PRINT April 1967

The Era and Aura of Aubrey Beardsley

THE CORE OF THE EXHIBITION called Aubrey Beardsley and His Era, shown at the Gallery of Modern Art, in New York City, was assembled in England last year by Brian Reade for the important exhibition of Beardsley’s work held at the Victoria and Albert Museum where Mr. Reade is the Curator of Prints and Drawings. The G.M.A. installation of more than two hundred pieces drew upon several American sources of Beardsleyana, notably the John Hay Whitney Collection, The Gallatin Bequest, Princeton University and the Lessing Rosenwald Collection.

Several features of Aubrey Beardsley’s career exert a fascination quite distinct from the pictorial merits of his art, those blackest of blacks, whitest of whites, those Japanese insinuations and uncanny graphic disciplines, those startling amalgams of disparate sources. Yet, in Beardsley’s case, formal analysis holds fire and gives way to an examination of the myriad contingencies of his life, questions of friends and enemies, the incredible tissue of allegiances which is the fabric of late 19th-century symbolic art. In Beardsley the trees count as much as the forest.

First there is the sheer compression of his oeuvre. In March of 1898 Beardsley died a Roman Catholic convert in Menton, that bastion of High Tea on the Côte d’Azur. He, was twenty-five. His last efforts include, among the more familiar works such as The Rape of the Lock, a small body of masterful drawings for an edition of Juvenal and Lucian which still today are not reproduced, and, as in the case of the better-known Lysistrata generally lie buried in the enters of various public and private collections—to be examined with special permission.

Only six years before these erotic works—Lysistrata Shielding her Coynte, Cinesias Entreating Myrrhina to Coition, etc.—Beardsley had come into chance contact with the publisher John Dent, who was then contemplating an edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. In snaring the commission Beardsley replaced one form of drudgery with another: from clerking at the Guardian Life Insurance Company he was saddled at twenty with the chore of more than 350 illustrations to be executed in the laborious style associated with William Morris’s Kelmscott Press. Following Morris’s lead Beardsley designed, in addition to spots and tail pieces, heavily floriated framed pages in pseudo-woodblock style. On occasion a spiteful and tinctured line freed itself of the Handicraft Chaucerian mode and we chance upon a fascinating if still excessively ornamental design such as How King Arthur Saw The Questing Beast, in which abstract calligraphic flourishes, a retreating fawn and an utterly neurotic hero predict the muggy atmosphere of Beardsley’s subsequent drawings for Wilde’s Salomé.

These were the poles of Beardsley’s mature production, flashes in the Morte d’Arthur apprenticeship to the sustained brilliance of the later erotic work. In six years Beardsley had created the most stunning and significant graphic production of his day (with the possible exception of Toulouse-Lautrec), one that would find almost immediate imitation throughout Europe (Heinrich Vogeler and Thomas Theodore Heine in Germany, the young Jan Tooroop and Johann Thorn Prikker in Holland) and the United States (Will Bradley and Edward Edwards).

Only two careers in the period are comparable to Beardsley’s for a like intensity of compression, those of Van Gogh and Seurat, towering geniuses who, like Beardsley, are all the more compelling for the very terseness of their production—for Van Gogh, four mature years (if one begins with the Paris period) and for Seurat and Beardsley, six. For better or for worse this tragic compression has romantically valorized their work in a way extrinsic to the objects themselves. Perhaps not in Beardsley’s case, for, of the three, Beardsley was the only one aware of an early death.

From childhood on, Beardsley was treated with the consideration given to an upper-middle class child of delicate constitution (at the age of seven his tuberculosis had already been detected)—that is, those considerations open to the means of a family of good name and genteel poverty. Among the boy’s accomplishments seen to by his mother was a knowledge of French and of music. In fact, he and his beloved sister Mabel (with whom it has been suggested, there may have been an incestuous fixation and who we meet in the present exhibition painted in male attire by Walford Robertson in 1911) gave concerts to bolster the meager income of their mother, then a French-speaking governess and music teacher. Vincent Beardsley, Aubrey’s father, was also tubercular, as was Aubrey’s grandfather, a London jeweler, from whom a handsome income might have been secured had Vincent not been a spendthrift. Aubrey grew up a curious young man, on one hand receptive to the refinements and perquisites of a leisure class and, on the other, obliged to work.

We begin to regard Aubrey as a kind of collection of Esthetic Movement clichés. There is Beardsley the Tubercular (that most 19th century of diseases); Beardsley the Catholic convert (Meier-Graefe coldly said of him that “Like Huysmans, he eventually became a Catholic. Religion to such people is a question of perfume.”); Beardsley the Wagnerian; Beardsley the Decadent; Beardsley the Esthete, Beardsley the Pierrot of the Minute (identifying Beardsley with the hero of Ernest Dowson’s playlet of the same title that the artist illustrated in 1896). Yet Beardsley’s relations with Oscar Wilde run counter to the esthetic clichés.

