Aubrey Beardsley at the Tate: ‘Quite Mad and a Little Indecent’

The Black Cape (left) and The Climax, illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, 1893, by Aubrey Beardsley. Line block print on paper. (Courtesy Tate)
Suffering from TB, he indulged a unique vision.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A ubrey Beardsley (1872–1898) was tubercular from childhood and knew he’d probably die young. As an artist he worked with urgency, and that’s why his drawings look like a linear pressure cooker. He was as focused and fervent as a missionary. His gospel? To make art that created, in his words, “a new world of my own . . . quite mad and a little indecent.”

Mad, indecent, pungent, dreamy, and more. Aubrey Beardsley is the new exhibition at the Tate showing a rich, comprehensive selection of his drawings. It’s a retrospective of his career and striking in every respect. Bring your monocle, though. It’s time travel to the age of Victoria, and the drawings are small, exquisitely realized, and as randy as they are refined.

Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley, 1893, by Frederick Evans. Photo-etching and platinum print on paper. (Wilson Centre for Photography)

The show is chronological and covers all of Beardsley’s book and periodical projects. He was prolific, so covering him takes seven galleries with over a hundred drawings and a space for a film. There are some books and posters in the show as well as the periodicals he illustrated. Beardsley’s drawings weren’t the finished product — the printed sheet was — but it’s a delight to see his foundational work, as faithful as the reproduction process was.

Lighting is low — it’s a drawings show — and spooky, as is much of Beardsley’s art. The wall colors are deep blues, oranges, and greens, deep but not that muted. The colors have a touch of copper and are ever so slightly metallic. The Tate’s shows always look good. This one is gorgeous.

Beardsley was a pioneer of art nouveau style and invented a new vocabulary of sinuous line and sly eroticism. Everything about him is unusual. His parents started as vaguely upper-middle-class, but his father lost their money. A ruinous breach-of-promise-to-marry lawsuit, brought by a jilted flame, cleaned his coffers. Afterwards, the family struggled. It was probably Beardsley’s father who gave him tuberculosis. A musical prodigy, he was performing in high-end British vaudeville by the age of seven.

He went to art school, but art being art, jobs were hard to get. At 19, he was an accounting clerk. I can’t imagine anyone more inclined to hate that job. His talents and passions ran like the dickens elsewhere. Accounting is a bitterly ironic job for a young man who knew his days were numbered.

How Arthur saw the Questing Beast, 1893 by Aubrey Beardsley. 
Ink and wash on paper. (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Beardsley is sui generis as much as anyone could be, but the Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones gave him crucial guidance. He saw a very young artist, leaving his teens, with amorphous talent, ambition, and vision. Like the Pre-Raphaelites, Beardsley’s look is sometimes languid. It’s not “art for art’s sake.” He was an illustrator. His art, as weird and personal as it is, is narrative. It’s didactic, too, though what it’s teaching is often double-edged and rarely wholesome. He makes his confections one part ugly, one part beautiful, one part tension, and one part ambiguity, dribbled with his own secret sex sauce.

How King Arthur Saw the Questing Beast, from 1893, is a good start. It’s faithful to the text, the myth of King Arthur, but only in its fashion. Forget about “Camelot.” The Arthurian legends are filled with as much blood, gore, and raw, opportunistic sex as heroism and romance. Arthur meets the beast soon after he’s had a fling with his stepsister. In the forest, seeking the Fountain of Youth for Guinevere — she’d found a gray strand in her hair and freaked — he fell asleep and had a bad dream. He awoke to a fetid pool — some fountain of youth — and a beast that’s both scary and ornamental. A creepy faun runs from Arthur. No one has a good look, but you can’t stop staring. Beardsley’s work always gets curiouser and curiouser. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland appeared in 1865. Beardsley takes its spirit and juices it with a little LSD.

Left: The Battle of the Beaux and the Belles, c. 1896, by Aubrey Beardsley. (The Henry Barber Trust, the Barber Institute of Fine Art, The University of Birmingham)

Right: The Lady with the Rose Verso, 1897, by Aubrey Beardsley. 
Ink, wash and graphite on paper. (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Scofield Thayer)

It’s a labor-intensive drawing, to say the least, with a million moving parts. Beardsley was tall, gawky, weedy, and beak-nosed, but he’s the young Apollo of line, sometimes relentlessly straight, often curvy, sometimes spindly. He doesn’t have one uniform technique. The Battle of the Beaux and the Belles, from 1896, is a curlicue riot. The Lady with the Rose, from 1897, has more straight lines. The Questing Beast is packed with lots of lines, some short, some long, some intersecting, like an aerial view of Los Angeles freeways.

Beardsley has a sense of moment, and the moments are often nervous ones. He captures the grim, troubled Arthur, entangled and groggy. It’s apocalyptic, and it’s no surprise that Beardsley loved Albrecht Dürer’s Apocalypse woodcuts from 1497, which have the same steep format and dense lines. The Questing Beast is a monster, but he’s more a fevered dream. He comes and goes when heroes are most troubled psychologically. It’s a baseline peek into Beardsley’s fertile mind.

Wilde’s tragedy Salomé, from 1894, keeps the basic New Testament storyline but drains religion from it and replaces it with sex. The play was published before it was performed, and Beardsley’s masters — Wilde and the play’s publisher — seem not to have been looking, so the artist felt free. Beardsley took a story set in ancient Judea and presented its characters as fashion plates of a kind unknown to the catwalk. In the exhibition, the drawings are displayed in a row as they were sequenced in the illustrated version of the play.

