Face(t)s of British Wagnerism: Aubrey Beardsley’s drawing The Wagnerites (1894) and George Bernard Shaw’s essay The Perfect Wagnerite (1898), Siri Kohl
In the 1890s British Wagnerism was at its height. The works of Richard Wagner were admired and condemned equally for their daring musical innovations and unusual subject matter; namely, the artist’s precarious position in society in Tannhäuser, eternal love against all conventions in Tristan und Isolde, the end of divine rule and man’s ascent in the Ring of the Nibelung tetralogy. The Decadent movement reacted strongly to Wagner’s portrayals of eroticism, morbidity and suffering, as apparent in Aubrey Beardsley’s oeuvre (1872-98). Other artists, such as George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), rejected these aspects in favour of socio-political readings of the operas. Through their works, this essay will explore some of the debates about Wagnerism and the implications of being a ‘Wagnerite’ in late 19th-century Britain.