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The Genius of Aubrey Beardsley

In September 1893 there appeared a new art periodical called The Studio; and, to the scandal of all established art lovers, the principal section was devoted to the drawings of an unknown boy of twenty-one named Aubrey Beardsley. The scandal was not due simply to the fact, regrettable enough in that age of solid reputations, that he was young and unknown, but to the character of the drawings themselves. Aestheticism had already shown its head. Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience was more than ten years old; but nothing, not even The Picture of Dorian Gray, which had been published in the preceding year, had been so openly and defiantly fin de siècle as these four drawings by Aubrey Beardsley.

Unhealthy, the word most often used, was not without justification. As Pater, the father of English aestheticism, said of a famous passage in Coleridge, “What a distemper of the eye and mind! What an almost bodily distemper there is in that!” That is not true of one of the drawings in The Studio, called Les Revenants de Musique, a good deal the mildest of the four, because the whisper of temptation is extremely faint. But Beardsley’s other drawings not only lacked the manlier virtues; they positively suggested vice as a more interesting alternative; and they did so with an adolescent intensity which communicated itself through every fold and tightly drawn outline of an ostensibly austere style. No wonder Beardsley’s drawings became a kind of catmint to adolescents, and continued to be so for almost thirty years.

I was one of the adolescents thus bewitched. Sixty years ago I was producing pastiches of Beardsley with an excitement which I have seldom felt since. I remember my housemaster discovering one of them in my desk, and saying, “It’s erotic and neurotic, and I won’t have it in my house.” My housemaster’s comment, although correct as far as it went, was incomplete; and I like to think that my interest was not only sexual but that I had already recognized Beardsley’s extraordinary powers of design.

It was, of course, his original talent that accounted for Beardsley’s influence on the pioneers of modern art, on Munch, Klee, Kandinsky, Diaghilev, and Picasso himself, to say nothing of such minor artists as Félix Vallotton; all owe a demonstrable debt to Beardsley. It is a formidable list, and I think justifies us in taking a fresh look at an artist who, if he is remembered at all, is remembered for somewhat questionable reasons.

The facts about his early life have recently been collected in a scholarly manner by Brigid Brophy.1 He was born in Brighton in August 1872. His father was a consumptive, with a small private income, “not out of the top drawer”; his mother was a Miss Pitt, a local charmer, known on account of her extreme slenderness as the bottomless Pitt; and Beardsley’s famous drawing of Mrs. Patrick Campbell is done with such love, and is so unlike its ostensible subject, that I incline to think it was an ideal image of Mrs. Beardsley. She was the dominant influence on his life, and was absolutely unshockable. She lived on in Brighton until 1923, but like an ass I never went to see her. Brigid Brophy rightly stresses the importance of Brighton to Beardsley’s pictorial imagination. One finds in his drawings not only the crazy rococo-cum-chinoiserie of the Pavilion, but the severe frontality of the Brighton terraces.

As a boy he also had a passion for acting. Mr. C.B. Cochran, who was his companion in the Brighton Grammar School, told me that he had a program of a play they put on together. It said “Producer Aubrey V. Beardsley, scenery and costumes by Charles B. Cochran.” Unfortunately, he always forgot to show it to me—but he swore it was that way round. Beardsley was also an insatiable reader; Max Beerbohm always said that he was the best-read man he had ever known. His favorites, even at school, were Ben Jonson, Restoration dramatists, Racine, Molière, Balzac, Manon Lescaut; strange choices for a boy of fifteen. On leaving school he entered an architect’s office. He seems to have been there for not more than a few months, but it was the only training in art to have any effect on him. Not only are the architectural settings in his drawings done with a professional hand, but there is in many of them, the Platonic Lament for Salomé is an example, an architectural sense of space which was to influence one of the founders of modern architecture, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

All the memories of Beardsley’s life (one can’t call them biographies) say that he was helped by Puvis de Chavannes, and in one of his first evolved drawings, The Kiss of Judas, there is a reminiscence of the background of Puvis’s Pauvre Pecheur, that masterpiece of imaginative painting that was later so deeply to influence Picasso. But no one says precisely when he went to Paris or what he saw there. Did he see the work of Odilon Redon? Or of Gustave Moreau? Redon’s use of symbolic shapes and Moreau’s pictorial furniture come to mind when one looks at Beardsley’s work, but it is possible that he had never seen them, because in art, as in literature, he was not in the least interested in his contemporaries; and if he arrived at similar results it was by following independently the same route, that is to say by reinterpreting certain artists of the quattrocento, notably Mantegna, in a vein of romanticism. The dwarf to the left of Botticelli’s early Nativity in the National Gallery was undoubtedly a favorite, and Crivelli’s disenchanted St. Catharine has a preciosity as shocking as any Beardsley.

