Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98)
MODERN BRITISH PAINTING
The brilliant, highly original but controversial English Art Nouveau illustrator Aubrey Beardsley is best-known for his erotic black-and-white illustrations which typified fin de siecle English decadence at the end of the 19th-century. A workaholic and art editor of The Yellow Book, Beardsley's most famous drawings include his illustration of Malory's Morte d'Arthur and Oscar Wilde's Salome (Princeton University Library, New Jersey). Satirized in Punch magazine as "Aubrey Weirdsley", he became - despite a short life and an artistic career of only 6 years - one of the best known artists of his day and a major figure in Art Nouveau design as well as the Aesthetic movement. Throughout his life, Beardsley suffered from recurrent disabling attacks of tuberculosis, the disease that would finally kill him at the age of 25. With his contemporary Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), he is regarded as England's greatest master of illustration and one of the most original graphic artists of modern art.
TOP PAINTERS IN
THE ENGLISH SCHOOL
In 1891 he met the painter and medieval-illustrator Edward Burne-Jones, who encouraged him to study art seriously and to pursue it as a profession. Beardsley attended classes at the Westminster School of Art under Professor Fred Brown and, although his initial enthusiasm for instruction soon waned, it was revived within the same year when Beardsley saw Whistler's Harmony in Blue and Gold: the Peacock Room (1877; Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC). Whistler's adaptation and transformation of Japanese motifs fascinated Beardsley and encouraged him to collect original Japanese prints. He also became interested in the work of Mantegna, Pollaiuolo, and Botticelli, which he saw in the National Gallery, and in the work of Albrecht Durer, which he studied in reproductions.
Beardsley discovered additional sources of inspiration when he went to Paris in 1892. Armed with a letter of introduction from Burne-Jones, he visited the great French decorative painter and the muralist Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98) who praised the work of the young Englishman.
Morte d'Arthur Illustrations
One of these illustrations, Merlin and Nimue (in Morte d'Arthur, vol.I, London, 1893) serves to demonstrate his early style. Beardsley's treatment of this subject, depicted earlier by Edward Burne-Jones, retains some of the details of the older master's style. Merlin is still the robe-swathed wizard outwitted and undone by his powerful pupil, the beautiful Nimue. The setting remains naturalistic - the action takes place in an appropriate forest glade. Yet there is a languid, morbid mood to the scene, underlined by the facial expressions, which is altogether absent from the work of Burne-Jones. This departure from his master's style is taken even further in the border: floriated patterns swirl around the central illustration while a snake emerges from the foliage to support the title banner. Some of these elements may derive from Japanese decoration, but the composition as a whole is quite unique.
Beardsley's next noteworthy commission
was the illustration of Oscar Wilde's play Salome. Here the influence
of Whistler becomes quite distinct, as witnessed
in The Peacock Skirt (1894; William Hayes Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge,
Mass.). The principal motif comes directly from Whistler's decorative
scheme which Beardsley had seen three years earlier. But again, he forsakes
the application of the original for a flight of fancy peculiar to himself.
The peacock does not simply adorn the skirt, it appears in a cloud-like
vision at the upper left. Peacock feathers form a crown from the left-hand
figure, and dart from this point to the corners of the drawing. The curving,
sinuous line, the fantastic exaggeration of natural forms, and the emphasis
on the dramatic potential of black and white were later to become incorporated
into the language of the international Art Nouveau style.
Oscar Wilde Scandal:
Dismissal of Beardsley as Yellow Book Editor
Shortly after his departure from The Yellow Book, as well as continuing to exercise his talent for satirical caricature and political cartoons, he joined the staff of the recently founded Savoy Magazine, in which some of his best designs were published. The Rape of the Lock drawings display a knowledge of 18th-century French art, well-illustrated in The Battle of the Beaux and the Belles (1896; Barber Institute of fine Arts, Birmingham, England), which uses intermediate tones reminiscent of stipple engraving. This conveys a warmer, more sympathetic atmosphere than the stark juxtaposition of black and white values found in his earlier work. However, in keeping with his graphic art as a whole, certain aspects of the drawing remain highly stylized and are intended for strictly decorative effects.
During this final period, Beardsley also completed another set of illustrations for a privately printed edition of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, which rank among his most explicit examples of erotic art. At the end of his life, however, Beardsley regretted some of his transgressions against conventional taste and morals. He wrote to his publisher and patron, Leonard Smithers, requesting that his morally questionable drawings be destroyed. Despite this plea, Smithers preserved all his drawings and saved a representative selection of the grotesque creations of a brilliant draftsman.
In keeping with his unconventionality in
the visual arts, Beardsley also maintained a somewhat eccentric manner
in public. He wore dove-grey suits, hats, and ties, and yellow gloves,
and would frequently appear in a morning coat and patent leather pumps.
Beardsley's style was a reflection of the liberal decadence of fin de siecle Europe, and he also drew inspiration from a number of other artists, from the Renaissance as well as his own era of modern art. But his illustrative genius was all his own. Detached from the moral norms of mainstream Victorian society, his art remains vividly original, and it is no surprise that his influence over later artists and illustrators was enormous. Notable followers included the French Symbolists, the Poster art Movement of the 1890s and the work of many later Art Nouveau artists.
Illustrations by Aubrey Vincent Beardsley can be seen in several of the world's best art museums, including the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART