International cultural life has been devastated by COVID-19, but Tate Britain’s pandemic-truncated exhibition on the decadent artist Aubrey Beardsley, which the museum boasts is the largest collection of his work ever assembled, can come to us, sort of, via the magic of the internet. Beardsley succumbed to a different infectious disease—tuberculosis—at the tender age of twenty-five, but his meteoric seven-year career assured him apotheosis to the artistic firmament.
It is difficult to contemplate the driving force of chronic respiratory illness on Beardsley’s life and work. His frenetic productivity and devil-may-care attitude were not merely affectations suited to 1890s London, but rather products of the profound sentiment that he had much to say and little time in which to say it before the Grim Reaper came knocking. Beardsley’s father and grandfather were also lifelong consumptives, a heritage that could only have made his sensitivities more acute. He acquired the disease at age seven.
Despite his affliction, Beardsley grew up an artistic prodigy, talented both in music, which he performed publicly as an adolescent, and in the pen-and-ink medium that made him famous. While working as a clerk for an architecture firm and then an insurance company, he was spotted by the great pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, who reportedly told him, “I seldom or never advise anyone to take up art as a profession, but in your case I can do nothing else.” Studies at the Westminster School of Art and in Paris further honed talents which had been influenced by the form and line of Japanese block prints, Toulouse-Lautrec’s stylized poster portrayals of Parisian nightlife, and the sensual paintings of Gustave Moreau and other French précieux.
Back in London, Beardsley quickly established his name and financial independence by lavishly illustrating Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, a late medieval retelling of Arthurian legend eagerly taken up again in the fin-de-siècle retreat to fantasy and legend. As with most Beardsley illustrations, we normally encounter these images in print form, but here, even in Tate Britain’s video tour, the depth and sharpness of the original drawings reveal an innate talent for combining Eros with elegance. A dose of that most modern of necessities for artistic success—publicity—came with a magazine profile that launched him to fame in the highest circles of aesthetes. Such connoisseurs claimed to believe in art for art’s sake, a dictum that famously originated in the manifesto-like preface to Théophile Gautier’s novel Mademoiselle de Maupin, which Beardsley not coincidentally illustrated in homage to the founder of modern decadence.
The Beardsley in Jacques-Émile Blanche’s 1895 portrait has mastered the dandified aesthetic of the day. His waspish frame is immaculately tailored and accessorized by a walking stick denoting his leisure and a flower announcing his devotion to beauty. Beardsley’s sensibilities fueled a signature project of his, a quarterly arts journal called The Yellow Book in reference to the distinctive yellow covers that adorned decadent French novels marketed in Britain. A room from his home, recreated for the exhibition, hums with the warm orange tones favored by des Esseintes, the decadent aesthete par excellence of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s sumptuous novel À rebours, whose disgust with the banalities of everyday existence was so thorough that he did not need a pandemic to self-isolate. Beardsley’s exploration of the erotic—mostly stylized nudity that causes little shock today and is too distorted in form to rate as pornographic—was prolific enough to merit an entire room of the exhibition called “The Boudoir.” So prominent did he become that the 1890s, now commonly remembered as the decade of Oscar Wilde, were once known to many as “The Beardsley Years.”
Perhaps most famously, Beardsley illustrated Wilde’s incestuous and necrophilic 1891 French-language play Salomé so well that his eighteen drawings overshadowed the drama in popularity. Even while these illustrations, produced for the play’s English translation (the ones on display here come from a volume published by John Lane in 1907), soared in popularity, Salomé remained banned from performance in Britain until 1931 and is now seldom performed (Richard Strauss’s mostly faithful yet heavily streamlined operatic adaptation is far better known). But Beardsley’s darkly erotic crowning image—appositely titled “The Climax”—of the titular Judean princess triumphantly holding John the Baptist’s severed head remains iconic, captioned by her exultant exclamation, “J’ai baisé ta bouche, Iokanaan, j’ai baisé ta bouche.” This elision of sex, power, and death is still with us.
There is no evidence that Beardsley was ever interested in men, yet his dandy aesthetic and his association with Wilde, who was arrested on the infamous “gross indecency” charges while carrying a yellow-covered volume that resembled Beardsley’s Yellow Book, was incriminating enough to deprive him of his steady income and comfortable lifestyle. Lane fired him as a company illustrator after an angry mob cursing Beardsley’s name smashed the windows of his publishing outfit. Out of moral opprobrium, or perhaps fearing Lane’s fate, the London bookseller W. H. Smith refused to place Beardsley-illustrated books in his display windows. Facing financial disaster amid a hostile public, the artist sold his house in shabby-genteel Pimlico and, like Wilde after his release from prison, moved to the Continent, from which he infrequently returned before his death in 1898. Projects remained. Beardsley’s illustrations of Alexander Pope’s epic parody The Rape of the Lock and Aristophanes’ sex-and-power drama Lysistrata date from his unhappy final years. But they are softer in tone and less edgy in affect, muted products of a chastened man who withdrew into mystical Catholicism and enjoined his last publisher, Leonard Smithers, to destroy what he lamented as his “obscene drawings.” To our delectation, this request was never carried out.