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The Genius of Aubrey Beardsley

His devotion to evil, although serious enough, was without the priestly earnestness of Baudelaire. When in the mood he could be frivolous about anything, even about art and sin. He adored Poussin, but could not resist giving his own interpretation of Et in Arcadia Ego, in which an aging roué in frock coat and spats tiptoes toward the storied urn. As with Incipit Vita Nova the solemnity of these quotations, or rather the pious self-importance of those who quoted them, irritated him. A similar feeling of mischief appears in the demure and fastidious economy with which he has treated the Swinburnian exercise of flagellation. The most extreme example of this desire to shock is a beautiful drawing of the Yellow Book period called The Mysterious Rose Garden, which is an impious parody of an Annunciation. Beardsley himself referred to it as the first of a series of illustrations to the Bible. The flat, virginal body is contrasted with the flame-fretted robe of the corrupter, and the black lantern, which in some mysterious way gives an impression of light, is itself a strangely evil shape and promises to illuminate the darkest experiences.

Whether at the instigation of Smithers, or in reaction against the tidal wave of hypocrisy which followed the eruption of Wilde’s trial, Beardsley set about illustrating the Lysistrata of Aristophanes. He wrote that these were in some ways the best drawings he ever did, and those who have had the good fortune to see the originals must agree with him. The way in which they combine gross indecency with an austere classical simplicity is worthy of the text. Curiously enough they lack the erotic impact of his Salomé drawings, either because Beardsley felt it to be unsuitable to Aristophanes, or because this had gained some of its force from repression and concealment. This style can be seen by a design which he did for his own bookplate, and in an unfinished drawing of Apollo pursuing Daphne. The line is bolder and more comprehensive than in the Yellow Book drawings, and, except for a few dots, the finicky mannerisms of the Salomé period have vanished.

In the two remaining years of his life Beardsley was to do a few more austere drawings in this style, in paricular some superb illustrations to Juvenal. Unfortunately these, too, are unpublishable. In contrast to the cheerful ribaldry of Lysistrata, they are cruelly indecent and (as I have said) are the only part of his work that can be accurately described as satire. They show how deeply Beardsley entered into the spirit of the authors whose books he illustrated.

Meanwhile he had developed a different style, which was to prove more acceptable to his contemporaries, and was often claimed as a sort of justification of his whole career. This style first appears in a series of illustrations to The Rape of the Lock, which was published by Smithers in 1896. Beardsley had always loved the eighteenth century, and he took infinite pains to translate the engravings of Debucourt and Eisen into his own idiom. No doubt there was also a technical reason for this change of style. He had temporarily exhausted the effects he could achieve by balancing areas of black and white with patches of ornament. He wished to master a greater variety of tone and texture and even a certain degree of depth.

We can see what was in his mind by comparing one of the best-known Yellow Book drawings, the Dame aux Camélias, with an analogous drawing in The Rape of the Lock. No doubt he has extended his range; but at great cost. For one thing, by abandoning contemporary costume he has lost the impetus which, as Baudelaire so rightly pointed out in his famous article on Guys, an artist derives from the style of his period. This fashion for painting scenes of another epoch—fancy-dress pictures—weakened the art of half of the Victorian painters from Leslie to Orchardson. If one turns from Beardsley’s elaborate construction to a slightly earlier design which must have taken a tenth of the time, one finds in it a vitality of shape which I have compared with hard-edge abstraction—a quality which the Rape of the Lock drawings almost entirely lack. There is a more serious loss, which lies in the very nature of the commission. The Rape of the Lock is a masterpiece of wit, elegance, and style, but it allowed Beardsley no opportunity to express his more intense feelings. His drawings are perfect illustrations, but they are no longer visions, with that quality of obsession which makes me compare the Salomé drawings to Blake. Even in a drawing rather earlier than Salomé, The Kiss of Judas, there is an intensity which the eighteenth-century pastiches lack: to say nothing of the astonishing originality of the design.

But when all is said, the illustrations to The Rape of the Lock were done with extraordinary wit and technical skill. By their laborious use of line they often achieve a balance of grays as perfect as the earlier balance of absolute black and white. Perhaps one reason why I find them less interesting than the Yellow Book drawings is purely accidental—that the eighteenth century which they depict has sunk from being the dreamland of the last romantics, Conder or Dowson, and become the dreamland of advertising men, which it remained up to the 1940s. Perhaps Kandinsky in 1908-1910 was the last creative artist to draw a dividend from the crinolines and towering chevelures which had so much delighted Beardsley.

In the autumn of 1895 Smithers prepared a publication to supplement The Yellow Book, which since Beardsley’s dismissal had gone into a gratifying decline. It was called The Savoy, and appeared in January 1896. On the cover of the first volume, the amorino is relieving himself on a copy of The Yellow Book: a detail omitted when the drawing was published. The editor of The Savoy was Arthur Symons, who had a keener eye for quality and intelligence than Henry Harland, and the literary side is excellent. Beardsley was in charge of the art contents (so-called), but, as he was not at all interested in contemporary painting, the only art contents of any merit, other than some graceful drawings by Charles Shannon, were the work of Beardsley himself; and these are by no means all of them satisfactory.

