PRINT April 2020


Aubrey Beardsley, J’ai baisé ta bouche Iokanaan (I Have Kissed Your Mouth Iokanaan), 1892/93, ink and wash on paper, 10 7⁄8 × 6".

FOR A FIGURE SO SEEMINGLY OBVIOUS, so received into art history and its more populist banlieues, Aubrey Beardsley is fucking hard to write about. My friend and I sit on the bed as I page through Linda Gertner Zatlin’s 2016 catalogue raisonné, and I ask him what appeals, what’s fun. We never say Beardsley. “Aubrey,” my friend always says: just Aubrey.

So, Aubrey . . .

Aubrey was born in Brighton, England, in 1872. He died just twenty-five years later, and this premature burial is one of the first things you learn about when you learn about Aubrey. Within the achingly worked-out taxonomies of the British class system, the Beardsleys were hardly trash, but neither did they enjoy much security, symbolic or monetary. Mrs. Ellen Beardsley was more of a, ahem, well-bred sort, the daughter of a stolid and respectable career military officer. Aubrey adored his mother, who was reputedly quite fearless and immune to shock. His father, the son of a jeweler, lived on an inheritance until he couldn’t and then had to (vomit) work.

I’m not kidding, I hate work. So did the philosophico-pragmatic Buddha of the Aesthetic Movement, or Decadence, viz., Oscar Wilde, author of the 1891 frivolous/dead-serious essay/political pamphlet “The Soul of a Man Under Socialism.” Authority needs spit in its mouth, too. “It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure,” Wilde writes, “and many forms of labour are quite pleasureless activities, and should be regarded as such.”

BEARDSLEY IS IN VISUAL ART the quintessential expression of Decadence in its British efflorescence. Other artists who feel utterly essential to that period nonetheless escape it. For instance, Walter Sickert, he of the sweating interiors and ennui and Jack the Ripper, is really a Post-Impressionist, a protomodernist. Whereas Aubrey: the decade tout court.

Beardsley’s best-known works are his illustrations for Salome, Wilde’s notorious, once-banned play. Most famous is The Climax, also known by the line of Wilde’s text Beardsley incorporated into the picture: J’AI BAISÉ TA BOUCHE IOKANAAN. The image illustrates the play’s final scene. Having agreed to dance before her stepfather, Herod Antipas, the drives-the-boys-crazy Idumaean princess Salome clutches in her hands her reward: the severed head of John the Baptist. Her eyes look as though she has narrowed them in appraisal; they’re critical slits. Her hair spools out as fat black ropes, whereas the dead Evangelist sports a two-tone, black-and-white, blond/brunette do. Her bee-stung lips are pursed for a necrophiliac kiss. Beardsley’s interpretation of the concupiscent antiheroine feels far more worldly and debauched than Wilde’s version of the temptress, who is altogether too enshrouded in stilted French poetry to gin up much fire or poison. Like many Beardsley women, she is the intimate descendant of the angels and sirens, virgins and sorceresses, of the gelidly lubricious Pre-Raphaelite art of Edward Burne-Jones. Beardsley takes Burne-Jones’s pre-dead, sexually untouched template and endows it with a hitherto unknown, or maybe just unrecognized or desperately repressed, wildly rebellious female eroticism. His Salome is a poster girl for Georges Bataille’s L’histoire de l’oeil (The Story of the Eye, 1928) decades avant la lettre. And with respect to the visual arts, she’s like the fully volitional, as yet corporeally intact avatar of Hans Bellmer’s La poupée (The Doll), 1935.

Hans Bellmer, La poupée (The Doll), 1935, gouache on gelatin silver print, 25 7⁄8 × 25 1⁄4". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Along with Burne-Jones, who served as his mentor, Beardsley principally drew on other British Pre-Raphaelites whose work espouses a medievalizing rather than realist tendency, namely, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and the later John William Waterhouse of The Lady of Shalott, 1888. John Everett Millais’s paintings after Shakespeare, such as Ophelia, 1851–52, and Mariana, 1851, also served as a precedent—those icons of febrile fantasy and feminine perversity would vastly nourish Beardsley’s sensibilities—but it is the linear style of Burne-Jones, Rosetti, et al. that prevailed, giving Beardsley his exaggerated, angular, “Gothick” contours, his infamous and utterly signature line. Beardsley’s imagery also bears the influence of the poster art of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Parisian avant-garde. Color is banished—the most famous example must be the flowering puddle of black blood in The Climax. But while the Beardsley realm is chromophobic, there’s ample suggestion of other senses: hearing (as in The Wagnerites, 1894) but also smell. Synesthesia was central to the aesthetic programs of Symbolism and Decadence, as in the liquor organ in Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À rebours (Against Nature, 1884).

