Posted on:Tuesday 20th April, 2021
Born in the same year as the iconic English decadent Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898), the prominent Russian modernist writer and musician Mikhail Kuzmin (1872–1936) used to play with the date of his birth changing it in various testimonies from 1872 to 1875 and sometimes to 1877. The desire to curate his biography persisted throughout his life, and so did his preoccupation with Beardsley. ‘I was sitting there, digesting Beardsley and my destiny’, Kuzmin noted in his diary on 5 September 1929, thirty years after Sergei Diaghilev’s journal Mir iskusstva (World of Art) had reproduced Beardsley’s designs for the first time, thus initiating the ‘Beardsley craze’ in Russia. Fusing the evocation of Beardsley and the attempt to grasp the meaning of his entire life, this confession is typical of Kuzmin’s profound and enduring fascination with the English decadent. It surfaces in Kuzmin’s texts, ranging from letters and diaries to more conventional literary genres such as plays, literary translations, and poems. Since Kuzmin was an openly homosexual author, Beardsley’s presence in his corpus is closely entwined with Russian queer histories.
The earliest mention of Beardsley in Kuzmin’s diary – the journal he kept over the period of thirty years – occurs on 8 October 1906. The passage of Kuzmin’s day is narrated through a sequence of literary tableaux: waking up to the unpleasant after-effects of the previous night’s dissipation; attending a matinée performance at the theatre; and proceeding to an evening of intellectual and sensual gratification. Opening with a reference to Kuzmin’s ongoing affair with a young hustler, the entry moves to discuss the writer’s afternoon theatre trip to Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Although nausea and headache prevent him from fully focusing on the music, the author feels content: he is seated next to a ‘charming gymnasium student’, ‘tall and lean’ – but absolutely ignorant. Kuzmin indulges in an erotic fantasy about the young man. Next, after a short rest at home, he is again at the theatre, at a performance of Le Réveil de Flore. The ballet’s ‘boring mythological plot’ is improved by the ‘nice dance steps’. In particular, Kuzmin finds the performer of Apollo’s part Samuil Andrianov ‘delightful’ and describes him as a ‘Beardsleyan Apollo’.1
While watching Andrianov’s performance, Kuzmin might have recalled two portrayals of a dancing male by Beardsley. Conceived as illustrations for Juvenal’s Sixth Satire, these two designs represent a character mentioned by the Roman poet only in passing. Beardsley’s friend Robert Ross commented upon the artist’s tendency to single out seemingly marginal yet evocative aspects for his illustrations: ‘profoundly interested in literature for the purposes of his art, he only extracted from it whatever was suggestive as pattern’.2 For the drawing’s subject, Beardsley chose ‘the soft Bathyllus who dances the part of gesticulating Leda’, a legendary Roman performer famous for his explicitly sexual movements and female roles.3 In August 1896, Beardsley produced the drawing Bathyllus in the Swan Dance, and, shortly after, Bathyllus Posturing, explaining, ‘I feel I cannot say all I should like to about him in one picture’.4These drawings were privately printed by Leonard Smithers in 1903 under the imprint of Jesus press and reissued in 1906. The almanac Der Amethyst (1906), edited by the Viennese writer and enthusiast of erotic literature Franz Blei, also contained a reproduction of Bathyllus Posturing. Blei’s various editions were studiously reviewed in the Moscow decadent journal Vesy, where Kuzmin published his notorious, openly homosexual coming-of-age novella Wings (1906). As a contributor to Vesy and a close associate of the journal’s editors, Kuzmin would have been familiar with Beardsley’s design.
The desire to ‘say all he should [have] liked’ about Juvenal’s minor character compelled Beardsley to produce two drawings treating the same figure. While the first design refers to Juvenal’s poem and shows Bathyllus-Leda modestly shielding herself against the advance of the Swan-Zeus, the second overtly sexual illustration depicts the naked dancer alone – and posing rather lewdly. The character’s body language is made readable to the viewer. Bathyllus Posturing represents the dancer from the back, standing on tiptoes, with his thighs spread widely and hands gesticulating in the implication of sexual intercourse or, as Brigid Brophy puts it, ‘invitation to buggery’.5 Interwoven with other homoerotic allusions in the diary entry, the drawing is particularly relevant for Kuzmin as an emblem of dissident sexual desire.
There is further evidence of the importance of Beardsley’s Bathyllus for the writer. The Roman dancer was a popular cultural hero in the author’s milieu during the first decade of the twentieth century. Kuzmin alluded to the ‘laugh of curly Bathyllus’ in his ‘Alexandrian Songs’ (written in 1904–1905). In February 1907, he wrote a homoerotic poem ‘The Flute of Bathyllus’ for the ‘idyllic novella’ of the same name by his friend Sergei Auslender. The novella was set in rural Arcadia, the cultural locus favoured by the seekers of the Hellenic homosexual ideal. In the classic homoerotic storyline, the philosopher Terpander uses the song written by Kuzmin to confess his feelings for Bathyllus, the enchanting androgynous youth. In his private response to the publication, a member of Kuzmin’s homosexual circle and of the World of Art aesthetic coterie Walter Nouvel complained about the ubiquity of Bathyllus-inspired figures in contemporary literature and arts:
I have grown a little tired of all these Bathylluses and Daphne-like young men, one longs for something more concrete, for example, a contemporary student or a cadet. In general, the withdrawal into the depths of Alexandria, Roman decadence, or even of the eighteenth century somewhat diminishes contemporaneity.6
As this letter suggests, the image of Bathyllus circulated as an emblem of male androgynous attractiveness in the homosexual subculture to which Kuzmin and Nouvel belonged. And it is, therefore, likely that, when penning his impressions of the ‘delightful’ Andrianov in 1906, Kuzmin had Beardsley’s depiction of the dancing Bathyllus in mind.