Enter Herodias, 1893, by Aubrey Beardsley. (Dr. Simon Reynolds)

The Black Cape corresponds to nothing in Wilde’s play, but it suggests Salomé’s unfed and unappetizing lust. Enter Herodias shows Salomé’s grandiose, busty mother — move over, Joan Crawford — entering the story flanked by an ugly attendant with a bulge beneath his robe and an unaroused, effeminate Jokanaan, the young prophet.

The figure at the bottom right is Wilde. He’s gesturing to the flame, which points to the unfathomably ugly but hidden penis. Beardsley is irreverent to the point of insulting. Wilde, the author, covers his head with a cap that starts as an owl, a sign of wisdom, and ends with dangling bells like those on a jester’s cap. Beardsley often plays naughty and nice. In taking a poke at Wilde, he shows that he has hijacked Wilde’s play and made it a vehicle for his own talent.

Publishing is a business driven by technology, and Beardsley’s 1890s vision found a new technological platform. His was the art of mass-produced illustration. Around 1890, a new method of printing from zinc line blocks was perfected. These metal blocks capture exactly his black pen lines, dense or wiry, relentlessly straight or long and lazily curved. His expansive black washes keep their depth. Salomé ends with one nutty dame getting her man, or part of him. Sweeps of deep black and bright white shoot a spark that jolts the eye in The Climax, a kiss like no other.

The Yellow Book Volume I, 1894. 
Bound volume
. (Stephen Calloway. 
Photo: © Tate)

The Yellow Book and Savoy were the periodicals most associated with Beardsley. These weren’t magazines for the masses. They were niche journals loved by artists, intellectuals, and the “bons vivants” with “outré” taste. Wilde’s 1895 trial for gross indecency, or illegal gay sex, was Victorian London’s O. J. saga. Everyone followed it. Because of Salomé, Beardsley was linked to Wilde, and after Wilde’s conviction, publishers grew timid. Wilde supposedly held a copy of The Yellow Book when he was arrested. Beardsley was too hot to handle and got fired, though his work for the magazine, mostly cover art, was innocuous. Beardsley’s style had already become an icon.

Beardsley was broke after he lost his job — he went to France and found work illustrating a privately published edition of Aristophanes’ Greek sexual comedy Lysistrata. The title character, an Athenian soldier’s wife, rallies women to go on conjugal strike during the bloody Peloponnesian War until husbands on both sides stopped fighting. In The Lacedaemonian Ambassadors, from 1896, horniness hastens diplomacy.

Beardsley’s spoof of Wilde in Salomé shows he’s a satirist whose pen is a rapier. In this drawing, he mocks excessive heterosexual desire. Other drawings are darker, with more than a whiff of misogyny and sadism. His figures of men are often androgynous. Lesbianism runs through his work. Is he doing anything radical? Yes and no. The exhibition fashions him as a modern model since gender, for Beardsley, is squishy, and today gender dysphoria is in the news.

I’m not sure he’s a pioneer of anything except aesthetics, though. Some Victorians were prudes, and social standards could be exacting and restrictive, but there are a million books on romping, randy, omnivorous, and uninhibited Victorians. Beardsley certainly thought about sex a lot. He had an unusually dirty mind. That said, TB wasn’t exactly a dating plus, and he might well have felt like a Lacedaemonian ambassador once in a while. His drawings are brilliant art. He made a certain, new look fashionable in illustration design much as William Morris did in textiles. I’d leave it at that.

The film component — featuring a clip from the 1923 film adaptation of Salomé using Beardsley’s illustrations as choreography — was delicious. Performers enact his images. It’s not often, Sunday in the Park with George aside, that art meant for paper or canvas literally comes to life.

Beardsley died in France in 1898. His death leaves us wondering what he would have done. Schiele, Thomas Girtin, Seurat, and Bazille died as young men. I find it hard to find a place for him in the ages of cubism, Dada, constructivism, or futurism. The exhibition stumbles in a gallery on Beardsley’s influence in the 20th century. Psychedelic style is indebted to him, but the curators’ other selections seem scattershot. Edward Gorey is obvious to me, but he’s American so maybe he didn’t occur to anyone. I wish I’d seen the British surrealism show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery while I was in the U.K. Beardsley could conceivably have wandered into the surrealism ballpark and found something that looked simpatico.

The catalogue is unusually beautiful and welcomed. It’s handsomely designed — so central for a show on a book and magazine artist — and thoroughly illustrated. The short essays cleave closely to the exhibition, which was once a given in museum shows but now I find only randomly. More often than not, interpretation in museum galleries corresponds marginally to the intellectual content of the catalogue, as if the curators believe the public is too dumb to understand it.

The El Greco show I reviewed a few weeks ago thoroughly, even gleefully, offended on that score, but the exhibition itself didn’t have much of a theme. I enjoyed the meaty catalogue on the Caravaggio and Bernini exhibition in Amsterdam, but the topics were so esoteric that the book seemed a vehicle to give the curators’ friends publishing opportunities. The Tate’s book was sublimely relevant. It had crisply written, observant sections on overall style and trajectory, Beardsley’s mythical and Japanese influences, his brilliance as a satirist, and his passion for music.

The Wuhan flu crisis, as all of us know, has closed museums all over the world. The two museums where I worked the longest, the Clark Art Institute and the Addison Gallery, have modest attendance this time of year. Social distancing isn’t a challenge. I’m surprised how many people have forgotten the words “cover your mouth,” though. I hope museums are among the first to reopen, with visitor-services staff and guards at the quick with hand sanitizer.

This time of year, compensation committees and trustees are awarding raises for the next fiscal year to top museum brass. Museum directors are opulently paid now, with salary packages multiples of what the proletariat earns. Given the vast hardships the country is facing, I hope boards show example-setting restraint, particularly in places that are laying off staff, by freezing pay at the top.

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