THE LIES OF ART: Max Beerbohm's Parody and Caricature by John Felstiner
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THE LIES OF ART: Max Beerbohm's Parody and Caricature

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The incomparable Max, peering through his affectations with a marmoset eye, preferring antagonism to neglect, whose wit it was to make lordly capital of his own limitations. What his limitations were (an immature self-centeredness? distrust, perhaps fear, of great emotion?) and how they might have originated are left for others to define; but their effect, a profound ambivalence, is registered everywhere in Felstiner's masterful analysis of his work in both media, his relationships, and the peculiar position he appropriated for himself as an artist. Felstiner relies lightly on such standard testimonies as Wilde's, regarding Max's ""precocious old-age,"" Shaw's ""incomparable"" introduction of his Saturday Review successor, and even Beerbohm's own voluminous self-portraiture. In the latter he sees a reflexive technique typical of Max's art -- a self-promoting self-effacement related to the paradox of dandyism and visible elsewhere in a preoccupation with cosmetics, masks, style -- and in the former he detects the uneasy animus that Max so charmingly and deliberately aroused. His elegant, non-partisan sniping, however, could disguise either esteem or disdain, or both as in the formidable presences of Wilde, Shaw, Ibsen. Behind the percipient cruelty of his caricatures, many of friends, there is a schoolboy's impulse to deflate and deface, as he habitually did the photographs in his books. And in the unexcellable sophistication of his parodies -- which now require the careful situating and anatomizing that Felstiner provides -- there are traces of skepticism about culture itself, though no one could have been more deeply immersed in it, more aware of its inner operations (viz. the discussion of Words for Pictures). ""Only art with a capital H gives any consolations to her henchman,"" he declared with equal irony and conviction. A decadent flippancy, but also a startlingly modern approach. The modernity emerges brilliantly here against a richly drawn background of his ornamentally perverse era. Altogether a success.

Pub Date: May 22nd, 1972
Publisher: Knopf