The illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley, who succumbed to consumption at the age of 25, come closer than any of his peers and colleagues to embodying the decadence and the lampooning of contemporary morality that was characteristic of the late nineteenth century coterie of creators known variously as dandies, symbolists, decadents and aesthetes. His Hamlet looks undead, like an unraveling mummy wandering through a barren forest. Dead vegetation is a theme derived from his precursor and sometime mentor, Edward Burne-Jones. But Burne-Jones never surrendered his impulse to idealize, a principal that doesn’t exist in Beardsley’s oeuvre — currently represented in a retrospective at the Tate Britain — which revels from beginning to end in death, decay, and provocative innuendo. His spectacular 1891 drawing “The Litany of Mary Magdalen” makes a joke of repentance. Mary Magdalen, kneeling in the posture of penance, is surrounded by an assortment of devilish personae, plus a woman with a classic Pre-Raphaelite face. The later “Ascension of Saint Rose of Lima” (1896) perverts the virgin saint’s biography by making her moment of union with the Virgin Mary resemble a free-floating phallus.
Beardsley is a late-phase artist. He came to embody the fin de siecle London art scene. His illustrations mark the end of the Gothic Revival in English aesthetics, which began in architecture at the unsightly but influential home of Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill House (begun 1749) and continued in literature with the novels of Matthew Lewis and Anne Radcliffe, in design with William Morris, and in painting with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their handful of associates and successors. Of the latter short-lived but revolutionary movement, Beardsley is also the final artist of consequence. No other living artist influenced him as much as Burne-Jones. But where Burne-Jones (who was influenced by Florentine painting despite the Pre-Raphaelites’ opposition to classical poses) and his peers merely hinted at a decaying ideal, the figures in Beardsley’s pictures are never subtle or at odds with themselves. The self-conscious depiction of degeneration that conservative critics like Charles Dickens warned about in the early realist Pre-Raphaelite paintings has nowhere left to hide once it reaches Beardsley.
Today Beardsley’s most famous image is probably “Enter Herodias” (ca. 1893), one of his illustrations for Wilde’s Salome, starring the strong, statuesque androgyne wife of Herod Antipas with a servant at each side. To her left is a boyish epicene, (a sexual stance that captivated Oscar Wilde, after whom the jester-like master of ceremonies in the bottom right corner is believed to be modeled). In his left hand the boy holds some cosmetics for the queen; in his right, a theatrical mask. There was no fig leaf over the boy’s genitals in Beardsley’s original.
The mask need only be presented in the boy’s dainty grasp, rather than worn; the characters are so stylized that they already seem masked and sculpture-like. To the queen’s right is a deformed goblin-like creature, a noxious emission from the artist’s unconscious that shows up in many of his other pieces (including the frontispiece to his suppressed edition of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata). He lifts the hem of the queen’s robe in a traditional gesture of deference; he himself seems to be floating. A hoof protrudes from his own garments in a balletic point. The illustration is an architectural masterpiece.
Though not particularly well known, his darkest picture may be “The Kiss of Judas” (1893), the only piece that truly unsettled me in the show. Spatially, it’s outstanding; Beardsley’s frequent commissions to illustrate book covers clearly taught him how to best utilize negative space. As a rule, the less crowded his compositions, the more moving they are. At first, you’ll more than likely see this as an image of an ambiguously-gendered Christ betrayed by his miniature servant, another goblin-like figure. In truth it accompanied “A Kiss of Judas,” a short story by Julian Osgood Field (Pall Mall Magazine, 1893) about the descendants of Judas who kill their victims with a kiss. The effeminate Christ-like figure would fit well in The Wagnerites, Beardsley’s satire on the “corrupt” female audience members at his beloved Wagner operas.
Wisely, the show almost completely omits his probably most self-parodic work, the Edgar Allan Poe illustrations; only the best one, “The Black Cat” (ca. 1894), makes the cut. Beardsley is not all gloom or derangement, and it is to the Tate’s credit that, while giving his decadence its due (especially in the Salome section), it never caricatures him or short-changes his other talents. In fact the piece I keep thinking about is one of the least sinister, the superbly tongue-in-cheek “Black Coffee” (1895). Two society ladies sit in a restaurant, one in white formal dress, the other in black, with devil horns integrated into her hairstyle. The deadpan title and conveniently placed food menu divert from the hanky-panky, unseen but implied, happening beneath the table. It’s undoubtedly one of the funniest moments in Beardsley; they’re so overdressed that any movement could prove catastrophic, but they nonetheless manage a discreet sexual encounter. The two women look like they’ve wandered off the set of a Robert Aldrich film.
Jazz musician and art critic George Melly observed of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s 1966 Beardsley exhibition that almost all of the visitors “gave the impression of belonging to a secret society which had not yet declared its aims and intentions. I believe now…. that I had stumbled for the first time into the presence of the emerging underground.” This did not happen on my visit to the current show several weeks before the Tate shuttered. The thought of encountering today a transgressive social scene at a retrospective for a nineteenth century artist strains the imagination to put it mildly, at least at a major museum in a European capital city. With all museum shows moving online, the feeling is only accentuated. The wall text quotes Beardsley at least twice as saying, “I am nothing if not grotesque.” But in the well-lit air conditioned galleries of today’s Tate, the grotesque struggles to make a point in the same way that it may have in 1966.
The show is at its weakest when it attempts to relate Beardsley to contemporary life. When the curators posit that Beardsley was a “pioneer in representing what we might now call queer desires and identities,” it could read like a strained attempt to baptize Beardsley into a particular mentality about gender and sexuality. Unlike Wilde, who set out to promote a new philosophy of life and its relationship to aesthetics — the message of which did indeed contain a strong subtext of gay male sexuality — the grotesque bodies in Beardsley probably if anything have more to do with his own physical plights of lung disease and extreme thinness than they do with a serious consideration of queer desire. (Commissioning Robert Ross to write for The Yellow Book, a prominent arts journal at which he was a founding editor, he asked for a short story “in which the heroine is not a beautiful boy.”)
Also disappointing are the examples of his posthumous influence, with selections of mixed quality (the cover of the 2005 debut by Swedish metal band Witchcraft?) and very curious omissions — there is nothing whatsoever on his influence in the architectural realm, from Louis Sullivan to early Frank Lloyd Wright.
Beardsley’s best drawings are astonishing in both their craft and flouting of convention, a rare coupling. Though it can be difficult to remember about an artist who depicted the physically monstrous, a few gaping anuses, and other assorted polymorphous perversities, Beardsley was foremost a decorative illustrator. While some of Burne-Jones’s most splendid works were series of paintings with rich storylines (Perseus, Briar Rose), Beardsley’s pictures, in contrast, almost never come with much narrative sense, even when they accompany one. Texts often become companions to Beardsley’s decorative power rather than the other way around. This is certainly the case with numerous now-forgotten popular novels, plays, and poems of his day, as well as Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur, perhaps even Wilde’s enduring Salome. In the end, what’s so disturbing about these illustrations is that there is no deeper meaning to the grotesqueness, only the horror of its presence. The images resist close reading. That this can all be true seems the explicit victory of form over content, supposedly the sacred oath of his Aesthete peers. But it was a goal that none in that milieu ever fully realized — or, I may venture to say, not one that they even truly attempted. Only Beardsley succeeded.
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