meant to simply puncture what he saw as empty vanity, or lampoon stupidity and vulgarity, as he did so effectively when drawing Edward VII or the toffs of his youth, he would not have been so careful about the fuzzy dignity he gives here to Carlyle's face, or the patient skepticism he allows for in Rossetti reclining on a too-small sofa, listening to a tiny Swinburne reading aloud.

Of all the many wonderful drawings Max Beerbohm did, none are as dear to me personally as those he made of himself over the course of a long life. I've puzzled pleasantly over these more than any others from his pencil and pen. Because he is so dear to me as an essayist, and as a personality of letters, I am particularly fascinated by how he drew himself, in words and specially in self caricature. Many greater artists, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, made self portraits which are beautiful, but I can think of only one other, in my limited experience of art history, that being Rembrandt, who ever captured his own bemusement at and affection for his subject. Just as it will always be Beerbohm's Rossetti I see in every encounter subsequent to my study of Beerbohm's book, it is Beerbohm's Beerbohm I encounter on every page of his writing and stroke of his pencil and brush. Now that, is a very neat trick indeed; perfect self-promotion in perfect self-awareness, and all the more amusing and endearing for the genuine affection expressed.

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