After the madness and mayhem of Thursday evening, spinning around trying to tie off the last threads of normality before another indefinite period of lockdown life, calm has settled again as resignation sets in. I certainly do not want to go into this new phase with a negative, black mindset but rather hope to look for - and find - the golden aspects of being at home too.
These are some of the beautiful Chrysanthemums traditionally associated with the commemoration at La Toussaint on November 1st here in France... They always seem too elegant to be linked to any form of sadness and loss, but perhaps that is their role in this season, as the year draws to an end; a celebration of life.
Before All Saints' Day, there is of course Hallowe'en, where shrouds, shadows and all things dark emerge. While that may be under curfew or cancellation orders this year, no one can blank out the incredible Blue Moon tonight - the second full moon in this calendar month. Black magic indeed!
The long-awaited Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay was cancelled during the first lockdown, so I had no intention of missing it when it opened in mid-October, having been on show in the Tate Britain over the summer. I duly went to Paris the day before the second national lockdown with great expectations.
Whilst there had been no major Beardsley exhibition in England for over 50 years, this was apparently the first time his work has been presented to the French public. However the d’Orsay exhibition turned out to be a greatly scaled-down version of the Tate’s, so much so that I could not help but feel disappointed, and got back home wondering if might somehow have actually overlooked an exhibition room. Perhaps the decision to show this reduced collection was down to COVID restrictions, but ultimately I felt rather short-changed and I think the average uninitiated French visitor must have been left a little bemused, despite there being a number of beautiful pieces on show. To my knowledge, there was no in-depth coverage of the exhibition in any of the mainstream French art revues which meant that curiosity here was not piqued. All in all, without wishing to be ungrateful or belittling, this seems to have been a missed opportunity to bring Beardsley to French public – after all he died here just before the turn of the century (Menton 1898).
In the Musée d’Orsay there were nevertheless a number of the Beardsley pen-and-ink illustrations for which he was so famous, already during his own short life but especially far later in the 20th century. His distinctive aesthetic style and clever exploration of the themes of sexuality and death , and notions of beauty and the grotesque, all displayed in delicately executed images met with appreciation in the psychedelic Sixties. Beardsley images were often reproduced and replicated in the coolest posters, album covers etc of the time. Yet, the most famous pieces that featured in the ‘Boudoir’ section at the Tate this summer were missing here in the autumn. Furthermore, there seemed to be artist references that were left ‘floating’, without concrete explanation or example in the descriptions. For instance, I am not sure how familiar the average Continental visitor is with the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne Jones, for instance. This Birmingham artist, whose paintings and stained-glass windows had such a formative influence on the young Aubrey Beardsley, is brushed over here and yet it would have been helpful to be able to compare styles and themes. The Brummie artist inspired in him an apparent interest in Greek mythology and indeed, the languid expressions and ethereal forms of his early characters can easily be traced back to Burne Jones. The latter had been so impressed by Beardsley’s work that he advised the young man to study at the evening classes in order to become a professional draughtsman.
I do not know what Burne Jones thought of the later Beardsley style, but the first moves away from the typical saccharine medieval/mythological themes soon became apparent in Beardsley’s first major work – pieces of which were on display here. It was interesting to be able to study up close the drawing and details one of these - How King Arthur Saw The Questing Beast – part of one of his first commissions. In his illustratation of Malory’s version of the legend of King Arthur, commissioned by the London publisher Joseph Dent, in 1893, Beardsley proceeded to incorporate his own, unique touches into the work. Indeed, in the Morte d’Arthur sequence of drawings, he soon grew tired of the chivalric themes with their virtuous ladies and daring knights, and therefore wove in small details that created another mood – edgy, ironic or just plain incongruous. In The Questing Beast, our eyes are lead from the beastly monster towards the strutting Pan along with the bizarre schoolboy-sketch spider and male genitalia that decorate the paper, like the doodles of a bored, precocious pupil. At this point I was very glad for the relatively small amount of visitors in the exhibition as I was not obliged to stand at a distance to look at these pieces. These all seem to reveal a certain defiant streak in Beardsley that ran through much of his life work, as he incorporated ‘inappropriate’ elements – generally of a lewd nature - into his images, knowing that these would obviously go against the grain of Victorian morality. It has been suggested that even Beardsley’s distinctively elegant emblem signature was in fact a reference to the phallic form. Apparently his earlier publishers would be duty-bound to scrutinize these pieces for offending, provocative detail, in order to render these more acceptable to public taste – asking Beardsley to water down the more shocking elements or even to resort to the use of a fig leaf ! John Lane, publisher of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, for which Beardsley provided the illustrations, remarked that it was necessary to vet the work before publication « One had, so to speak, to place his drawings under a microscope, and look at them upside down ».