Not that they are bad compared to the work of his imitators, whose work appeared in The Savoy—and in every art magazine in Europe. But there is a loss of intensity, due as much to failing health as failing vision; and the discovery of abstract shapes, which bring the earlier drawings so close to us, is almost entirely absent. An exception, done, it is true, a little earlier, is The Return of Tannhäuser to the Venusberg, which is a developed version of a drawing which must date from his teens. This is a naïve piece of Pre-Raphaelitism, but it has the visionary conviction of the adolescent which Beardsley has managed to preserve. The result is, in effect, the most moving of his Morte d’Arthur drawings. Three of the Savoy drawings were inspired by Wagner, and show how, from Baudelaire to Schoenberg, that vast unpleasant genius loomed over the romantic imagination. Beardsley was particularly attracted to Loge, whom he made the subject of two extraordinary drawings and a description in Under the Hill.

In the literary milieu of The Savoy Beardsley also became a writer, and several of his pieces were published with illustrations. One of them, a poem called The Ballad of the Barber, was fully equal to the work of the minor poets who surrounded him, and was accompanied by an exquisite drawing, one of the few which succeeds without help from the powers of evil.

His longest piece of writing was in prose, a so-called romantic novel, Under the Hill. It is an expurgated version of an extremely indecent original, Venus and Tannhäuser, which he seems to have written to console himself immediately after he was sacked from The Yellow Book, and which remained in manuscript during his lifetime. This, too, was illustrated, and Beardsley, with his usual love of teasing, put his Venus (who had such surprising adventures) into a chastely shapeless garment, looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. The elaborate prose style of Venus and Tannhäuser has been praised by good judges, from Arthur Symons onward; but I find it absurd. Expurgation makes Under the Hill even more fatuous. At best it could be claimed as a sort of link between Beckford and Firbank.

Beardsley’s first illustration represents Tannhäuser, renamed the Abbé Fanfreluche; in an intermediate draft of the manuscript he is called the Abbé Aubrey. When one considers that Beardsley was twenty-three years old and dying of consumption, the drawing is a moving act of defiance. The fourth chapter of Under the Hill, in which the Abbé wakes up in bed, fresh as a daisy after his debauch, is indeed an undisguised piece of autobiography, and perhaps for this reason has a freshness and charm which the earlier chapters lack. “The Abbé,” we read,

stretched himself deliciously in his great plumed four poster bed, and freshened the frilled silk pillows behind him. Then he lay back, stared at the curious patterned canopy above him, and nursed his waking thoughts. He thought of the Roman de la Rose, beautiful, but all too brief; of the Claude in Lady Delaware’s Collection; of a wonderful pair of blonde trousers he would get Madame Belleville to make for him; of a mysterious park full of faint echoes and romantic sounds; of St. Rose the well-known Peruvian virgin…; of the splendid opening of Racine’s Britannicus…; of Morales’ Madonnas with their high, egg-shaped creamy foreheads and well crimped silken hair; of Rossini’s “Stabat Mater” (that delightful démodé piece of decadence, with a quality in its music like the bloom on wax fruit); of love, and a hundred other things.

Such were the waking thoughts of a boy who knew that he had only a year to live. Indeed friends who visited him during the summer of 1896 doubted if it would be as long. In March 1897 he was received into the Catholic Church. Immediately afterward his health improved, he moved to Paris, and later to Dieppe, that vanished paradise of poets and artists of the Nineties; then back to Paris where he stayed until the cold weather became too much for his lungs. In November he moved to Menton, which delighted him. His sole interest was an edition of Volpone, for which he did a prospectus (later used as a frontispiece), a set of initials in a new style, and a cover like a Jackson Pollock. He was afraid that Smithers, who had taken to the bottle, would somehow let him down; and it is true that the Volpone, which appeared after his death, is (apart from the cover) a poor piece of book production, printed on shiny paper which, as Beardsley said, emphasizes a certain coldness in his frontispiece. The drawing is indeed uncompromising but it shows no falling off in power of design, and as illustration it is the very essence of Ben Jonson’s fox.

In January the weather at Menton changed, and Beardsley was confined to the pretty room which his mother had made so comfortable for him. A photograph shows him seated in it, alert and soigné as ever: the wall covered with facsimiles of Mantegna’s engravings, and in front of them a crucifix. This room he was never to leave. Having received the last sacraments, he died on March 25, 1898, aged twenty-five years and seven months. His grave is in the beautiful cemetery overlooking the old town. As everyone knows, he wrote on his deathbed to Smithers entreating him to destroy all editions of Lysistrata and his other indecent drawings. This was not done. Venus and Tannhäuser was printed in 1907; and, although Beardsley is almost forgotten as an artist, he is still in demand among booksellers dealing in curiosa.

I suppose it is this, together with a vague memory of his eighteenth-century pasticci, which has led contemporary critics to underrate him. But even those who do not care for his work must recognize that Beardsley is a small, hard, irreducible fact in the history of the modern spirit. In Meier-Graefe’s Modern Art, that pioneer work which, for the first time, saw the movement as a whole and in relation to the past, there is an ardent appreciation of Beardsley which contains this surprising sentence: “Not until we have learnt to understand Beardsley or Dostoevski or Manet as we understand Bismarck, shall we reach the stage of culture.” Slightly obscure: but he adds, apropos of Beardsley, a sentence which throws light on it. “Our utilitarianism was never rebuked in stronger or haughtier terms.” No doubt that this great critic, who knew Beardsley personally, regarded him as one of the essential men of genius of his time.

Genius: almost everyone who met Beardsley committed himself to this questionable word, and made claims for his art which seem to us extravagant. But genius it was; that immediate access to some world outside our own, that perfectly clear conviction, which creates its own skill, that a thing must be thus and thus and not otherwise. It is something easily distinguished from talent or from other admirable qualities: and it is not so common that we can afford to forget it.

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