The eccentric, grotesque and awe-inspiring legacy of Aubrey Beardsley is celebrated in Tate Britain’s largest exhibition of his drawings in 50 years.
Intricate, monochrome illustrations welcome visitors into the exhibition and promptly draw them into the bewitching depths of a dark fairytale. Through the provocative, grotesque paintings, the life of the artist, as well as his diverse influences, are highlighted.
Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (1872-1898) was born to a typical English middle-class family, but his life was far from ordinary. As a young boy, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was well aware that he was unlikely to live a long life. While the looming shadow of an early death would demoralise the majority of people, it only encouraged Beardsley to live a bold and eccentric existence. Although his life was ended all too soon (he passed away at the tender age of 25), he left an outstanding legacy and contributed to the emergence of poster styles and Art Nouveau.
Beardsley craved fame and perhaps saw it as the sole way to ensure that his short-spanned existence wouldn’t be forgotten. The opportunity to create his own legacy presented itself when he was given his first major commission to illustrate Le Morte d’Arthur (1893). Written by Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur consisted of a compilation of stories and myths about the legendary King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It was vital that the paintings followed a “medieval manner” that resembled the previous illustrator’s (William Morris) style and although Beardsley adhered to the request, he did so without sacrificing his own flair and characteristic grotesque imagery to the paintings. One of the most celebrated of these illustrations was the headpiece to the preface of Volume I of the book. It portrays two angelic beings sitting across from one another, with the tree of knowledge between them. Its branches are twisted and intricately interwoven, and attached to their edges are leaves painted in such a way that they resemble devil’s tails. Beardsley was commissioned to make innumerable works for the series, more than he initially realised and he soon grew tired of illustrating the same characters. To keep himself entertained, he began adding unrelated fictitious figures, such as mermaids and satyrs, in his work. For example, in the drawing How King Arthur saw the Questing Beast (1893), the goat-legged ancient Greek god Pan and his flute are included, despite being incongruous to the story. The collection of these illustrations propelled Beardsley to fame and granted him the approval of both the public and other artists. More commissions soon followed that allowed him to quit his job and devote all his time to his artistic career.
The artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) was an important influence on Beardsley, inspiring him to incorporate aspects particular to the Aesthetic movement in his work. After seeing his illustrations, Burne-Jones became one of Beardsley’s most enthusiastic supporters and encouraged the young artist to showcase his work. Music also played a significant role in the artist’s life and was the inspiration behind many of his illustrations. This may have been owing to the fact that Beardsley’s mother was a piano teacher and was adamant that Aubrey and his sister receive a proper musical education.
For his illustrations, Beardsley also drew inspiration from Japanese woodblock prints (Ukiyo-e) and he began to draw on long, narrow, kakemono scrolls. In his attempts to portray black detailed figures against white backgrounds, Beardsley experimented with different techniques. Instead of sketching the outline of a figure with black ink, he would occasionally paint everything but the outline black, therefore creating a white border between the picture’s background and the portrayed figure. This technique was employed in The Wagnerites (1894), which depicts an audience in an opera house. As illustrated by the programme on the floor, Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde appears to be in progress. Beardsley had an almost obsessive infatuation with Wagner and often used Tristan and Isolde as characters in his illustrations (see below, as well as How Sir Tristram Drank of the Love Drink, 1893-4, and Isolde, 1898).
A massive step forward for Beardsley’s career was the commission he received by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) to illustrate Salomé (1894). After watching the play, Beardsley drew a sketch and sent it to Wilde, who, intrigued by the young artist’s unique talent, hired him to create the play’s illustrations. Pre-Raphaelite elements, reminiscent of Edward-Burne Jones’ work, were amalgamated with those from Japanese art and were, consequently, re-invented as part of Beardsley’s defining style. An important aspect of Beardsley’s work was that he often challenged gender roles by portraying figures androgynously (e.g. How Sir Tristram Drank of the Love Drink, 1893-4); he also refused to represent women as subordinate to men. Instead, he painted them as dominant and sexually charged creatures, as is evident in Enter Herodias and The Peacock Skirt (both 1893). Perhaps, this is most evidently shown in The Climax, (1893) where Salomé is shown holding the severed head of John the Baptist after having kissed it. Salomé was in love with John the Baptist, but he had rejected her. So, she asked her father to bring her the Baptist’s head, as payment for performing the dance of seven veils (captured in Beardsley’s The Stomach Dance, 1894). In his sketches, Beardsley would also incorporate caricatures of Wilde. For example, in The Woman in the Moon (1894) which was a frontispiece for Salomé, a droopy face is painted on the moon. The caricature is supposed to represent Wilde, the omnipotent creator that controls the characters’ fate.
As Wilde predicted – and desired – the provocative illustrations scandalised the public, but also drew a large audience towards them. After the Salomé project was completed, Wilde and Beardsley continued to have a close relationship. Beardsley was also commissioned to work with other writers, such as Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849), for whom he illustrated ‘The Black Cat’ (1894). The eponymous short story tells a dark tale of a cat who bites its owner in retaliation for treating it cruelly. Enraged, the owner gauges the cat’s eye out and eventually kills it. The man then stumbles along a similar-looking cat and tries to kill that one too, but accidentally murders his wife instead. Beardsley’s illustration excellently portrays the uncanny, grotesque nature of the story, as it depicts a wretched-looking, one-eyed black cat sitting on top of it’s owner’s dead wife’s head.
