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The line king

A brilliant draughtsman, Aubrey Beardsley was often drawn to the grotesque

30 July, 2020 — By John Evans

Illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salomé 1893, The Peacock Skirt, Stephen Calloway. © Tate

CONSIDER that the artist died at age 25 from tuberculosis and wander round the exhibition of his work at the Tate.

Then consider your astonishment at the prolific output of Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (1872-1898), achieved largely in his final seven years, his having previously worked as an insurance clerk.

With the encourage­ment of figures such as Sir Edward Burne-Jones, he burst upon the fin de siècle scene with his innovative illustrations for, among others, Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, published by JM Dent, Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, and Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock.

Tate Britain’s show, the largest exhibition of Beardsley’s original drawings for half a century, has now been extended until September 20, with the reopening of all of the Tate galleries this week (Britain, Modern, Liverpool and St Ives).

Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson’s catalogue foreword refers to Beardsley as one of a kind, “Irreverent, grotesque, erotic and playful…”

Beardsley himself was to describe a number of the works as “obscene” but, though some will be shocked, that’s hardly the point with so many images to draw upon.

How he encapsulated the spirit of the “naughty nineties” is examined through his illustrations for books, magazines and posters, with distinctive and unique imagery in a style which one critic has described as displaying an “elaborate artificiality of his decorative patterns”.

Beardsley’s fame and notoriety sprang not only from the perceived decadence and depravity of the times – and his take on both – but also from the development of line-block printing which made for ease of distribution, on an international scale.

Aubrey Beardsley, Self-Portrait 1892. British Museum

And how the images have endured as popular with a wide variety of audiences, at different times since his demise, is illustrated with works from others that reveal his influence and appeal.

These range from a Picasso portrait to album covers in the 1960s and a pointed 1967 Gerald Scarfe cartoon depicting Beardsley.

As Alex Farquharson says, Beardsley’s work “somehow looks forever new, which perhaps has to do with its combination of crisp stylishness and provocative, enigmatic eroticism. Gender and sexuality are often in flux in his images, a quality that has special resonance again today, in art as in society.”

And there are so many gems in the show, which illustrate how well regarded he was within the literary and artistic community of the day.

There are self-portraits and caricatures and a particularly striking 1894 portrait of a gaunt and sickly Beardsley painted by Walter Sickert.

There’s a Charles Rennie Mackintosh poster for the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts from around 1894-6 in a style which prompted contemporaries to link the two men.

Beardsley’s only surviving oil paintings, from about 1894, are also on display. These mysterious and sinister works share the same stretcher, with Caprice featuring what appears to be the pursuit by a woman of dwarf in a red costume on the front and another dark figure, Masked Woman with a White Mouse, on the back. Sickert supervised the works and though they were never publicly exhibited in Beardsley’s lifetime they were hung in his house in Pimlico.

But it’s the black and white that define a supreme illustrator and draughtsman.

Beardsley was himself influenced by the works of Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), and by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) whose prints were on the walls of the hotel room in France in which Beardsley died.

He admired James McNeill Whistler, studied Japanese art, and regularly travelled to France.

Whatever the influences, however, his was an innovative imagination and, as Tate Britain’s director says, his sinuous line was one of the “catalysts for art nouveau”.

• Aubrey Beardsley is at Tate Britain, Millbank, SW1P 4RG, until September 20. www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/aubrey-beardsley

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