Saturday, December 24, 2011

Aubrey Beardsley...Brighton's blighted beautiful flower.

Before my life was completely taken over by work I went to the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, to see  Beauté, Morale et Volupté dans l'Angleterre d'Oscar Wilde. This is, in fact, the French run of the Victoria and Albert Museum's exhibition The Cult of Beauty : the Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900, a title that I thought was more appropriate than the French one, I have to say! 
Burne-Jones - Lucretia - 1867

As to be expected, there were not just paintings and drawings but also furniture, ceramics, jewellery, clothing and accessories. Many of these felt so familiar to me; I grew up with images of them, grew out of them, only to rediscover and reappraise them at a later age, with due respect and a feeling of great fondness, if that's the correct term. 

Several works of Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), one the most influential artists of the latter part of the 19th century, can be seen in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Influenced by the last phase of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement Burne-Jones was also one of the leading figures of the Aesthetic Movement which would have an impact on the art of the 20th century.

I saw Burne-Jones' work and that of many others in Birmingham as a child, fascinated by all that glorious detail, the ethereal atmosphere and then the whole sensation of visiting the lofty museum itself.
Not just a painter, Burne-Jones also explored other art forms and crafts.

Burne-Jones - King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid -1884

He worked with William Morris (1834-1896) on a wide range of decorative arts and was a founding partner in Morris, Marshall, Falkner and Company. This company was based on the precepts of the Arts and Crafts Movement which was initially led by Morris and largely inspired by the writings of critic John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
William Morris - Woodpecker Tapestry - 1885

 The movement harped back to the purer aesthetics and morality of an idealized Medieval era and deplored the contemporary reign of mechanization in art, society and urban life alike. Artists, working in guilds, sought to produce handmade crafts of beauty and utility, which elevated artist and public to a moral pitch, leaving behind the vulgar manufacture of art and artifacts en masse and the resulting social ills that had come to symbolize late Victorian England. 
In the final decade of the 19th century Burne-Jones was at the height of his success, not only appreciated in England, but on the Continent too. King Cophetua and the Beggar girl won a medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, 1889, acclaimed by artists such as Gustave Moreau and Puvis de Chavannes as an anti-dote to material vulgarity exemplified by the Eiffel Tower and the grey industrial streets of Burne-Jones’ native Birmingham. All his work was infused with the same ethereal quality, much of it departing from Rossetti’s initial influence, and that of the other Pre-Raphaelites in order to find its own aesthetic goals, a retreat, or parallel reality “I mean by a picture a beautiful, romantic dream of something that never was, never will be”… Unlike the artists who had inspired him in his formative years, Burne-Jones developed an approach that sought to incite a sensual response rather than one based on morality, purity or intellect. The notion of ‘art for art’s sake took precedence over any moral, social or narrative purpose.

 It was in Brighton that a singular young artist was to encounter, and absorb the rich, other-worldly aspect of Burne-Jones’ work – in the form of his stained-glass windows visible in the church that was avidly attended. This aesthetic encounter was to be further consolidated by a visit that the young man in question paid on Burne-Jones at his summer home in Fulham. It is said that during this visit the 18-year-old met Oscar Wilde, sparking an ill-fated association of names that was to lead to the unsuspecting downfall –social and professional ostracisation - of the young artist, Aubrey Beardsley. 

In the summer of 1891, Beardsley was still very much the precious, gifted individual he had been as a child, blighted by ill health but displaying a marked artistic talent and particular panache. Like the Brontë children before him, Beardsley and his sister Mabel had been fascinated by the theatre – performance and script. The children would prepare their own productions, drawing up and acting out their plays, with Aubrey designing the posters. Their mother encouraged this creativity, and actively heightened their interest in music and literature. Seriously ill, Aubrey was unable to attend school for two years yet against all odds perhaps he regained his strength and sufficient health to return to formal education again. However tuberculosis had been declared and would cast a shadow over his short life, leading its victim to live at a feverish pitch of creativity. 