During a visit to Paris, the young artist came across Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters (e.g. Divan Japonais, 1892) and was, consequently, influenced both by the particular French style of art and its underlying Japanese references. Beardsley greatly admired Toulouse-Lautrec’s dynamic and bold technique. Upon meeting, the French artist returned the praise and even requested to buy a copy of Salomé. In the following years, Beardsley frequently created posters to promote his projects (e.g. A Comedy of Sighs, 1894), and was commissioned to design a number of them for newly released novels (e.g. The Pseudonym and Autonym Libraries, 1894). It’s also worth noting, that his poster illustrations were the only ones that occasionally strayed from his typical monochrome motif.
An important milestone in Beardsley’s career was the establishment of the literary periodical The Yellow Book. Its yellow colour purposefully alluded to erotic French literature and, although its subject matter was controversial, crowds flocked to purchase the magazine. Along with co-founder Henry Harland, Beardsley created a space where he could freely draw sensual and risqué images. Characters were shown to succumb to hedonism and were often portrayed as wearing masks in order for their sinful sides to be highlighted and their depraved desires freed. Much to the artist’s delight, the magazine shocked the public. The Yellow Book was an exponent of decadence, a movement that aimed to push the boundaries of both morality and sexuality. In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), a yellow book plays a significant part in Gray’s descent into immorality. Although not explicitly stated, it is largely accepted that Wilde’s yellow book alludes to Beardsley’s periodical. However, in 1895 Beardsley had to step down from his position as art editor of The Yellow Book. His image had been tainted by association with Wilde, who at the time had been arrested for “gross indecency” because of his same-sex relationships. Although the nature of the relationship between the two men was unclear, rumours of them being lovers feverishly spread and some accused Beardsley of transvestism as well as of having an incestuous relationship with his sister.
One of the exhibition’s final rooms contains Beardsley’s most explicit works. The main inspiration behind these particular illustrations was the Ancient Greek satirical play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, in which women of both Athens and Sparta decide to go on a “sex strike” in order to stop the ongoing war between the two cities. Beardsley’s depictions were greatly influenced by Japanese erotic art (shunga). The cover image of the book that contained the series of paintings was titled Lysistrata Shielding her Coynte (1896). The erotic illustration depicts Lysistrata extending an olive branch towards an oversized erect penis, while with the other hand she appears to be either shielding her private parts from the phallus or pleasuring herself. With this painting, Beardsley implied that it was women who had control over the male sex and libido, and that the only way men would be able to relieve their sexual frustration would be by putting an end to the war.
Other drawings illustrated the effect the sex strike had on women by showing them pleasuring themselves and each other (see Lysistrata Haranguing the Athenian Women, Two Athenian Women in Distress, both 1896). Beardsley also made a point of greatly exaggerating the size of male phalluses, using them in his works as metaphors for male virility. In his painting, The Examination of the Herald (1896), an elder man appears to be admiring the herald’s much larger penis. The elder’s expression appears lustful towards either the younger man or his amplified vigour. Since the book contained such obscene imagery, it wasn’t widely distributed, but was purchased by a small number of private collectors. When Beardsley’s life was approaching its end, the artist converted to Catholicism and ended up regretting the depiction of such sexual scenes. On his final days, he wrote letters to both his friend Herbert Charles Pollitt (1871-1942) and his publisher Leonard Smithers (1861-1907) requesting that they destroy all of his obscene illustrations. His wish, nevertheless, was never granted: neither the copies nor the original paintings were destroyed.
Beardsley’s impact on Decadence, the Aesthetic movement and his later influence on the development of Art Nouveau are undoubtable. His unique and uncanny style of painting has been a continuous source of inspiration to numerous artists, such as Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), who was a huge admirer of Beardsley’s art. During his early painting days, Picasso made numerous drawings that heavily resembled Beardsley’s monochrome illustrations (e.g. Portrait of Marie Derval, 1901). Although Picasso eventually developed his own distinct style, Beardsley always remained one of his most significant sources of inspiration. Numerous references to Beardsley’s art also exist in the world of music, as his illustrations often grace the covers of albums. For example, the Humble Pie album (1970) by the titular rock band has The Stomach Dance (1894) as its cover, and the cover art of Revolver (1966), by the Beatles, is heavily influenced by Beardsley’s technique too. Klaus Voorman (1938-), designer of the album cover, even won a Grammy Award for his Beardsley-inspired creation.
This all-encompassing exhibition provided an in-depth look at the life, art and legacy of Aubrey Beardsley. When considering how much he achieved in just a few years, his accomplishments become even more fascinating and border on the unbelievable. Yet, undeniably, Beardsley’s wildest wish to leave an ever-permanent and distinguished ink mark on the world was granted.
Aubrey Beardsley is showing at Tate Britain until 20 September 2020. For more information and to book tickets, click here.