Sexuality in Aubrey Beardsley's Story of Venus and Tannhäuser
Aubrey Beardsley wrote The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser during the fin de siècle, the end of the Victorian Era. This decadent work, following Baudelaire's credo "art for art's sake first of all," portrays sex and sexualities in a playful manner. In addition to mocking conventional Victorian moral codes, and parodying pornographic conventions, The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser also supports Foucault's idea that the Victorian Era witnessed a diffusion of sexualities.
The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser was originally toned down and modified for publication in 1897 in The Savoy, a magazine that Beardsley served as art editor, under the title of Under The Hill. According to Stanley Weintraub, Venus and Tannhäuser was "the literally undisciplined and Rabelaisian original. But the longer manuscript's [Venus'] first eight chapters had sufficed for only four refashioned chapters of the purified and playfully footnoted Savoy text [Under the Hill]" (168).
Venus and Tannhäuser is a decadent work, though the term "decadent" is difficult to define. As Elaine Showalter notes, the term had antithetical connotations at the end of the century. On the one hand, it was "the pejorative label applied by the bourgeoisie to everything that seemed unnatural" (169). But artists who embraced decadence as an aesthetic credo " . . .rejected all that was natural and biological in favor of the inner life of art, artifice, sensation and imagination" (170). Heather Henderson and William Sharpe note that these opposing connotations are typically combined in standard definitions of the term, since "In most cases the word [decadent] suggested an ultra-refined sophistication of taste allied with moral perversity . . ." (1937).
Venus and Tannhäuser is a fairy tale for adults. It is set in an imaginary place with its main characters being a mythic German hero (Tannhäuser) and a Greek goddess (Venus). It is decadent in that it ignores reality and the standards of sexual representation in Victorian writings. As Paul Gillette has said of 18th century writers:
" . . . the only way an author safely could handle an erotic theme was to describe all sex acts in such a manner that would render them totally lacking in beauty. It also helped if he could demonstrate forcefully that all persons who enjoyed sex ultimately would pay dearly for their indulgences" (22).
Beardsley broke these and other precedents with Venus and Tannhäuser. There are no physical or moral ramifications for the characters who enjoy their sexual activities. According to Linda Zatlin, "it is a work in which emblems, motifs, and words collaborate to achieve unashamed sexual exploration" (118). Zatlin also says of Venus and Tannhäuser that "The language does not explicitly describe technique, but it does stress mutual pleasure" (120).
Venus and Tannhäuser also does not conform to the traditional coital sexual relationships. Along with...