Beardsley met Wilde through Burne-Jones, who first assessed the artist’s prodigious gifts and whose Botticellian claims in Second School pre Raphaelitism set, in part, the severe and chaste models of Beardsley’s early manner. Beardsley was still laboring over the Morte d’Arthur pastiches and was shortly to undertake a collection of fantastic, if still awkward, vignettes for John Dent’s Bonmots series. In the spring of 1893 Lewis Hind began to publish the London Studio which carried in its first issue an article by Joseph Pennell, a graphic artist of merit and a Whistlerian acolyte, in praise of the young Beardsley. (It was Pennell to whom Beardsley dedicated his first Book of Drawings published at the end of 1896.) These connections made it near impossible for Beardsley to avoid the commission of illustrating Wilde’s new play Salomé (still the most popular and admired of Beardsley drawings).

Actually Beardsley, who was gaunt, disliked Wilde, who was gross, especially since Wilde tended to patronize the young artist in public.

Quite boldly, Beardsley satirized Wilde in the very set of illustrations he was creating for the author’s play. The best-known lampoon occurs in the frontispiece, The Woman in the Moon, in which the Moon-Lady holds a flower as others had portrayed Wilde holding a lily, the then standard sign of esthetic pretensions. Wilde is again caricatured in the drawing The Eyes of Herod, and is fitted out as a court jester in the drawing Enter Herodias. Not incidentally, Beardsley had offered to translate Wilde’s play into English (it had originally been composed in French) but Wilde preferred to engage Lord Alfred Douglas in this capacity and it was “Bosie’s” translation that was brought out in 1894. In the meantime Wilde was irked at the cool reception his play had received—he was primarily regarded as a playwright of witty, aphoristic conversation—and the praise lavished on Beardsley’s illustrations. This jealousy was intensified by Beardsley’s appointment as art director to the new quarterly proposed by John Lane and Henry Harland, The Yellow Book—poisonously absinthian in color like the covers of the then-powerful French review, the Mercure de France, edited by Remy de Gourmont—to which Wilde had not been asked to contribute. The Yellow Book began publication in April 1894 and discontinued in April 1897 with its thirteenth number. Beardsley was associated with the review for only four issues having been dropped peremptorily by Lane at the time due to the Wilde-Queensberry legal proceedings of 1895.

Holbrook Jackson, a source historian of this episode, informs us that “with the arrest of Oscar Wilde the renaissance suffered a collapse as if it had been no more than a gaily colored balloon.” Actually Wilde’s trial was something more of a final blow: Walter Pater had died the year before, and William Morris was to die a year later; Rossetti was already dead in 1882; Swinburne, his health undermined by alcoholism, began his Putney Retreat (which lingered till 1909 under the infinite care of his friend Watts-Dunton) producing during these years a body of work inimical to the Swinburne Legend (one remembers with what relish the Goncourt brothers related how Swinburne showed Maupassant his collection of photographs of nude boys). Few remained after the débacle to continue the tradition: Arthur Symons, partly as Beardsleyan eulogist; Burne-Jones, greatly imitated in France and on the verge of expiration; Max Beerbohm, whose first published piece, “A Defence of Cosmetics,” appeared in The Yellow Book and many of whose heroes seem modeled on Beardsley; and, to stretch a point, Bernard Berenson, whose testy scholarship (which resulted in The Italian Painters of the Renaissance) was based on four long essays written in the 1894–1907 period; and Beardsley himself.

In the public’s mind the genial conceits of Beardsley’s art—the little amorous monsters and pet-like foetuses, the peacock motifs, the unnatural topiary and espaliered trellises, the conservatory closeness, the indolent rhythms of his drawings, and all else—seemed the fitting illustrations of the tawdry ambiguities and assignations disclosed during the Wilde trial.

The public was better informed on Wilde than on Beardsley. In the first place, the potentially scandalous drawings for The Toilet of Salomé and Enter Herodias were then only known in second versions. Lane, anxious over the depiction of so many male nudes, either as heavily tressed boys at the threshold of puberty or as foppish cosmeticians, insisted on altered versions; on fig leaves. However Salomé’s literary taste was there for all to examine and it too was considered libertine. On her vanity table in the published second version we find her reading Zola, the Divine Marquis, Apuleus and, shades of Beardsley’s own consumption, Manon Lescaut.