Aubrey Beardsley, Of a Neophyte, and How the Black Art Was Revealed unto Him by the Fiend Asomuel, 1893, pen, ink, and gouache on paper, 9 × 6 1⁄2".

Of a Neophyte and How the Black Art Was Revealed unto Him by the Fiend Asomuel, 1893, is an example of “early” Beardsley. Created for a story by James Mew in the Pall Mall Magazine, the picture portrays the neophyte surrounded by, as scholar Chris Snodgrass put it in Aubrey Beardsley: Dandy of the Grotesque (1995), “a plethora of icons of the Victorian middle class associated with diseased satanic evil.” The neophyte is presumably male but androgynous; so too the fiend. The latter’s coif is rendered with extreme graphic brevity—a characteristic feature—with just the part in the middle delimiting the major and minor expanses of whiteness or hair. The neophyte, by contrast, seems not to have hair so much as a black hat. Presiding over the scene is an outright female, with very plump, hexagram-bedizened breasts. Lunette shapes, like the brooches worn by the neophyte, recur in the background; Art Nouveau fungi proliferate in the near distance, the tendrils of some upper-echelon Decadent garden dripping toward us.

THE YELLOW BOOK was a literary and artistic quarterly published by the Bodley Head from 1894 to 1897. Beardsley served as its original art editor, his tenure recognized both by his contemporaries and posterity as defining for the periodical: defining it, namely, as a jaundiced and morally questionable cultural organ, one safely located not in the head nor the heart but wafting perilously lower, to the groin, the viscera, the rectum even. This definition was consistent with other yellow books of the era. In The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Wilde refers to a “yellow book” that Lord Henry Wotton sends to Dorian as a consolation after the suicide of the latter’s first love. The book represents the beginning of Dorian’s corruption, his decadence, and it stands for, presumably, À rebours, the bible of Decadence, the book that launched Decadence as a French and international literary craze on the Continent and in Britain. Also: Dirty novels of the period supposedly had yellow covers. See, for instance, van Gogh’s Les livres jaunes (The Yellow Books, 1887).

Beardsley’s contribution as art editor, consisting almost entirely of his own tartly immoral illustrations, as well as the signature malarial cover, was the apex of his career. His artworks deployed figures of commedia dell’arte, Italianate personages that would grate on Victorian Protestant bourgeois propriety, and endowed these stock types with new and bizarre psychological colorations. They disport themselves in full or partial costume in settings that are no longer specifically theatrical: They’ve broken the fourth wall, Brechtian revolutionaries avant la lettre. In his design for a prospectus cover for the Yellow Book—an advertisement—Beardsley depicts a cocotte clad in black who peruses shelves of presumably racy books and periodicals, while in the background the proprietor lurks an older woman, or eunuch, attired in blousy white, a Pierrot like no other: New Woman, Symbolist poet, or fashionable satanist.

Aubrey Beardsley, Design for the Prospectus of The Yellow Book, vol. 1, 1894, ink and wash on paper, 9 7⁄8 × 6 3⁄8".

As for the Yellow Book’s literary contents, many of the contributors were well established and sometimes even fairly conservative figures: Henry James, Edmund Gosse, Arnold Bennett, George Gissing. The newer flavors of Aestheticism and Decadence were represented by Max Beerbohm (notably, his ironic “decadent” essay “A Defense of Cosmetics”), William Butler Yeats, Arthur Symons, and such splendidly disreputable types as the lachrymose and alcoholic Ernest Dowson and Frederick “Baron Corvo” Rolfe—though nothing from them shattered Victorian morals. Beardsley’s work was what made the Yellow Book the symbolic and, to an extent, real epicenter of the era, henceforth known as the Yellow Nineties.

From left: Aubrey Beardsley’s covers for The Yellow Book 1 (April 1894), 2 (July 1894), 3 (October 1894).

Just as his editorship of the Yellow Book represented his public and artistic career’s crest, so too does his “fall” at the journal further embellish the Beardsley myth: After Wilde’s arrest for gross indecency in 1895, Beardsley, illustrator of his Salome, was deemed guilty by association. He was fired. A year later, Beardsley became coeditor, with Symons, of The Savoy, a periodical published by Leonard Smithers, a loyal friend of Wilde’s who was also well known as a pornographer. In his life, Smithers was a kind of Wildean or Beardsleyesque work of art: A placard with the text SMUT IS CHEAP TODAY was prominently displayed in his bookshop in London’s Bond Street, where, in addition to works by Wilde, Beardsley, Dowson, Beerbohm, and society satanist Aleister Crowley, Smithers also purveyed volumes bound in human skin—or such is the legend anyway, an echt-Decadent and super-creepy gesture of which Huysmans’s des Esseintes himself might have approved. The name of Smithers’s little magazine evoked the Savoy hotel, which had opened in 1889, an oasis of conspicuous luxury where (conveniently, poetically, disastrously) Wilde conducted several louche amours.

Aubrey Beardsley’s covers for The Savoy 1 (January 1896), 2 (April 1896), 3 (July 1896), 4 (August 1896).

Beardsley’s illustrations for The Savoy suspire a poetry of indistinct license. Compared with the provocations of Salome, they are restrained. On the cover of The Savoy’s first issue, a woman with a riding crop strolls through a manicured pastoral landscape, one evocative of English gardens. In the distance, there is a classical temple, very much like the Pantheon at Stourhead in Wiltshire: She’s on the grounds of a very stately home. Her head is tiny with respect to her body, and she’s exceedingly buttoned-up; she’s wearing gloves. Leading the way: a debauched cherub, staring down at an issue of the Yellow Book (in the original drawing, he urinates on it). A reviewer in the New York World characterized the drawing as Beardsley’s “least revolting style,” elaborating on the “woman, with the usual small, weak, licentious Beardsley face and the usual high, swollen Beardsley bosom.”

Aubrey Beardsley, The Wagnerites, 1894, ink and pigment on paper, 8 1⁄8 × 7".

The Savoy was a failure, publishing only eight issues. Smithers, the vanguard publisher (and pornographer), was a reckless if not outright terrible businessman. He was bankrupt by 1900, dead from drugs and drink by 1907. His body was found naked, with empty bottles of Dr. J. Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne scattered all about him. Lord Alfred Douglas paid for his unmarked grave.

BEARDSLEY BELONGED TO AN ERA that proclaimed the sublime uselessness of art (and the artist), yet remained paradoxically wedded to arguments that demanded utility as part of art’s aesthetics. Behind Wilde’s famous dictum from the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray—“All art is quite useless”—is one of William Morris’s: “Nothing useless can be truly beautiful.” And Beardsley, apotheosis of preening etiolation and voluptuary indecency, was in truth a useful artist: an illustrator. Aside from providing the cunning dernier cri drawings for the Yellow Book and The Savoy, he also illustrated literary works, first Le Morte Darthur (The Death of King Arthur, 1894), in his Burne-Jonesian apprenticeship; then Wilde’s Salome; Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1896); and finally, thrillingly, beyond the furthest reaches of Victorian propriety and hypocrisy (and debauchery and wickedness), Aristophanes’s Lysistrata. A commission given him, fittingly, by the sometime filth merchant Smithers, this violently, sexually advanced work paralleled Beardsley’s more discreetly ironic and poetical endeavors at The Savoy.

From left: Aubrey Beardsley, The Toilet of Lampito, 1896, ink on paper, 10 1⁄8 × 6 7⁄8“. Aubrey Beardsley, The Examination of the Herald, 1896, ink over graphite on paper, 10 1⁄4 × 7 1⁄8”. From the 1896 edition of Aristophanes’s 411 BC Lysistrata (Leonard Smithers, 1896).

In Lysistrata, the Athenian women, led by the eponymous heroine, stage a sex strike, wishing to make their men desist in pursuing further war, and in so doing counter some of the slanders set against the race of Woman. (It’s a topical play: The Peloponnesian War, ongoing when Aristophanes wrote it, would ultimately lead to the destitution of Athens.) Lysistrata seemingly proposes another sort of virtue, at odds with masculine warlike ones, a supposedly feminine commitment to pacifism, empathy, and conniving craftiness. But in Beardsley’s illustrations, the women are still very often somnolent, torpid, listless—and listlessly, irreverently sexed up: tumid figures, tending toward corpulence (they are like lubricious ancestors of The Fat Woman, 1894, Beardsley’s cruel send-up of Whistler’s wife) and laziness. In Lysistrata Shielding Her Coynte, Lysistrata stands beside a priapic idol; Ian Fletcher wrote that she rests her hand upon “this amazing object as if it were a garden ornament.” Whereas Beardsley’s gesture regarding the male Spartan (or Lacedaemonian) ambassadors is quite different. In The Examination of the Herald, one figure looks rather a dotard with a skinny, very porn-poor penis; the other is a veritable Adonis-plus-Eros, with a member comically, horrifically enlarged to Exocet-missile phallic-assault proportions. Aristophanes is vulgar already, bluntly inserting gross erections into the story. Beardsley takes these engorged members and renders them Brobdingnagian, terrifying cannons of animal love.

From left: Aubrey Beardsley, Cinesias Entreating Myrrhina to Coition, 1896, line block print, 9 1⁄4 × 6 3⁄8“. Aubrey Beardsley, The Lacedaemonian Ambassadors, 1896, ink over graphite on paper, 10 1⁄4 × 7 1⁄8”. From the 1896 edition of Aristophanes’s 411 BC Lysistrata (Leonard Smithers, 1896).

Beardsley reportedly took to the British Museum to study the black- and red-figure pottery as preparation for embarking on the Lysistrata drawings. This flower of antiquity on his oeuvre is decorative, as the Greeks and Romans tirelessly are, but Beardsley’s most pressing inspiration was both more modern and farther afield: Japanese erotic woodblock prints, or shunga. The vogue for Japanese prints among the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists is a sturdy piece of factual modernist myth, not unlike the tale of Picasso and the “primitive” art he discovered at Paris’s Musée de l’Homme a generation later. One thinks of the Japanese print tacked to Émile Zola’s wall in Manet’s epochal portrait of the writer and imagines the cephalopod ravishments tucked away in a drawer.

BEARDSLEY CONVERTED to Roman Catholicism shortly before his death. This was quite the fin de siècle British Aesthetic Decadent thing to do, it seems: Wilde and his acolytes Dowson and Lionel Johnson likewise sought succor in the arms of the Church of Rome. What was the lure of the universal church for these Anglophone and preciously Anglican apostates?

Aubrey Beardsley, How a Devil in Woman’s Likeness Would Have Tempted Sir Bors, 1894, pen and ink on paper, two sheets, each 10 3⁄8 × 7 1⁄2". From the 1894 edition of Thomas Malory’s 1485 Le morte Darthur (The Death of King Arthur) (J. M. Dent and Co., 1894).

The resurgence of Catholicism in England began in the 1840s, a decade after the Roman Catholic Relief Act, fueled in part by the intellectual fervor among the Anglo-Catholic ministers of the Oxford Movement. Hyperorthodoxy characterized many of its more prominent exponents—Cardinal Manning and his cohort were described as being “more Catholic than the Pope himself”—and the spiritual fervor and rule-obsessed decorum of these figures, curiously, would exert an exaggerated influence on the dandies and poètes maudits of English Decadence. In retrospect, it’s hard not to see the conversions of Beardsley, Wilde, Dowson, and Johnson as camp, for even sincere conversions took on the duplicitous character of theater and rouge.

Beardsley has long been associated with camp, ever since Susan Sontag mentioned “Beardsley drawings” in her oft-recondite, and now very passé, list of camp phenomena. Yet Beardsley’s camp—or even “queer”—appeal has as much to do with his biography as with his art. (Brigid Brophy calls Beardsley’s conversion a “logical continuation of his work.”) Beardsley is certainly not identifiably gay in a contemporary (or for that matter Victorian) sense. Still, he was gossiped about, and the most stunning item concerned a putative incestuous relationship with his older sister Mabel, further gilded in infamy by the suggestion that she may have had his child aborted.

Aubrey Beardsley, The Dream, 1896, ink over graphite on paper, 10 1⁄8 × 7". From Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (Leonard Smithers, 1896).

Mabel’s rumored abortion of her love child with Aubrey is itself the sort of lurid, preposterous bouillabaisse of insinuation and effrontery that is catnip for camp. It’s a presage of the “I love filth” credo of John Waters’s early films—isn’t the National Enquirer on Sontag’s list?—trash-culture “stars” like the Octomom, and debased (before “prestige” cable, one would have been tempted to say all) television. In the ’60s, think Peyton Place (or, in a different register, Bewitched); in the ’90s, think daytime talk shows like The Jerry Springer Show and The Jenny Jones Show, an endless parade of paternity tests, girls gone wild, makeovers. This is a far cry, one might protest, from the manicured delectations of the Lord Henry Wotton crowd. And yet The Picture of Dorian Gray anticipates trash novels as much as does Baudelaire. Rather more, in fact: Consider Dorian’s willfully perverse and ornamentally cruel seduction and betrayal of the theater grisette Sibyl Vane.