Like Edvard Munch, Beardsley’s existence was watched over by “black angels, who haunted life from cradle to grave”. The very nature of Brighton itself appears to have been fertile ground for this precocious young man. The eclectic aspect of the town with its Regency excesses, the extravagant orientalism of King George IV’s Royal Pavilion and a certain tolerance that reigned may have influenced Aubrey’s aesthetics and world view. From the teenager who illustrated his favourite books, themselves considered to be singular or shocking in the extreme – namely Madame Bovary and Manon Lescaut –slowly emerged an ephemeral flower or “monstrous orchid” as Oscar Wilde would later say. 
Burne-Jones - The Last Sleep of Arthur - 1880's

Burne-Jones -David
Initially working in an architect’s office, followed by a clerical post, Beardsley was encouraged to leave such employment in order to devote himself to his art. Burne-Jones incited him to attend classes in the Westminster School of Art. Despite being dogged by what he termed “my vile constitution”, Beardsley quickly established himself as a competent illustrator, principally in the pen-and-ink medium. Whilst William Morris did not find the young man’s art aesthetically pleasing, he did recognize Beardsley’s talent during an encounter in 1892. 

Morris’ admiration, soured by distaste, was fully put to the test when Beardsley carried out his first major commission on a theme that had been dear to the Pre-Raphaelites and their contemporaries –  Medieval times and Arthurian Romance. 
Commissioned by J.M Dent to illustrate Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in 1892, Beardsley was to make his name at a young age and forge his reputation as a singular figure –ready to flout the norms and convention through style, subject matter and his own personality. Already fully aware of his own talent, the young man considered his publisher Dent to be a “lucky dog” to have an artist such as himself; Dent meanwhile fully recognized the genius of Beardsley yet did not hesitate to label him as “weird”.

Aubrey Beardsley - Le morte d'Arthur
 Beardsley himself acknowledged that Morris was displeased by his interpretation of the Morte d’Arthur since this had been executed in his own, unique manner, rather than churning out a “mere imitation of the same old stuff”. The provocative nature of Beardsley is made apparent in this work, all the more outrageous since this was, after all, his first commission. These early images bear sexual allusions, barely hidden in the detail of the illustration, coinciding with an almost immature fascination with varying forms of his own signature. In this way, the precocious Beardsley seemed to be leaving his own ironic mark, like a defiant teenager, on artistic territory which had previously been reserved for established older artists. Whilst his first human figures seem to mirror the physique that Burne-Jones perfected – namely the noble profile, distinctive jaw line, aquiline nose, expressive eyes, flowing locks and languid bodies, the works gradually come to parody this. His style developed over the considerable amount of time required to execute the series of illustration for Dent’s commission and the Beardsley characters seemed to become caricatures of Burne-Jones’. 
Indeed, with their over-prominent features, abundant, serpentine hair and exaggerated poses the Beardsley characters gave rise to art that was ambiguous in meaning, in every sense of the word. Increasingly testing other styles and techniques and influenced by Japanese art Beardsley’s work seemed to indulge in such stylistic experimentation often to the extent that the art seemed to detach itself from the narrative of the story. His work also demonstrated little desire to be a slavish reproduction of reality, as he indulged in glorious decorative designs, floral motifs and patterns that had as much importance in his drawings as any human form. 
Beardsley - Le Morte d'Arthur

Technically, his work was perfect in execution and the linear approach of stark black and white lent itself perfectly to the new mass production facilities of this industrial age. Publishers’ demand for illustrated book covers, book plates and decorative chapter headings likewise coincided with Beardsley’s creative years… However, much of his working technique remains unknown since he worked alone, and did not divulge the intricacies of his working manner. While some works experimented with minimal lines, creating a dramatic block effect, others bore complicated line work of great detail and precision –not all of which was performed with pen, since some relied on fine linear brushwork for execution.

Gradually Beardsley gave free rein to the themes that had fascinated him since childhood, creating a potent mix that drew admiration and disdain in equal measure. From the mischievous schoolboy gleefully hiding ‘naughty’ symbols he went on to blatantly emphasize the ritual, the bizarre, the grotesque and the sexual; in short, his aesthetic fetishes. Proclaiming to see life in this manner… " see everything in a grotesque way… all seem weird and strange to me"… he made a cult of his visions.