Alongside this use of quirky detail, Beardsley used highly sophisticated decorative motifs to frame the central images of the commissioned work, ultimately drawing attention from these Arthurian themes towards the mastery of artwork surrounding these. The visitors to the exhibition – me included – all peered at the intricate designs that come into their own in the Arthur series with their incredibly striking beauty. Prior to this exhibition, I had never noticed just how marvellous Beardsley’s decorative work was, but with the richly-illustrated chapter headings and tailpieces for Le Morte d’Arthur and another publication – Les Bons Mots and Grotesques – I was able to see how incredible these are. The intricacy and perfection of these pieces is made all the more incredible since virtually nothing is known of Beardsley’s work practices and exécution techniques… The Dent commissions enabled Beardsley to earn enough to live for two years, leave the office clerk position he so hated and devote himself to his art. He was still in his very early 20s at the time.
As much as Beardsley is unique, he was very much a product of this time. His art springs from the fin-de-siècle Decadent mood as the Victorian era drew to an end but still maintained a strangle hold on free expression of sentiments, sexuality and the ‘unsanitized self’. Key to this Decadent mood was the novel by French author Joris-Karl Huysmans – A Rebours (Against Nature) – with its references to the art of Gustave Moreau and its significant influence on Oscar Wilde, and by association Beardsley too. Beardsley turned to an aesthetic vision that prefered the artificial to the natural, or better still the natural that seemed to replicate art and artifice in a rather unsettling manner – hence the fascination with peacock feathers, exotic orchids and the like. Beardsley was quite the dandy- aesthete – a fleur du mal – and used staged beauty as a device to ward off fate ; Man’s condition at the mercy of Mother Nature. Elegance and extreme ornateness were sought and revered as a stand against Nature, whilst perversity and the grotesque were extensions of this.
Beardsley claimed « If I am not grotesque, I am nothing. » using it and caricature as the ultimate defiance of a wholesome, natural state. He was referred to, rather scathingly, by Oscar Wilde as « the most monstrous of orchids ». Having been diagnosed as having tuberculousis, at the age of seven, Beardsley certainly knew how cruel Nature could be and understood that his life would indeed be short. Driven to produce art at a prolific rate, he left a legacy of hundreds of works behind him and the 1890s in London was heavily influenced by what critic Max Beerbohm called the « Beardsley period ». Again, I wished that the exhibition room had been able to let the visitors get a sense of that fin-de-siècle mood and aesthetic style so that we could see Beardsley’s art in its context. Having seen the incredible collection of Art Nouveau furniture and ornamentation at the Musée d’Orsay, it seems a shame that some pieces were not used to create a rather more immersive experience of Beardsley.
Advances in the printing process and publishing itself towards the end of the century not only meant that Beardsley’s art became well-known in a short period of time but also influenced his style and production. Working exclusively in pen and ink, his illustrations could be reproduced using photomechanical line-block printing rather than William Morris’ more costly Kelmscott Press process. Beardsley promptly adapted his artistic approach to benefit from the effects this new reproduction technique offered, leading towards his distinctive bold, linear work. He himself declared that he took « no notice of shadows », and the resulting art often offers a striking, flattened plane, with detailed figures set against empty backgrounds reminiscent of the Japanese woodblock prints (Ukiyo-e) or patterned, abstract decorative designs, emphasising the floral, with the undulating lines and arabesque forms that were to be typical of the Art Nouveau movement. In 1893, Beardsley wrote about his « entirely new method of drawing and composition, something suggestive of Japan… » and he went on to adopt the tall, narrow form of « Japanesque » image, inspired by the traditional kakemono scrolls. Indeed the influence of Japanese aesthetics and artistic technique on Western art was visible everywhere in late 19th century England. Beardsley had already seen one of the finest examples of Anglo-Japanese art ; Whistler’s renowned Peacock Room. However, Beardsley took these sources of inspiration to a whole other level, as he used the stark black and white contrasts, dark Decadent themes and Art Nouveau forms of which his illustrations to Oscar Wilde’s work Salomé (1893) are probably the best known. However, his illustration to the medieval legend, Virgilius the Sorcerer is another fine example as the protagonist is curiously and anachronistically dressed in a voluminous kimono !
Furthermore, Beardsley lived at a pivotal moment in the perception and propagation of illustrated work. Having visited Paris in 1892, he had been struck by the use of large street posters for advertising purposes – les affiches – as an urban art form that was respected in its own right. He had also seen Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster for the Divan Japonais, and when the first British exhibition of posters later took place in London, 1894, works by Beardsley were displayed next to those of the founders of this modern art form ; Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret. His poster to advertise the play, A Comedy of Sighs, was remarked upon in an edition of Punch « Ave a new poster ». Indeed, the poster suited Beardsley’s vision of illustration as a form of art that did not need to justify its existence or act as "handmaid of literature". He was heralded as « the new illustrator » by artist and author Joseph Pennell, who wrote the introduction to The Studio - an illustrated magazine of fine and applied art that sought to end the division between fine and applied art. Beardsley not only contributed to several issues of The Studio but also designed covers too.
Already in his illustrations, it had been remarked that the images did not always entirely correspond to the text, but for Beardsley his was no stylistic error ; on the contrary, it was desirable. This was perhaps also a necessity for him as he remarked « However much I may admire a piece of literary work, the moment I am about to illustrate it I am seized with an instinctive loathing to the cause of my woe. » The role and status of text and image were further explored in the literary periodical The Yellow Book, founded in 1894, for which Beardsley acted as editor. In this daring new publication – yellow as an allusion to illicit French text - notably Huysman’s Decadent novel A Rebours – words and images were to be of equal worth and could be independant of each other. With its shocking, ‘immoral’ themes and illustrations, it is perhaps not surprising that The Yellow Book did not meet with unanimous approval.
Therefore when the furore broke out following Wilde’s sentencing for gross indecency, Beardsley’s artistic association with the writer meant that his name and reputation were sullied too, given the rigid Victorian morality of the time. Beardsley was promptly dismissed as editor of The Yellow Book, and facing financial hardship, left for Dieppe in France. It was there that he met the publisher Leonard Smithers, and that he was to embark on the last stylistic phase of his artistic career and final stage of his short life. Smithers wished to found a new magazine that would rival The Yellow Book, with Beardsley acting as art editor. The subsequent magazine – The Savoy - was launched in 1896 and under Smithers’ control would « publish what all the others are afraid to touch ». Erotic prints of Japanese origin and licentious Ancient Greek vase painting were considered too indecent to be marketed in a traditional manner and could therefore only be acquired through private subscription to the magazine. Beardsley met this demand by producing explicit work that was inspired by classical texts. He illustrated the Ancient Greek erotic comedy, Lysistrata, by Aristophanes and Juvenal’s Sixth Satire. Sadly, the famous drawings from these collections were not present in the Paris exhibition ! I remember coming across these as a child and being most shocked, but surely the French public would have able to take these in their stride ? Apparently not… I would love to include one here, but probably not a good idea.
As Beardsley’s health deteriorated due to the ravages of consumption his themes became more extreme and controversial, yet their execution became increasingly detailed, with lavish depictions of clothing, hairpieces and drapery , largely inspired by the French Rococo and 18th century literature – his illustrations to Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock being the most well-known. He refered to these intricate pieces as his « embroideries » and typical of this late style is L’Abbé, the drawing selected by the Musée d’Orsay for the exhibition poster. Beardsley continued to include the sexual allusions and satirical reflections on society for which he was renowned and which had earned him the title Aubrey Beardsley-Weirdsley from Punch magazine. The elegance of this late work, and sophistication of its style, interwoven with elements of the perverse and grotesque were to influence the art of the Irish stained-glass artist and book illustrator, Harry Clarke (1889-1931).
In his final months of his life, Beardsley converted to the Catholic faith and the last image we see of the artist in the exhibition is a photograph taken in the hotel at Menton in 1898, surrounded by reproductions of Mantegna’s art. He seems small and distant, unlike the rather self-aware, dandified youth seen in the portrait photographs on display, as if he had already relinquished his defiant position in society and the art world. Apparently he had written to Smithers asking for the destruction of all his « obscene drawings », a request that the publisher chose to ignore – fortunately for us.
And so the exhibition ended, and whilst I was pleased to have seen Beardsley’s work at close quarters, I felt as if this particular show had not done the artist justice at all. Since Beardsley’s art was largely made for reproduction, surely prints of the missing originals could have been used to map out his aesthetic evolution and the influence he had on other illustrators ? All in all, I think it would have been preferable to hold out for a complete exhibition rather than this one. However, I will return for a second visit, once the second lockdown is over, just in case I did actually miss something the first time. But this experience did make me consider how exhibitions are set up and how they too could evolve over time. Imagine if Beardsley’s work could be set alongside that of the Irish artist Harry Clarke ? What an exhibition that would be…