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…

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