 Like the French novelist Proust, the image of the child transfixed by the rituals and trappings of the world of adults is powerful. The sick boy, peering out from what appears to be his parents’ vast, heavily veiled bed, seems entranced by the beauty and taboo of what he sees, thrilled to be occupying this ‘grown-up’ place which would normally be denied him. 
 Similarily, dressing tables with all their mysterious paraphernalia become places of worship, like altars with religious accoutrements destined for the cult of the Madonna/Mother. As the child grows up this fascination spills over into all female attire, but above all the elegant shoes and lacy, flounced clothing that adorn figures, frequently grotesque, portrayed in louche situations and poses that seem to mock these same elegant details. 

The duality of the ornate and beautiful set against the blunt and ugly creates a tension in the work, like the black and white ink work itself and was perhaps a source of eroticism for the artist. For the writer Brigid Brophy Beardsley’s eroticism bears the essence believed by Freud to define the sexuality of children - a polymorphic perversity. The child is fascinated by the erotic, yet too young and passive, and here too ill to be anything but a voyeuristic figure. 

Beardsley’s life was ruled and regulated by extremes and contradictions on almost every level, much of which stemmed from the family dynamics and his consumptive state of health. Marrying below her social standing, Aubrey’s mother, Ellen, soon discovered her husband to be professionally and financially inadequate, playing a rather peripheral role in the children’s upbringing and education. Cultivated and spiritual, Ellen was in contrast with the uneducated, earthier Vincent and in this misalliance it was certainly Mrs Beardsley who had to wear the trousers. In Aubrey’s spirit her image was central; nurturer of artistic talent, religiously fervent “sermon taster”, saintly nurse, devoted comforter and yet jailor too, keeping him safely confined indoors. Not surprisingly, Beardsley enfant-adult was attracted yet repulsed by the mother figure; Madonna, mistress, matriarch.
His study of Messalina seems to attest to this – a mother figure who defies femininity with her flat-footed gait, down-turned mouth and hefty, unyielding manner. Messalina is just as fearsome as the other deadly female who would herald Beardsley’s success and indirectly bring about his downfall; Salome.
The irony in Beardsley’s life was perhaps at its bitterest regarding the few years he actually had to live… Here, indeed was a young man supposed to be in the prime of his life yet obliged to live the confined existence of an old dying man; a dandified aesthete, surrounded by the ornate yet fully aware of the bare, cold mask of death ever-present just below the decorative surface of life. Here was an individual who, like many sufferers of tuberculosis, at that period at least, had a heightened sensuality and sexuality, and was drawn to the erotic yet perhaps himself unable to engage in any concrete form of sexual intercourse. Nevertheless the notion that the young man was asexual is surely refuted by a reference in one of his letters to imposed chastity “a habit…but one which has never become a taste”. Beardsley was thus the man whose sexual orientations were never fully known, yet whose ambiguous sexuality gave rise to much obsessive speculation leading to a final, merciless condemnation due to his brief professional tie to a well-known homosexual.
Beardsley - Iokanaan

Like Icarus’ golden ascent, Beardsley’s sudden rise to fame would lead to an equally precipitous demise, a trajectory mirrored by an exalted life that crashed to earth with his premature death. Yet in spite of a frequently solitary, sickly existence wherein he invariably spent large periods of time bed-bound in his room Beardsley did have friends and acquaintances to whom he wrote numerous letters, recounting his artistic endeavours with great panache and self-confidence. His sister Mabel remained the most important companion and confident in his life, yet even that relationship has been the source of many conjectures based on the theory that their love was incestuous. Beardsley may have been blighted with debilitating illness all his life, and been the object of much rejection he rarely appears to have lacked self-assurance, his certitude of own talent never faltered, nor did his natural instinct towards the controversial diminish. Even as a child he remarked to his mother that he would be worthy of a commemorative stained glass window in his honour “I may be a great man one day”…. Sadly he never lived to see the honour that would be bestowed on him.
Beardsley - Salome

