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The Genius of Aubrey Beardsley

In Revenants, also published in The Studio, the economy, the parallelism, and the fastidious placing of each accent suggest yet another influence—one from which no intelligent young artist in the Nineties could easily escape: Whistler. Beardsley’s few published letters almost all mention Whistler, but even without them we could not fail recognize the source of these plain rectangular bands, and of a very unaccommodating chair. Even now we hardly realize how much the simplicity which distinguishes modern interior decoration from that of any other epoch derives from the desire for perfection of that imperfect genius. The plain distempered walls and single flower on its spindly table were the first steps in that suppression of ornament which culminates in Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson

Beardsley was well aware of his debt to Whistlerian economy, and with his usual mischief, repaid it by his drawing of the Maestro, unmistakable with eyeglass and patent leather shoe, but with his white lock turned to a satyr’s horn. Not surprisingly, Whistler spoke disparagingly of Beardsley. “Why do you get mixed up with such things?” he said to Penell. “Look at him. He’s just like his drawings, he’s all hairs and peacock plumes—hairs on his head, hairs on his finger ends, hairs in his ears, hairs on his toes.” He was obviously thinking of the Siegfried. But when later he was induced to look at some of Beardsley’s drawings, he said, “Aubrey, I have made a mistake. You are a very great artist.” Beardsley wept. All Whistler could do was repeat, “I mean it, I mean it.”

Not only Whistler’s dandified austerity but also the richness of his Peacock Room had its effect on Beardsley. Peacocks, of course, were everywhere in the Nineties, and play a leading part in the iconography of art nouveau; but we know from a letter and many sketches that Beardsley visited the Peacock Room just before beginning his Salomé drawings. The drawing called The Peacock Skirt is perhaps the most direct borrowing in the whole of Beardsley’s work.

With the illustrations to Wilde’s Salomé, we reach the point in Beardsley’s work at which he is completely sure of his means and of his imagination. They were commissioned by John Lane in 1893, on the strength of the fourth Studio drawing, which illustrates the climax of Wilde’s poem. It would be fascinating to know what discussions took place between author and illustrator, but the books on Beardsley tell us nothing, except that his first enthusiasm for Wilde rapidly cooled. It seems that Wilde, then at the arrogant height of his success, was patronizing to Beardsley, implying that the young man was rising to fame as a satellite of his poetic genius. Beardsley, whose favorite authors were Ben Jonson and Racine, must soon have recognized Salomé for the rubbish that it is; and may have had a fair idea that it would be remembered solely as the pretext for his drawings. This is the kind of feeling which it is hard for a young man to conceal. Moreover his naughtiness got the better of him, and as with Whistler he included among the illustrations a perfectly gratuitous caricature of Oscar Wilde as the Woman in the Moon: one of his most original drawings, with a strangely Kandinskian movement, but unlikely to please the poet.

Beardsley’s collaboration with Wilde was later used to blacken his reputation—ironically enough, for in fact Beardsley’s drawings exhale an aroma of evil, compared to which Wilde’s writings are quite harmless. Wilde’s character, as we all know, was sunny and shallow; his attempts to communicate with the powers of darkness were as frivolous as his overtures to the powers of light. But for some mysterious reason Beardsley had a direct line to the Evil One and his communications are perfectly serious. This familiarity with evil seems to have been intuitive and innate. He practically never mentions the two high priests of nineteenth-century diabolism, Baudelaire and Huysmans, although the titles of their books, Les Fleurs du mal and À rebours, so perfectly describe his own attitude. He seems to have read Les Fleurs du mal, for he gave a copy to Will Rothenstein, but in general he was uninfluenced by any near contemporaries, except Wagner. It was a do-it-yourself diabolism.

Enter Herodias (see page 41) is one of those drawings in which the presence of evil s’affiche au premier plan. But I may point out one or two particularly disturbing details. First of all this curious symbol of depravity who holds back Herodias’s cloak. He appears quite early in Beardsley’s work looking like a bad-tempered, elderly fetus. Nothing could show more clearly Beardsley’s impatience with the idealistic strain in Pre-Raphaelitism than that this repulsive goblin should be pointing to, and profaning, the words of the Vita Nuova, the sacred fount of the whole movement. The scale and the abstraction of this work are extremely curious, and make me wonder if Beardsley, in his early visit to Paris, had not seen some drawings or reliefs by Gauguin, who about a year earlier had evolved a very similar type of grotesque symbolism. Impossible to prove, but the Gauguin relief on the opposite page, dated 1890, shows that Beardsley, for all his archaism, belonged instinctively to the avant-garde of symbolism. Another detail of the Herodias drawing of interest to the art historian is the owl’s head and mercurial crutch of the showman or announcer on the right. The rhythms, the stylized bird, and the use of dots all remind one of Celtic ornament, and suggest that Beardsley knew Westwood’s Facsimiles of Ornaments in Anglo-Saxon and Irish Mss. (1868). Thus the Celtic element which was to play so great a part in art nouveau, ultimately ousting the Japanese, was also one of his discoveries.

