Aubrey Beardsley: Tragic Genius of Art Nouveau
Keywords: Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde, Whistler, art for art’s sake, Aesthetic Movement, erotic, art nouveau, Edward Burne-Jones, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Lysistrata, The Yellow Book, The Studio, The Savoy, Le Morte d'Arthur, salome, eroticism Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98) was an English illustrator and author. Beardsley was a member of the Aesthetic Movement, which also included Oscar Wilde and Whistler. This was a very progressive group that celebrated art for art’s sake. The Aesthetic Movement rejected the repressive constraints of Victorian society. Beardsley’s drawing celebrated the decadent and the erotic.
At the end of the 19th century, the most important aesthetic trend was Art Nouveau, a luxurious decadent style that emerged in Europe. Art Nouveau was always controversial in Britain because it was risqué and flirted with erotic imagery. However, a small number of radical British designers did engage with the style. Charles Rennie Mackintosh developed a unique personal style that drew on Art Nouveau. The other major exponent in Britain was Aubrey Beardsley. His work has the sinuous flowing lines and erotic charge of true Art Nouveau.
Beardsley was born in Brighton in 1872. In 1883 his family settled in London, and as a child he appeared in public as an ‘infant musical phenomenon,’ playing at concerts. In 1888 he joined an architect's office and studied architecture, but the painters Edward Burne-Jones and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes encouraged him to become an artist. He attended the classes at the Westminster School of Art in 1892.
Beardsley had a very short career because he died of tuberculosis at the age of 25. His major creative output lasted only six years. His work can be divided into separate periods and the easiest way to identify them is to look at his signature. In his early period his work is usually unsigned. Between 1891 and 1892 he used his initials, A.V.B. After 1892, he used a Japanese-style mark.
Like most members of the Aesthetic Movement, Beardsley was heavily influenced by Japanese woodcuts that became popular in Britain in the late Victorian period, and his drawings were executed in black ink, making them very stark and striking. Most of his images were executed in ink, and feature large dark areas contrasted with large blank ones. He also juxtaposed areas of intense detail with pure white space.
Eroticism and grotesquery
Beardsley was the most controversial British artist of the late Victorian period. His later work has a dark undercurrent, because he also produced perverse images and grotesque erotica. Most of his erotic illustrations were based on history and mythology. This is a drawing called Lysistrata, which is based on a Greek play by Aristophanes. It features three characters with exaggerated phalli. Thi was produced for a privately printed edition of Lysistrata, so it wasn’t intended to enter the mainstream.
Eroticism and grotesquery became obsessions in his later career. Many of his drawings featured enormous genitalia, which reveals the influence of Japanese shunga images. He also produced drawings for Oscar Wilde's play Salome, which premiered in Paris in 1896.
Beardsley was also active in publishing. He co-founded a magazine called The Yellow Book with the American writer Henry Harland. Beardsley served as art editor for the first four editions. He produced the cover designs and many illustrations.
He also produced illustrations for books and magazines. For example, he illustrated a deluxe edition of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. He worked for The Studio, which was a leading Victorian art journal. Beardsley co-founded The Savoy, which he used to publish erotic tale he’d written called Under the Hill. This was based loosely on the legend of Tannhäuser.
Beardsley was a sharp caricaturist too, and created political cartoons that were published in various journals. These mirrored Oscar Wilde's irreverent wit.
Beardsley was very eccentric and had a flamboyant public persona. He was aligned with the homosexual clique that included Oscar Wilde and other English aesthetes. He was meticulous about his attire and typically dressed in a dove-grey suits, hat, tie and yellow gloves. He would appear at his publisher's in a morning coat and patent leather pumps. Oscar Wilde said he had ‘a face like a silver hatchet, and grass green hair.’ Bearsdley himself stated, ‘I have one aim - the grotesque. If I am not grotesque I am nothing.’
Although Beardsley was associated with the gay culture surrounding Oscar Wilde, the true nature of his sexuality remains mysterious. He was generally regarded as asexual, which is not surprising because he suffered from tuberculosis. There were rumors that he had an incestuous affair with his sister, Mabel, who may have become pregnant and miscarried.
Surprising, Beardsley converted to Catholicism in March 1897, and begged his publisher, Leonard Smithers, to ‘destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings . . . by all that is holy all obscene drawings.’ Fortunately for us, Smithers ignored Beardsley’s wishes and continued to sell reproductions of his work. On 16 March 1898, Beardsley died of tuberculosis in Menton, France. He was only 25.
Beardsley's work exuded the decadence of the era and his influence was profound. His influence is clearly visible in the work of the French Symbolists and the poster art movement of the 1890s. In the 1960s, Beardsley was rediscovered and traces of his style can be seen in the Hippie generation.
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