 As much as Beardsley’s work could shock as it ran counter-current to the mainstream notions of art, he was, nevertheless very much a child of his times. Whilst his themes appeared to satirize the social norms of late Victorian society, especially with his blurring and blending of the gender status quo, even in this he was mirroring a social phenomenon around him. The accepted patriarchal order and sense of morality was frequently perceived as being under threat from a disquietening female force; emasculating, predatory and sexual. Just as the great British Empire was being sapped of its strength and authority from foreign competition and the economic depression of the 1880’s, male superiority was being weakened by an unleashed feminine force. In this mood of pessimism the term Fin de Siècle signified not only the twilight years of the century, but also the end of an established order in which Beardsley was not only an influential figure, but also himself greatly influenced. The Arts and Crafts Movement had pitted itself against the shoddy mass produced ‘industrial’ art of a sentimental character, and likewise the nascent Aesthetic Movement rejected the study of the natural, the blind reliance on past artistic styles and unquestioning devotion to dull, out-moded Victorian themes. The Aesthetics, like the Decadents on the Continent, reacted against the confines of social norms and philosophy – rejecting the rigid explanations of Positivism, the dominance of Mother Nature, the urge of the bestial senses and implacable advance of time. Instead, under the growing influence of Symbolism, these artists turned towards the “beautiful inertia” of the ornate mind. Interiorisation and aesthetic stimulation could be seen as an attempt to reject the organic linear existence with which Nature enslaved man. Art could free man from this crude dominance since artistic creation would give rise to higher life of contemplation. In this manner art could lead nature and thus man, away from lowly, bestial existence whose basis was brutish reproduction.

 Many artists, Wilde and Beardsley amongst them, were influenced by the French novel, A Rebours, published in 1884 by J.K Huysmans with its themes of altered states brought on by synaesthesia, social and moral deviance, sexual ambiguity and the richesse nécessaire of artifice. The protagonist of the novel, Des Esseintes, seeks solace from life through an existence of heightened senses, but this ultimately leads to his downfall, with the treacherous figure of Salome as symbol and herald of his demise, just as she was for Beardsley himself. The initial title of the book was to be Seul (Alone), and indeed on reading the book another writer (Barbey d’Aurevilly) remarked in 1884 that after such a book one only had the choice between “the mouth of a gun or the feet of the crucifix”. Huysman’s novel, along with the paintings of Gustave Moreau were to have a dramatic effect on Beardsley and Wilde alike. The novel acted as a bible of decadence for Beardsley who decorated his home in Pimlico in orange and black in veneration of Des Esseintes house and demonstrated a preference for dandified clothing like his hero. Likewise Wilde’s anti-hero Dorian Grey is under the influence of an unspecified yellow French novel (A Rebours), and Wilde’s decision to write the play Salome in France in 1891 certainly springs from the same source. The writer asked the young artist to provide the illustrations. With a plot based on sex, deviance and corruption the resulting art could only be controversial, and this was certainly the case. However, it is interesting to note that even Wilde did not entirely approve and went on to remark that “I admire, I do not like Aubrey’s illustrations”. The working alliance was short-lived, and the personal relations soon strained with Beardsley later quipping that Wilde and his lover, Alfred Douglas (who attempted to translate Salome into English) were “truly unbearable people”. 

It is difficult to establish just how fraught these relations actually were, for while much is made of Beardsley’s caricatural drawings of Wilde, both artists often shared  common ground and vision. One could even get the impression that a certain jealousy and preciousness reigned, making of their angry rejection of each other mere acts of pique and schoolboy spats with Wilde even referring to Beardsley as a scribbling “precocious schoolboy”. Later the illustrator refused to let the writer contribute to the artistic magazines of which he was editor… Touché! 

The fact remains, however, that the Salome illustrations are still today generally considered to be the artist’s best works, and certainly the ones that propulsed him to fame. Salome, often presented by Beardsley in scenes that seem to have little reference to the original plot, herself represents with deadly accuracy the figure of the lethal femme fatale that terrified fin de siècle morality. Using her sexuality as a weapon to ensnare and disempower, Salome is not the enticing, demurring enchantress but rather a hard-eyed, cold-blooded force of masculine determination. Nevertheless, the horror of Salome’s aims and acts are offset by the beauty of Beardsley’s detail, all of which could only exasperate and confound late Victorian taste, even more so since the references were often anachronistic and provocative in themselves (books by Zola and Sade figure in a room, supposedly set in antiquity!). 

