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The Genius of Aubrey Beardsley

The lady novelist was Mrs. Humphry Ward; and she was not the only important person to protest. Lane, who was in America at the time, received dozens of telegrams from the leaders of literary England, including William Watson, who was tipped for the laureateship, demanding Beardsley’s dismissal. He kept them—they are now in the library at Princeton, a monument to British hypocrisy. He saw all his authors leaving him, was seized with panic, and sent Beardsley the telegram to which Yeats refers. I should add that Lane was later filled with remorse and continued to blame himself for his cowardly action until the end of his life.

The Yellow Book drawings fortunately continue the practice of the later Salomé drawings in that the subjects wear contemporary dress. The first of them, L’Éducation Sentimentale, contains one of those creations which have recently proved so attractive to dress designers. It is one of Beardsley’s most enchanting drawings. The pen outline is marvelously suggestive and even, by some miracle, suggests the weight of the wicked old party on the left. The breath of evil, though perceptible enough, is less disturbing than in the illustrations to Salomé. Beardsley is often described as a satirist—Yeats, in the passage I just quoted, referred to his “strange satiric art”—and this drawing could be quoted to support this classification. In general I rather doubt if the word can be accepted. The great satirists, Swift, Juvenal, Hogarth, have a two-faced relationship with vice. Their claim that they are concerned with it only in order to correct is, of course, humbug. It fascinates them, and they portray it with obvious relish. But at the same time it frightens them, and therefore rouses their moral indignation.

Beardsley has no feelings of moral indignation at all. The nearest he ever got to a satire is a drawing in the third volume of The Yellow Book called Lady Gold’s Escort, but even there the fantasy of these corrupt characters with their white muffs has delighted him. It is interesting that this drawing anticipates by fifteen years the appearance in Paris of the Russian Ballet, for nothing more Diaghilevian could be imagined. The principal escort even has a prophetic resemblance to Nijinsky. No wonder that the young Diaghilev, on seeing the drawing, wrote to D.S. MacColl to ask for information about the artist.

The Wagnerites, in the same volume of The Yellow Book, is usually claimed as a satire. But Beardsley adored Wagner, not least because of the sensual diabolism which he rightly divined in his music, and which he has so marvelously reflected in the heads and naked shoulders of his admirers. As for the fat woman in L’Éducation, we know that Beardsley loved her, for she is described in his novel Under the Hill as Mrs. Marsuple. “Her voice,” he says, “was full of salacious unction: she had terrible little gestures with the hands, strange movements with the shoulders, a short respiration that made surprising wrinkles in her bodice, a corrupt skin, large horny eyes, a parrot’s nose, a small loose mouth, great flaccid cheeks, and chin after chin. She was a wise person and Helen loved her more than any of her other servants and had a hundred pet names for her…” and there follow about twenty of the pet names in Rabelaisian profusion. We see her, of course, superintending The Toilette of Helen, and although the drawing is two years later, and Beardsley’s style has changed since L’Éducation Sentimentale, Mrs. Marsuple has remained the same.

The fact is that Beardsley gloried in those figures that seemed to embody the acme of corruption. Only in his two drawings of Messalina does one detect a slight feeling of repulsion. The earlier one, in the Tate, has a certain hellish grandeur, but the Messalina Returning from the Bath, one of his last great drawings, is done with real ferocity. This is satire, and worthy of Juvenal.

It is arguable (although Beardsley himself would not have agreed) that the Yellow Book drawings show him at his best. At all events they suggest a point at which we should ask a few more questions about his peculiar skill as a draftsman. How did he achieve the perfection, certainty, and aplomb of L’Éducation Sentimentale? Beardsley himself took pains to ensure that we should not know the answer. Nobody saw him at work. He locked himself in his room, pulled the curtains, and did his drawings by candlelight. He managed to destroy all but two of his original studies and tried to erase the traces of preparation from nearly all his finished drawings. The surviving studies are revealing. They show that he had no need of preliminary sketches. All he did was vaguely to suggest, with a rambling line, the general disposition of the figures; on top of this he then drew with finality and precision. Those of his finished drawings on which the underdrawing has not been completely rubbed out show the sáme procedure.

One of the surviving sketches, the superb cover design for Salomé, shows even more clearly how his ideas came to him immediately, with full force. This is as we should expect. He was essentially a visionary and an ideal artist. His early sketches of casual appearances, of which, unfortunately, a number were published after his death, are worthless. No artist, not even Blake, had so little gift for notation. He drew lines around his thoughts. The extraordinary thing is how accurately he could delineate the physical world once it had reformed itself in his memory as a concept. The implied drawing in his figures is always convincing. When, from voluminous skirts, there finally emerges an ankle it is always in the right place. His necks, hands, and arms are drawn as exquisitely as they are on Greek vases, or in Gothic illuminations.