Frederick H. Evans, Aubrey Beardsley, ca. 1894, platinum print, 5 3⁄8 × 3 7⁄8".

In 1894, Frederick H. Evans took an iconic photograph of Beardsley adopting the pose of a Notre Dame gargoyle. The artist, then at the apogee of his notoriety, wasn’t an easy subject: “There’s not much to be done with a face like yours,” Evans told him. “You’re only a gargoyle, you know.” The epicene dandy isn’t handsome or alluring in any routine sense. Beardsley wasn’t a ready subject for flattery, but he thrives as a stunning oddity, a sort of elegant monster, razor sharp and deadly thin, an embodiment of both fear and comedy.

BEARDSLEY WAS AN EMBLEM OF HIS ERA: dandy, aesthete, decadent. But for all that emphasis on surfaces and affectation and decor, on art not just free of tendentious moralizing but on a mission to be stylishly, poetically, outrageously amoral or immoral, there was also an ethical imperative: The stormy, magnificent sea is a must all the time. No beauty without violence. No sublimity without corruption. No mores or directives or psalters or self-improvements. These are the crude outlines of the Moral Philosophy of the Exquisite. Consider the contrast with the prevailing mores of today: Despite the immense degree of sexual freedom that characterizes our time, there is a resurgent compulsion toward stricter morality, a kind of rectitude that oddly mirrors the “repressive” Victorian era and its regime of endless self-improvement, bodily as well as intellectual, moral, and spiritual; self-help was another invention of the nineteenth century.

A friend who is very “Mr. Beardsley,” who very much sees himself among the Aubrey-elect of today—and in fairness, who is very knowledgeable, very astute much of the time—said to me that one of the surprising things that stood out with Beardsley was the profound sadness. I had to stifle an intense desire to laugh in his face. Sad? Really? Because to me even the tuberculosis looks pretty swell there, and the severed heads are jardinieres.

Aubrey Beardsley, The Fat Woman, 1894, ink on paper, 7 × 6 3⁄8".

I just can’t do it. The sad and the good, the virtuous and the pious. I still crave wicked art. I live for filth. If Beardsley is going to be any good, he’s got to be wrong, got to be bad. For Beardsley is one of those altogether obvious artists, so utterly the phantasm of an earlier, cruder developmental stage, that he must perforce have been long ago discarded—like Renoir, a Renoir of evil and urinary Henry Wotton books and fin de siècle willful debasement and sex and opera. The mental image of Beardsley veers instantly and inevitably into clichés and purple prose. And regardless of the now rather dated bizarrerie of the Beardsley realm—those violently engorged penises, those Grecian damsels expelling flatulent clouds, those severed heads and fops and Wagner death scenes—this André Le Nôtre topiary efflorescence of wickedness and (vomit) pleasures can’t shake off the stench of sentimentality, the sentimentality of passionately and naively wished-for My Life as Art (and vice versa) naughtiness: these macramé crimes, these fern bars of filth.

Beardsley’s most indelible influence and puissance is felt by the young—at the oldest sixteen, and that’s too old to be a true believer. He crashes upon the innocent who yearn for an aesthetic and moral spoliation they can’t (let’s hope) actually conceive. Around the same time I got into Beardsley (or very shortly thereafter), I started shopping for clothes I could never wear to school, like crazy stuff—Versace and Armani and Missoni and Claude Montana—so that I would have a school wardrobe and a totally walled-off, at-home-only wardrobe. Somehow these things are linked for me: that Beardsley picture book that I bought at Brentano’s joining the hot new nasty cavalcade of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele and Tamara de Lempicka—those that would nudge and wink and jostle aside Leonardo and Michelangelo and Raphael and The Rise of the West—providing new colors, louche textures, dim lighting, the burgundy-velvet-upholstered sitting rooms of my fantasies. It all seems so triste now. Just another formative moment from seventh grade, coming on the heels of The Lord of the Rings and Johnny Tremain. The die of Decadence was cast for me not too long after I had somewhat reluctantly given up stuffed-animal tea parties and imaginary friends. 

“Aubrey Beardsley,” organized by Tate Britain, London, in collaboration with the Museé d’Orsay, Paris, and curated by Caroline Corbeau-Parsons and Stephen Calloway, is on view at Tate Britain through May 25; travels to the Musée d’Orsay June 15–September 13.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.