On the night of Wilde’s arrest he left his apartment carrying a yellow book under his arm, immediately assumed to be the quarterly in question. A group of outraged citizens stormed the editorial offices of The Yellow Book and broke its windows. Wilde, in fact, was carrying a paperbound copy of Pierre Louys’s Aphrodite. The upshot of these events was that Wilde was sentenced to hard labor, wrote De Profundis, and Lane, under editorial pressure, high-handedly dropped Beardsley who was, as a result, left without a livelihood and whose poor health took a turn for the worse. Beardsley never was to forget his persecution and in 1898 when his last publisher, Leonard Smithers, was contemplating a review to be called The Peacock, Beardsley agreed to collaborate only on the condition that “Oscar Wilde contribute nothing to the magazine, anonymously, pseudonymously or otherwise.”

The irony of all this is that not one shred of documentary evidence has been brought into the public domain that would indicate that Beardsley was himself a practicing homosexual. The point may seem gratuitous, particularly by present standards, yet, there must be credited to Beardsley an act of imaginative genius, that of creating a once-standard and hard-dying homosexual style, without, as far as has been ascertained, being a homosexual.

Our documentation in this respect is quite extensive. Few artists enjoy the cultish preeminence that Beardsley does, and, as a result, his letters were assiduously collected and published. Evidence points rather the other way. In the aftermath of the Wilde trial, apparently Beardsley ran himself ragged demonstrating publicly to what extent his heterosexual appetite was developed. Brian Reade, presently the most prominent of Beardsley historians, observed that “the result of this behavior might have been foreseen: his consumption grew apace and his constitution weakened still more.” Rejected by Lane, suddenly without means, compromised unjustly by the Wilde scandal, and in worse health than ever before, Beardsley accepted the terms offered by Leonard Smithers, a publisher of, among other things, erotica. Smithers, despite an unusual reputation, recognized that he had secured the services of the greatest illustrator of the age and he was loyal and generous to Beardsley during the remainder of the artist’s life.

Arthur Symons had not abandoned him either and together they founded The Savoy, which included not only some of Beardsley’s finest illustrations, but also a polite version of his uncompleted erotic novel based on the Venus and Tannhäuser legend, Under The Hill. In many respects Beardsley’s romance might be regarded as the first Firbankian novel long before Firbank took to setting down snatches of arch conversation onto lavender cards. The fact that Beardsley was an author and musician of talent cannot be minimized. The confusion of artistic impulse and species into a single experience is a major key to the understanding of the arts of the late 19th century.

In preparation for Under the Hill, during a period of constant shifting and relocation from London to Dieppe—where Jacques Emile Blanche painted the admirable portrait of Beardsley included in the present exhibition—Beardsley scribbled conversational phrases, fantastic names and obscure references into little pocket agendas. Florid names (“. . . Oiselle, Amadour, Vadius, Florizel . . .”), recherché books and poets (“. . . Pontus de Jyard, Jean Daurat, Bellay, Hypnerotomachia . . .”), pictorial evocations and plot fragments (“The maids with little brooms of feathers drive away troupes of mice . . . grey as a reflection in still water . . . girls disguised as boys, boys as girls, eunuchs, Hermaphrodites, dwarfs . . . Hairdressing, . . .”) these themes occur not only in Under the Hill, by which locale Beardsley meant less the Wagnerian Venusberg than the mons veneris, but also appear in the Rococo illustrations undertaken at the same time for Pope’s Rape of the Lock. In these ravishing drawings Beardsley gave up the honeyed line and blank-black equivalences of the Salomé, for an all-over image of remarkable textural suggestiveness: pointillist, aerated lines, rhythmic configurations like fingerprints, etc. Beardsley’s appetite for the 18th century may have been whetted by his reading of the Goncourt investigations into the manners of court life, and his imagination was certainly fired by the enthusiasm of his friend Charles Condor for the same period.

The Lysistrata illustrations which follow The Rape of the Lock are more incisively executed. The pronounced phallic imagery of the work again led it to be construed in homosexual terms though to see it in that light is a stupid misapprehension. In this work, which delights in the female body, Beardsley followed the practice of the antique theater in which satyr plays featuring clowns dressed as dwarfs and satyrs armed with perpetually huge erections tied onto their bodies were played as “curtain raisers” (to borrow a modern phrase) or as entr’actes between comedies and tragedies. The original production of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, it can reasonably be assumed, was costumed in this way.

Additionally, Beardsley, long an admirer of Japanese prints, was familiar with the erotic prints of Utamaro, only one of many Japanese printmakers whose work abounds in bawdy subject matter often predicated on out-scale phalli.

It was over the Lysistrata drawings that Beardsley wrote his most famous letter. His sense of guilt, obviously related to his conversion, was intensified during his last hours. On his deathbed he pleaded with Smithers to destroy his “obscene” drawings, an adjective which is all but meaningless today. For Beardsley the issue at hand was spiritual worthiness as indicated by the letter’s legend “Jesus is our Lord and Judge.”

Smithers didn’t.

Robert Pincus-Witten