More surprising still, in his late illustrations to Juvenal and Aristophanes, where the nude figures are drawn in attitudes of difficult foreshortening and contrapposto, there is still the same absolute certainty. Yet Beardsley seems to have had practically no academic training, and never drew “from the life”—any more than did Brygos or Pol de Limburg; and one is left wondering if the years young students spend in art schools are not a complete waste of time.

Beardsley’s inner eye not only provided him with perfectly clear details but seems instantly to have shown him how a complete visual experience could simplify itself into vital shapes. The cover design for The Yellow Book may seem at first no more than a charming decoration, just as Roy Lichtenstein’s pictures may seem to be no more than blowups of strip cartoons. But when we look at the frills, in their relation to the hair and the curtain in the background, we see they are a piece of design as energetic as any “hard edge” abstraction; and having seen them in this way we suddenly realize that they are not really at all like frills, and that we accept them as such only because of their powerful abstract design. Very occasionally an ordinary visual experience could clarify itself in Beardsley’s mind in this way, as in the Garçons du Café, where the relationship of area between the napkins and the shirt fronts reminds me of Victor Pasmore. But usually this transformation takes place only on behalf of one of the regular inhabitants of his imagination. A masterpiece of this kind is a drawing—said to be a caricature of Mrs. Whistler—of another fat woman, less intelligently evil than Mrs. Marsuple, seated at a café table. The consonance and basic completeness of these shapes are superb.

Beardsley’s contemporaries, eager to belittle him, used to say that he was a mere eclectic, whose style was made up of borrowings from the Japanese, the Greeks, Botticelli, the Poliphilo, and so forth. Of course all very young artists must learn where they can; and what his critics really meant was that instead of imitating some noted art teacher of the day, he had gone back to earlier models. As a matter of fact Beardsley’s assimilation of his models was unusually complete. For a boy of twenty-one the drawing of The Fat Woman is incredibly original, and points not backward but forward—forward even to Braque, whose painting of a fat white pot in the Duncan Philips’ collection it so strangely anticipates.

The Fat Woman is in the Tate, one of the few great Beardsley drawings in an English public collection,3 and a sight of the original shows how shockingly Beardsley’s work has been betrayed by reproduction. His work is known almost entirely from line blocks, which have become so much the standard popular image of Beardsley that critics have said that he adopted his peculiar style in order to please the blockmakers. In fact most of his designs are not in pure black and white, but are tinted or colored so that they achieve a subtle effect of tone, and all the early ones contain lines and dots so delicate that they are lost in anything but a fullsize photograph. A drawing like The Fat Woman is difficult even to photograph, and must have driven the blockmakers to despair. In fact, they gave up—they heightened tones, coarsened lines, and sometimes redrew passages which were too subtle for them.

It was the drawings for Salomé and The Yellow Book that spread Beardsley’s influence throughout Europe. They were reproduced in German art magazines almost immediately, were known to Munch (then living in Berlin) and showed him how simplified areas of black and white can work on the emotions. They are (with Gauguin) the basis of his magnificent prints. They were reproduced in the Barcelona art magazine Joventut in 1898 and inspired the avant-garde of Catalan architects and painters, one of whom later made good use of Beardsley’s pure outlines, and even did his own version of Salomé in which thin corrupt people are contrasted with fat ones.

In 1900 Beardsley’s drawings were reproduced in Mir Iskusstva, the art magazine edited by Diaghilev, and had such an effect on Bakst that one may say they are the foundation of the whole Russian ballet style from Scheherazade to Aurora’s Wedding. What could be more Bakstian than the drawing which Beardsley, in a paradox which turned out to be prophetic, had entitled A Suggested Reform in Ballet Costume. The innumerable repercussions on minor artists in Munich, Vienna, Stockholm, and Glasgow need not concern us. Someday they can become the subject of a PhD thesis.

Lane’s telegram of dismissal arrived in April 1895. It not only caused Beardsley mental and moral distress, but left him short of cash. He was rescued by the intervention of a character named Leonard Smithers. Smithers was a fair-haired Yorkshireman with no literary or artistic pretensions, but he was before his time in seeing that money could be made out of high-class pornography, and he thought that Beardsley might be a profitable investment. I may add that he behaved admirably to Beardsley, and never let him down, even when Beardsley was too ill to work and Smithers himself was short of cash. It is sometimes said that Beardsley would never have done any indecent drawings if it had not been for Smithers, but personally I doubt this, because he enjoyed shocking people—as who wouldn’t have done in Victorian England; and as his vital spirits began to sink he had to shock himself.

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    Since this sentence was written Mr. Ralph Harari has bequeathed his great collection of Beardsley drawings to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

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