Technically the most extraordinary feature of the drawing is its simplification. Beardsley leaves out everything that doesn’t contribute to his effect. Herodias stands on nothing. The goblin (who has no ear) sits on nothing. I doubt if any artist with a conventional academic training could have allowed himself such drastic elimination. He could not have left the large white area of Herodias’s cloak without some indication of its modeling. In some of the drawings this disregard of actuality is carried even further.

In most of the Salomé drawings the personages still show traces of Pre-Raphaelite nostalgia. In some of them the sinister accouterments are rather closer to Gustave Moreau—but, at any rate, they are romantically backward-looking. But in some of the later Salomé illustrations Beardsley applies abstraction to contemporary dress. The same disregard of actualities which allowed him to eliminate anything which he could not absorb into his system of design left him free from all anxieties about period or probability. Salomé, who in her interviews with St. John is dressed as an Eastern (I suppose) princess, reappears in an extravagant black cape, which must owe something to the lobster carapaces of Kuniyoshi’s actors, but is, in general effect, entirely of its time.2

The result is to liberate Beardsley’s sense of design. He escapes from the effete and monotonous rhythm of Pre-Raphaelitism to a more vigorous abstraction. The cloak becomes a kind of totem, like a sinister bird on a Mayan plaque. An even stranger piece of hard-edge abstraction is the second drawing of The Toilette of Salomé, with its Whistler-Godwin furniture and its hint of a modern interior. The complete exclusion of anything, any conventions or probabilities which do not contribute to the essence of the design, is startling. No wonder the young artists of the Nineties who felt the need for abstraction—the Kandinskys and the Klees—looked with astonishment at this drawing, and at the precision with which Beardsley has extracted these shapes from the cloak and related them to the chair. To realize his disquieting originality one must turn to a strictly analogous drawing by Walter Crane, done in almost the same year. For twenty years Crane had been the unchallenged leader of decorative illustration in England, admired (and rightly) by people of taste and sound judgment. Sir William Rothenstein, for example, has recorded that he much preferred Crane to Beardsley. We may agree that Walter Crane was likely to have a healthier influence on students; but about which of these drawings is related to the lively art of its time there can be no reasonable doubt.

Beardsley’s output during the autumn of 1893 is almost incredible. In between the Salomé drawings he continued the grind of the Morte d’Arthur. He also did a number of odd jobs—some of them of a surprising kind—decorations for anthologies of bon mots, tryouts. Lane persuaded him to design the covers and title pages of many long-forgotten novels which were the chief output of the Bodley Head. Although inventive and faultlessly executed these covers were a waste of precious weeks, as they are nearly all in the backward-looking ornamental style of William Morris. But a few are pure Beardsley, and look across the channel. For example, the triangular sleeves of his cover for the book Keynotes suggest that he had seen the posters of Chéret which so much influenced Seurat in his last phase.

Convinced by these frontispieces of Beardsley’s adaptability and technical skill, Lane then conceived the idea of an illustrated quarterly, of which Beardsley should be the art editor. The prospectus, in which his absolute black and white is used to create an effect of light, appeared in the spring of 1894. There it is: The Yellow Book; for thirty years the symbol of naughtiness and corruption. In fact the contents are almost entirely harmless—stories by Henry James, Arnold Bennett, and by the blithe, innocuous editor, Henry Harland, drawings by Leighton, poems by William Watson. But across this respectable gathering fell a long shadow, the shadow of Aubrey Beardsley. It was he, and he alone, who gave The Yellow Book its character and its reputation. After four numbers he was dismissed because his name was connected with that of Oscar Wilde. Yeats in The Trembling of the Veil describes the episode:

He had illustrated Wilde’s Salomé, his strange satiric art had raised the popular press to fury, and at the height of the excitement aroused by Wilde’s condemnation, a popular novelist, a woman who had great influence among the most conventional part of the British Public, had written demanding his dismissal. “She owed it to her position before the British people,” she had said. Beardsley was not even a friend of Wilde’s—they even disliked each other—he had no sexual abnormality, but he was certainly unpopular, and the moment had come to get rid of unpopular persons. The public at once concluded—they could hardly do otherwise, he was dismissed by telegram—that there was evidence against him, and Beardsley, who was some twenty-three years old, being embittered and miserable, plunged into dissipation.

  1. 2

    I have seen it stated that this drawing was not intended for the Salomé series and was included as an afterthought.

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