In his admiration for the linear, decorative style of quattrocento art he was, of course, only prolonging the direction of the later Pre-Raphaelites; and a visit to Burne-Jones changed his life. Burne-Jones, at the time the most successful artist in England, had very sensibly closed his studio and received no visitors. But he saw Mabel Beardsley’s red hair from the window, and let the young couple in. Beardsley had his portfolio with him, and the moment Burne-Jones saw its contents he said, “You will become a great artist.” They spent the rest of the day there, and came home, Beardsley tells us, “with the Oscar Wildes—charming people.”

Of all the artists who sacrificed their talents to the timidity of Victorian taste, Burne-Jones was the most gifted. Although he lacked the passion of Rossetti, he had far greater skill and more varied invention. But remembering what Rossetti’s undisguised sensuality had cost him in abuse, he decided to exclude his own very intense feelings for the body on the pretext of a kind of idealism. As a result even his finest works, like the Orpheus drawings, have a disembodied prudery which has been the death of them.

Beardsley felt this instinctively. In his first beautiful exercise in the Burne-Jones manner, The Procession of Joan of Arc (characteristically influenced by Titian’s woodcut of The Triumph of Faith as well as by Mantegna), he already put the bodies back (and strangely provocative bodies) into the Burne-Jones drapery. And in his next drawing, The Litany of Mary Magdalene, his annoyance at Burne-Jones’s sacrifice to respectability has led him to open reaction. This is the first example of that obsession with evil which dominates Beardsley’s art, and of which I shall have more to say when I come to the drawings for Wilde’s Salomé. It is Burne-Jones gone to the devil; but it remains Burne-Jones (with an admixture of Mantegna). How deeply the subject was embedded in his imagination is shown by the fact that he came back to it two years later, when his own style was fully formed.

Beardsley is one of the numerous artists who did not have to wait for recognition. His technical skill alone secured it; and at the age of twenty, under the superficial impression that he was a second Burne-Jones, he was commissioned by J.M. Dent to decorate an edition of the Morte d’Arthur. It was to be a sort of commercial Kelmscott Chaucer. The commission, which seemed like a stroke of luck, for it released him from an insurance office, was in fact a misfortune. Beardsley had to produce hundreds of decorations and elaborate borders. It took him two years, during which time he had entirely outgrown his Pre-Raphaelite phase; and the later drawings show signs of boredom and irresponsibility. Even those which are done with love are singularly unsuitable. No wonder William Morris was displeased by this macabre parody of his style. But what an incredible piece of design for a boy of twenty is the border of she satyrs! It is drawn with a flow equal to Morris, and with an appreciation of physical life which he could never achieve. And in the course of this grind Beardsley did master the balance of absolute black and ornamental texture which was to be one of the foundations of his style.

Long before work on the Morte d’Arthur was finished, Beardsley had shown his portfolio—that small black portfolio which he carried around like a carte de visite, and placed silently, with a bow, in the hands of those who showed any interest—to C. Lewis Hind, then the least objectionable critic in England; and Hind had said, “You are a genius and I shall reproduce them in my first number of The Studio.” One of them, supposed to represent Siegfried (a Siegfried who never gave tongue in Bayreuth), still contains memories of Burne-Jones in the elegantly un-Wagnerian figure and in the Pollaiuolo landscape. But, Oh! Burne-Jones, thou art translated! These diabolical black wings which sprout from all over the figure of Siegfried are very far from Burne-Jones’s virtuous chrysalis shapes and so, of course, are those fleurs du mal growing out of the black lake.

In so far as they have any origin other than Beardsley’s imagination they are Japaneseries; and it is through Beardsley, in fact very largely through this drawing and another in The Studio, The Birthday of Madame Cigale, that a degraded type of Japanese ornament was reinterpreted, so that it became part of a new European style. Many know the story: how in 1862 the Japanese, breaking out of their isolation for the first time, sent quantities of decorative objects to the International Exhibition; how these horrific artifacts (for Japanese art was thoroughly corrupted long before Commander Perry anchored in Uraga Bay) remained unsold and the stock was taken over (it is said on William Morris’s advice) by Arthur Lasenby Liberty.

Such was his success that the style which we call art nouveau was known in several other European countries as the style liberty. From Liberty’s come all these unstructural plants and the stitchery of vagrant lines which gives to every area the character of damascene or brocade. There is an even more obvious reference to the Oriental department in the predella of The Birthday of Madame Cigale. But the severe and economical line with which these far from admirable characters are drawn informs us that Beardsley had found a new source of inspiration—one which was to mean incomparably more to him than Japaneseries—the fifth-century Greek vases in the British Museum.

  1. 1

    Beardsley and His World by Brigid Brophy (Harmony Books, 1976).

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