A Whiplash Line
With their frank, roaming sexuality and seamless blending of high style and quirky detail, Aubrey Beardsley’s graphic works can seem eerily relevant to our own time.
‘Aubrey Beardsley, 150 Years Young’
The Grolier Club, September 8-November 12, 2022
Celebrated — and at times reviled — for his scalpel-sharp visions of the exotic and the morbid, Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) influenced his cultural milieu deeply: everything from Art Nouveau to the British Aestheticism movement, to the poster art pursued by Toulouse-Lautrec and Bonnard.
With their frank, roaming sexuality and seamless blending of high style and quirky detail, Beardsley’s graphic works can seem eerily relevant to our own time. Yet, Beardsley didn’t even make it to the 20th century, succumbing to tuberculosis at age 25 after just six remarkably productive years as an artist, writer, and editor.
Celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth, the Grolier Club has all these facets of his work on display in an installation of 70 drawings, posters, bookplates, letters, and photographs. Grolier’s upholstered armchairs and wooden floors and display cases nicely complement the exquisite excesses of the artist.
The child of an often unemployed father and a musically gifted mother, Beardsley was precocious, talented at writing, music, and caricature drawing. Although he briefly attended art school, he was largely self-taught, and developed an early passion for the Pre-Raphaelites — Edward Burne-Jones in particular — as well as James McNeill Whistler.
One of his first jobs as an illustrator entailed producing more than a hundred drawings for a republication of Malory’s “Morte d’Arthur.” One such drawing at the Grolier Club could be an homage to both medievalism and Burne-Jones, capturing all the static concision of the Pre-Raphaelites’ figures, and seas of densely articulated foliage around them.
Beardsley seems to have more thoroughly enjoyed his next important commission, the illustrating of Oscar Wilde’s play “Salomé.” The artist’s new interest in Japanese woodcuts shows in these drawings’ boldly contrasting areas of lights and darks, punctuated at strategic points by elegant detail. Luxuriant textures set off planes of bare paper, and in these drawings the two somehow become equally substantial.
Beardsley’s vision of Salomé lifting John the Baptist’s severed head is at once refined and ghastly; floating lightly in front of bubble-like clouds, she lifts the grisly, dripping head to within inches of her own face, which is oddly masculine in its hardened features. Below, a lone flower shoots perkily from a dark pool — it could be either water or blood — that curls indulgently up the side of the sheet.
This mixture of coyness and acid observation, of tender description with shocking incident, became a hallmark of the artist, who took continuous delight in undermining the conceits and conventions of late Victorian society. Today’s gallery-goer may have to be reminded that in Beardsley’s time, a woman who publicly lowered her hair, or allowed a shoulder to show — or who was even seen shopping unaccompanied at night — was risking opprobrium.
Beardsley gleefully ventured far beyond such “transgressions.” Often ignoring the actual narrative of a story, he drew his characters as the bearers of phallic staffs, or as androgenous nudes or cross-dressers. All of these, needless to say, were depicted with the artist’s usual verve and refinement.
Appointed as the art editor of The Yellow Book, a leading magazine of the literary and graphic arts, Beardsley enjoyed increasing celebrity as a leader in design and publishing. He took to dressing flamboyantly in dove-gray suits and yellow gloves, though in his private life he seems to have remained relatively chaste.
Work-obsessed and in chronically poor health, he apparently preferred voyeuristic fantasies to physical intimacy. This, however, didn’t prevent his being fired from his editing job during the homophobic backlash of the Oscar Wilde trials.
Beardsley was never at a loss for work, and his later efforts included his novel “The Story of Venus and Tannhauser,” which was unfinished at his death. The exhibition includes a bound copy of the manuscript, opened to a page describing Venus’s joyous and highly intimate encounters with a unicorn.
Photos of the artist as well as several of his personal letters and notes round out this very satisfying exhibition, which was curated by Mark Samuels Lasner and Margaret D. Stetz.
It could be said that Beardsley consummately achieved just one portion of what drawing, viewed as a major art, can do. In the figure drawings of Goya or Degas, for example, we feel an urgent inquiry about elemental sensations — about how to come to know the stretching or coiling of a human form through the revelations of light.
In Beardsley drawings, we feel a powerful temperament, engaged in not the essential physicality of his subjects but in the plasticity of their social and emotional lives. These he lays bare in keen and unsparing line.
And keen his line is. In his last years Beardsley turned to, among other projects, illustrations for Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” — a mock-heroic poem satirizing an involuntary haircut. This series includes a delicious drawing of the poem’s protagonist, Belinda, who nestles dreamily on a bed amongst enormous fluffy pillows, their ruffles churning about her like flowery gears.