August 21, 1872– Aubrey Beardsley:
“If I am not grotesque, then I am nothing”
Because of my keen interest in Oscar Wilde, 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 by giving me a big book of illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, an artist who is 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 magazine 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 are rather astonishing. Highly original as an artist, he helped change illustration in his era and profoundly influenced other artists of his own time and for future generations.
Beardsley’s draftsmanship made his drawings particularly suitable to the technical advances in the art and science of printing at the end of the 19th century. His work came at a time perfectly pertinent to his peculiar genius. Ideas about decadence, aesthetic expression, exploration of the perverse, and fetishism of all kinds were being offered in all the arts.
Beardsley’s work is sexually frank and even sometimes borders on pornographic. He drew erect penises and stylized pubic hair. He fetishized shoes and accessories. He also depicted images of sexual obsession, lesbianism, sadomasochism, and male-on-man love with candor and a passion to provoke. I can find only a few examples of his work that are suitable for publishing on The Wow Report, knowing how delicate you all are. But, go ahead, Google “Aubrey Beardsley Phallus”.
Beardsley had a preoccupation with sex, opium, cocaine,. and obscenity. In his brief, brilliant career, he was celebrated, disgraced, labeled passé, and pronounced dead in just a quarter century. He created a uniquely luxurious, lubricious style of illustration; a contemporary graphic art of sumptuous, scrumptious obscenities. He wrote the pornographic Under The Hill (1907), a novel where in one scene, Venus works up an 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, framed and hung them on the walls of his bedroom. He sought out books with details of carnal curiosities. He hung out with sodomites and pornographers. But nothing in my research brought any hard evidence that he had any lovers. He probably died a virgin.
Beardsley was 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 bravely moving into the Geneux Hotel, taking the suite where Wilde had lived in 1893 while writing his play An Ideal Husband and exploring his keen interest in rent-boys. The address became notorious during Wilde’s trial as a place where there were same-sex assignations. His own queerness was a matter of public speculation after Wilde’s imprisonment, and 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 content: sitting in those rooms at the hotel, reflecting on Wilde’s fall in the rooms where the scandalous crimes occurred, pondering his own subversive sexual nature, and sniffing around for vestiges of past male-on-male action, wondering if things could ever change.
Beardsley lived with delicate health, suffering recurrent attacks of tuberculosis all his life. After about 1896, his health declined, and he was basically an invalid.
Perhaps because of his progressing ill health, Beardsley converted to Roman Catholicism in1897, and then he begged his publisher to “destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings… by all that is holy all obscene drawings“. His publisher ignored Beardsley’s wishes, and continued to sell reproductions of his work long after Beardsley’s untimely demise.
The erotic drawings and their infamous reputation left Beardsley broke after the Wilde trials. In 1897, he went to France and at his mother’s home, on his deathbed, Beardsley ordered that his drawings to be burnt (they weren’t). The next year, when he was gone, his mother placed his favorite copy of La Dame aux Camelias in his coffin. Following a Requiem Mass at Menton Cathedral, he was buried in the cathedral’s cemetery.
In our own 21st century, Beardsley is mostly considered to be a satirical artist, with a special gift for caricature and for the grotesque. He created revolutionary designs, images and patterns of unsurpassed beauty. I totally dig his work. I hope you will also.
I think Beardsley’s life story would make a fine film, maybe starring Tom Hiddleston and directed by Wes Anderson.