Aubrey Beardsley’s Perverse Recipe for Success

The art of dying is hard to master, especially if you bequeath an artistic legacy. Live too long, and your reputation may be marred by retrograde politics or senescent late work. Pass too soon, and your best years may be presumed to lie ahead. Aubrey Beardsley nearly fell prey to the second fate. The artist and aspiring writer was just twenty-five when tuberculosis ended his life on March 16, 1898. In a sense, his entire œuvre could be classed as juvenalia, fit only for dismissal or could-have-been counterfactual. But his short and dazzling career in fact suggests one way to master the art of dying: work fast, expire early, and define a decade’s aesthetics.

Beardsley’s birth and death aligned with a distinct period in British and art history. This twilight of the Victorian era witnessed one revolution in gender and sexual politics and another in visual aesthetics. Beardsley’s pen-and-ink drawings synthesized the two. His prospectus illustration for The Yellow Book, one of the two magazines he co-founded and edited, captures his art work’s effect, as well as its marketability. In this image, a stylish lady has seized an ink-soaked evening to wander unchaperoned; she browses for books, not boys, and pointedly disregards the vendor before her. It is night prowling done in black blocks and driving lines, Art Nouveau for the independent New Woman.

In just six working years, Beardsley produced more than a thousand art works and was hailed as “the very essence of the decadent fin de siècle” for transgressing both social and aesthetic norms. (The art critic Roger Fry preferred the label “Fra Angelico of Satanism.”) Beardsley was no snob when it came to the commissions he accepted—he lent his talents to Christmas cards and poster advertisements alongside book covers and lavish illustrated editions. Advances in print technology, especially photo-engraving, allowed these images to circulate at a high speed and low price. From galleries to shop windows, Beardsley’s distinctive style briefly flooded London.

“Aubrey Beardsley, 150 Years Young” (Grolier), by Margaret Stetz, returns us to the Beardsley moment. The comprehensive and visually rich exhibition catalogue extends an exquisite show at New York’s Grolier Club last fall that Stetz and her partner Mark Samuels Lasner co-curated for the sesquicentennial of Beardsley’s birth. Better still: the book is compact and priced at just twenty-five dollars. In contrast, Linda Gertner Zatlin’s “Catalogue Raisonné” of Beardsley’s work comprises two heavy volumes and costs nearly two hundred dollars more. For those uninclined to allocate table space or funds, “150 Years Young” is a welcome alternative.

Book prices mattered a great deal to Beardsley. He was an insatiable reader with a collecting penchant but, unlike many Victorian aesthetes, was not born into wealth. Beardsley’s mother hailed from a debt-ridden branch of the illustrious Pitt family; his father lost his modest inheritance in a lawsuit settlement soon after entering the marriage. Beardsley grew up knowing that he would have to earn his own living, but he was diagnosed with tuberculosis when he was seven, making many vocations impossible. For the rest of his life, he was periodically kept in bed by flareups of the disease. In these interludes, he read and drew extensively. Charles Dickens’s books inspired an early childhood commission: a set of dinner place cards that helped net the ten-year-old thirty pounds from a family friend, in 1882.

Beardsley soon moved on to reading bawdy Jacobean drama and French adultery novels, doodling as he went, and he often considered pursuing his own writing career. Visual art, though, proved more remunerative. After finishing grammar school, Beardsley worked clerical day jobs until his first real break: an 1892 contract with the publisher J. M. Dent to illustrate a deluxe edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s chivalric romance “Le Morte D’Arthur.” It took Beardsley two years to complete that project, which became a capsule of his changing technique. He began closer to the Pre-Raphaelite tradition, rendering a medievalist realm of idealized damsels and lavish detail. But the influence of japonisme and continental symbolists such as Carlos Schwabe and Odilon Redon gradually became apparent. Planes flattened, lecherous satyrs popped up, border garlands grew sensual fruits. These transgressions were as formal as they were sexual. Bolder, darker, and more stylized, the drawings turned fancy to phantasmagoria.

Overt discord between text and image soon became Beardsley’s signature. A monkey unmentioned in the text appears in his version of Théophile Gautier’s “Mademoiselle de Maupin.” In his illustrations for Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” the characters don stockings and ruffles. The title page of one of Beardsley’s projects, a reissue of Alexander Pope’s narrative poem “The Rape of the Lock,” put the practice nicely: “embroidered with nine drawings by Aubrey Beardsley.” If to “illustrate” is to clarify, light up, or give an example, to “embroider” is to ornament or embellish, even to lie. Vacuity is one emblem of Beardsley’s visual style: his figures are often set within large blocks of black or white. But, when it came to engaging works of literature, Beardsley’s approach was fundamentally accretive. Something new was invariably added to the world the writer had conjured, even if the novelty was simply blank space.

Pope, like Malory, was long dead by the time Beardsley went to work on his verse. He may not have envisioned the phallic candles or exposed bosom that Beardsley drew to accompany the poem’s satire of Augustan aristocrats—and that literalized its erotic undertones—but he wasn’t around to complain. Living authors, though, could voice their discontent. One who did was the writer Mary Chavelita Dunne, better known by her pseudonym, George Egerton. Egerton is remembered today for her radical sexual politics and psychologically piercing short stories. Beardsley’s cover for her first collection, “Keynotes” (1893), which featured an arresting, lithe woman, her left hand on her groin, trumpets the provocative plots readers might find within. “Keynotes” sold thousands of copies and inspired Egerton’s publisher, John Lane, to launch the Keynotes Series: new books by daring writers, many of them women, all to receive the Beardsley cover treatment. But Egerton was less than pleased with Beardsley’s design; it had reduced her subtle, often harrowing, portraits of women seeking autonomy into a cheeky coquette. She embroidered right back—literally—sewing a green-satin wrapper for her own “Keynotes” copy.

Was Beardsley a gender radical or a reactionary? Part of his mystery is how his illustrations mean such different things in different contexts. Take the two little magazines he co-edited. One, The Yellow Book, was known for publishing female writers, many with radical views about sex and politics, but the other, The Savoy, was nearly an exclusively male enterprise. Both publications featured the iconic Beardsley woman: an imperious, smoldering figure who might be read as a feminist or a femme fatale. The more time you spend with these images, the less comfortable you feel alleging any coherent position to its creator. Unlike Egerton, Beardsley did not consider sex a political question. It was only ever a means to aesthetic or financial ends.

That disinterest put Beardsley at odds with his most notorious collaborator, Oscar Wilde. It is a particular irony of their relation that one of Wilde’s least remembered works—the overwrought play “Salomé” (1891)—elicited Beardsley’s most celebrated drawings. Masterpieces in asymmetric composition, they conjure a world where everything’s lewd and no one’s gender is clear. But the images’ priapic fauna and aqueous forms had little to do with the play’s coded language and byzantine atmosphere. As the writer Ada Leverson put it, “Oscar loved purple and gold, Aubrey put everything down in black and white.”

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