Further in the diary entry, Kuzmin recounts meeting a man with whom he has been romantically entangled for some time, the artist, another central World of Art member, and admirer of Beardsley, Konstantin Somov. After the ballet, they leave for Somov’s house. In the course of the night which passes ‘so peacefully, so intimately’, the host shows Kuzmin some of his curious and praised possessions: ‘a burnt lady, eighteenth-century drawings, editions of Beardsley’.7 As one of Beardsley’s earliest devotees and the compiler of the first Russian album of Beardsley’s drawings (1906), Somov undoubtedly possessed some of the rare and restricted editions which could have influenced Kuzmin’s homoerotic framing of Beardsley’s work.
By placing the mention of Beardsley’s albums next to the ‘burnt woman’ and ‘eighteenth-century drawings’, Kuzmin’s inventory foregrounds the author’s penchant for a learned and imaginative eclecticism. This approach defined his and Somov’s tastes, as well as those of Beardsley, whose commitment to certain artistic techniques often did not outlast the execution period of one major commission. The list also reveals a preoccupation with the bizarre, the irregular, and the capricious traditionally associated with the style of rococo. While Somov was a driving force of the rococo revival in the Russian visual culture of the turn of the century – the same rococo revival notably represented by Paul Verlaine’s set of poems Fêtes galantes (1869) – Kuzmin was one of the most talented champions of the style in Russian letters. As Irénée Scalbert maintains, ‘like no art before it, the rococo gave itself up to the will of the moment, to a lust for the endless variety of the present’.8 Always attuned to the ‘will of the moment’ and willing to capture it in his work, Kuzmin made it clear that, like his peers from the World of Art group and, for that matter, like Beardsley, he was fascinated with eighteenth-century culture as a mirror of modern times. In his Conventions (1922), a book of critical essays published after the Bolshevik revolution, Kuzmin commented on this artistic sensibility:
On the threshold of the nineteenth century, at the point of a complete change of life, of the everyday, of feelings and social relations, there swept across Europe a feverish, passionate, and convulsive urge to capture, to document this fleeing life, the trivialities of the everyday that were destined to disappear, the charm and the trifles of peaceful living.9
When Kuzmin was preoccupied with securing his literary status and fashioning a corresponding aesthetic persona, he incorporated his fascination with the eighteenth century into his public image. In autumn 1906, the writer dramatically changed his appearance: he shaved off his beard of an eccentric Russophile and abandoned the untucked brocaded shirt and high boots for the sake of an elegant ‘European’ mode of attire. A new myth of him as a ‘Russian Brummell’ emerged. He punctuated this dandified image with flirtatious elements of the neo-rococo vogue. As an eighteenth-century marquis, Kuzmin adorned himself with beauty patches specifically designed and cut out by Somov: ‘a heart by the eye, a half-moon and a star on the cheek, a little phallus behind the ear’ – and a ‘little devil under the armpit’ for good measure.10 One cannot help but imagine this figure – all beauty patches and waistcoats, sweet signing voice and maquillage – captured on paper by Beardsley’s fluid line.
Voyage to Cythera by Jean-Antoine Watteau
Kuzmin’s enchantment with the rococo ‘trivialities’ was indeed ‘destined to disappear’ in the sobering air of post-revolutionary Petrograd alongside the entire Beardsleyesque masquerade of the first decade of the twentieth century. Beardsley remained an essential part of Kuzmin’s outlook and artistic sensibility during the impoverished 1920s, when aestheticised self-performance became practically impossible. Some of his friends, those overrefined artists and admirers of Beardsleyan Apollos ended up in emigration, like Somov and Nouvel. Others, like Kuzmin’s lifelong partner Iurii Iurkun, stayed in the Soviet Union only to be executed during the Great Purge of 1936-38. Kuzmin did not live long enough to share this fate: he suffered from angina pectoris and died in the hospital in 1936. On his deathbed, he talked to Iurkun about ballet.
Associate Research Fellow at the Department of English, Theatre and Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London and the director of the Aubrey Beardsley Society (ab2020.org)
1 Mikhail Kuzmin, Dnevnik 1905–1907, ed. by N. A. Bogomolov and S. V. Shumikhin (St Petersburg: Izdatel´stvo Ivana Limbakha, 2000), p. 236. All translations from Russian into English are mine.
2 Robert Ross, Aubrey Beardsley (London: John Lane, 1909), p. 33.
3 The literal translation from Latin is given in Ian Fletcher, Aubrey Beardsley (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987), pp. 174.
4 Aubrey Beardsley, The Letters of Aubrey Beardsley, ed. by Henry Maas, J. L. Duncan, and W. G. Good (London: Cassell, 1970), pp. 151–52.
5 Brigid Brophy, Black and White: A Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968), p. 14.
6 See Nuvel´’s letter to Kuzmin on 11 August 1907 in N. A. Bogomolov, Mikhail Kuzmin: Statʹi i materialy (Moscow: NLO, 1995), p. 283.
7 Kuzmin, Dnevnik, p. 236.
8 Irénée Scalbert, ‘The Rococo Revolution’, AA Files, 39 (1999), 10–20 (p. 20).
9 Mikhail Kuzmin, Uslovnosti: Stat´i ob iskusstve (Petrograd: Poliarnaia zvezda, 1923), p. 87.
10 Kuzmin, Dnevnik, pp. 178, 179.