 Following the success of Salome Beardsley was known as a Decadent, paving the way for future artists of the Art Nouveau Movement with the languid lines of his work. He became the artistic editor of the fin de siècle magazines, The Yellow Book and The Savoy and thus his personal and professional life seemed assured. Yet ironic fate was to deal Beardsley a cruel blow for when Oscar Wilde was arrested for acts of gross indecency he was found to be carrying a yellow book. Although it wasn’t a Yellow Book magazine, merely a French book with yellow binding, from that moment the erroneous association was made, one from which Beardsley could not free himself. The Yellow Book was considered to be a symbol of sexual depravity and as editor, the strange persona of Beardsley could only be linked to such immorality. 

Once fired, Beardsley found it difficult to secure work of any kind and was finally obliged to accept work from a publisher of a certain renown, Leonard Smithers. It was Smithers who conceived The Savoy magazine, described as a manifesto in revolt against Victorian materialism. However, as a pornographer Smithers also demonstrated against Victorian morality. The creative association between publisher and illustrator was not as black as often portrayed, and Beardsley wrote many fond letters to Smithers yet it did give rise to work that was widely considered to be licentious in the extreme – and often not without reason. Beardsley’s illustrations were, to a degree, influenced by Japanese erotic art –shunga - and somehow his depictions always maintain their ironic innocence. His is the work of a shocked and shocking teenager even at its most potent and never enters the realm of blunt pornography.

Smithers asked Beardsley to illustrate Lysistrata by Aristophane and these were among the many illustrations that the artist implored the publisher “by all that is Holy” to destroy when on his death bed; Smithers did not comply. It is due to this failure to respect Beardsley’s last wishes that we have copies of these works today – not only illustrations, but also writings and his unfinished novel, Under the Hill.

Like Des Esseintes before him, Beardsley embraced Catholicism at the end of his life, converting to the faith a year before his death. This step was unsurprising in itself since Beardsley had had a religious upbringing as a child and it has been remarked to have been a natural continuation of the artist’s reverence of the cult, ritual and image, all couched in contemplation and beauty.

What I find sad about Beardsley’s life is that he knew that his days were literally numbered perhaps even from the outset. In a letter from his last full year he expressed his fears “I fancy I can count my life by months now”. He tried to find a climate which would alleviate some of his symptoms, or at least preserve him from the worst of these, but to no avail. He despaired when three days’ work was lost due to damp conditions since for him those three days were invaluable and could not be recuperated at a later date. He died in Menton in the South of France in 1898 at the age of 26. Some of Beardsley’s illustrations can be seen in Paris at the end of the exhibition that I visited – Beauté, morale et volupté dans l'Angleterre d'Oscar Wilde at the Quai d’Orsay. In view of what I knew and discovered about his life I found them to be the most moving works of the exhibition.
Harry Clarke - The colloquy of Monos and Una - 1919
I did however come across a strange echo of his work and life in that of an Irish stained glass artist and illustrator; Harry Clarke. Born just a year after Beardsley’s death, Clarke’s work (1889-1931) seems to be a strange amalgam of that of Burne-Jones and Beardsley. As the son of a craftsman, he was influenced by the artistic currents of his time – namely Art Nouveau. He studied stained glass in Dublin, but later moved to London as a book illustrator, yet his true career was in the field of stained glass. He did not confine himself to purely religious themes but also dealt with literary and secular narratives. Needless to say, Clarke was frequently compared to Beardsley but in fact his work is less static that the latter’s work, and his subject matter is much darker and ominous at times. His preference for black and white line work is perhaps partly inspired by the stained glass process, with heavy lines used to delimit and highlight the different elements. Harry Clarke died at a young age of tuberculosis while trying to recuperate his strength in a foreign country, just like Aubrey Beardsley.


  1. What is the name of the second to last picture with the lady in the dress called? I think its by Harry Clarke but i cannot find it anywhere.

  2. Hello! I probably didn't put the title of the image in the caption at the time I did the post for the same reason! Anyway, it is by Harry Clarke and is called 'The colloquy of Monos and Una'... So I've just included the title in its rightful place!
    I love Clarke's work.


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