August 21, 1872– Aubrey Beardsley:
“If I am not grotesque, then I am nothing”
Because of my keen interest in Oscar Wilde, back in the early 1980s my boyfriend, the man who would eventually become my husband, introduced me to the work of an astonishing late 19th century artist. 38 years ago, he gave me a big book of illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, an English artist who was often associated with the works of Wilde.
John Lane, Wilde’s publisher, invited Beardsley to illustrate the English edition of Wilde’s play Salome. When it was published in 1894, both the play and the witty, provocative, and blatantly erotic illustrations created a sensation.
That same year, Beardsley became famous as the art editor of The Yellow Book, a new Arts and Letters periodical that Lane had put together. Beardsley’s stunning black and white drawings, title pages, and covers helped make the new quarterly magazine a big success. The Yellow Book was quickly the target of those stuffy conservative moralists who were gravely concerned about the influence of the decadent movement on English society and art. One critic described Beardsley’s designs for the periodical as: “Diseased, weird, macabre, and sinister”, words once used to describe my underwear drawer.
Considering the shortness of his life, he died of Tuberculosis at just 25 years old, Beardsley’s achievements remain astonishing. A highly original artist, he transformed the very idea of illustration in his era and profoundly influenced other artists of his own and future generations.
Beardsley’s expert draftsmanship made his drawings particularly suitable to the technical advances in printing at the end of the 19th century. His work came to maturity at a time perfectly suited to his peculiar genius, when theories of decadence, aesthetic expression to perverse sexuality and fetishism of all kinds were being offered in all the arts.
Beardsley’s work is sexually frank and even sometimes pornographic. He drew erect penises and stylized pubic hair. He fetishized objects such as shoes and accessories. He also depicted sexual obsession, lesbianism, sadomasochism, and male homosexuality with an honesty and a passion intended to shock and provoke. Even this morning, I can find few examples of his work that are suitable for publishing on The Wow Report, knowing how delicate you all are.
Beardsley had an intense preoccupation with sex, opium, cocaine and obscenity. In his brief, brilliant career, which saw him celebrated, disgraced, passe and dead in just a quarter century, he created a uniquely luxurious, lubricious illustrative style: a strongly contemporary graphic art of plush, monochrome obscenities. He wrote Under The Hill, a pornographic novel where, in one scene, Venus works up a mighty appetite for lunch by giving a hand-job to a unicorn called Adolphe:
“Adolphe had been quite profuse that morning. Venus knelt where it had fallen, and lapped her little aperitif.”
Beardsley collected sexually explicit Japanese prints and framed them for his bedroom wall. He delighted in books that detailed carnal curiosities. He hung out with sodomites and pornographers. But nothing in my research brought any hard evidence that he didn’t die a virgin.
Beardsley was obsessively meticulous about his attire. He mostly wore dove-grey suits, hats, ties, and yellow gloves. He liked to appear at his publishers in a morning coat and patent leather pumps. He was quite eccentric, privately but also in public.
Wilde said of him:
“He has a face like a silver hatchet, and grass green hair.”
After Wilde’s arrest and imprisonment in 1895, Beardsley courted controversy by moving to the Geneux Hotel, in a suite where Wilde had lived in 1893 while writing his play An Ideal Husband and exploring his keen interest in rent-boys. The address had been made notorious by Wilde’s trial as a place of homosexual assignations. With his own sexuality a matter of public speculation by Wilde’s imprisonment, I think maybe Beardsley needed a special spot to reflect on the impact of the whole Wilde affair while still seeking to provoke the public.
This is how I like to imagine Beardsley: an artist who went beyond the limits of popular taste, both in terms of style and sexual orientation. Imagine Beardsley sitting in those rooms at the Geneux, pondering Wilde’s downfall at the very scene of his scandalous crimes; reflecting on his own subversive sexual interests; sniffing the bedding for traces of male-on-male action, and wondering if things would ever change.
Beardsley suffered from delicate health his entire life, with recurrent attacks of tuberculosis. He suffered from lung hemorrhages and after 1896, his health declined so badly that he was left an invalid.
Perhaps because of his progressing illness and his mother’s influence, Beardsley converted to Roman Catholicism in March 1897, and then he begged his publisher to “destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings… by all that is holy all obscene drawings”. The publisher ignored Beardsley’s wishes, and actually continued to sell reproductions of his work long after Beardsley’s untimely demise.
The erotic drawings and the infamous social reputation that mostly relied on bohemian decadence and revolt left Beardsley penniless and condemned by London’s publishing world after Wilde’s arrest in 1895, in which Beardsley was considered guilty by association. In 1897 he returned to France at his mother’s home and on his deathbed ordered his “obscene” drawings to be burnt (they weren’t). He died with his mother by his side, who placed his favorite copy of La Dame aux Camelias in his coffin.
He left this world in March 1898. Following a Requiem Mass at Menton Cathedral, he was buried in the cathedral’s cemetery.
In the 21st century, Beardsley is viewed as a satirical artist, with a gift for caricature and the grotesque. He also created revolutionary designs, images and patterns of unsurpassed beauty. I totally dig his work. I hope you will also.
As with our own era’s Damien Hirst, Beardsley was just an innocent boy before he became a high priest of wasted decadence. I think Beardsley’s life story would make a fine film, maybe starring Tom Hiddleston and directed by Wes Anderson.