New York

Aubrey Beardsley, The Toilet of Salome, 1893/1906, photomechanical engraving from a drawing, 5 1⁄8 × 4".

Aubrey Beardsley, The Toilet of Salome, 1893/1906, photomechanical engraving from a drawing, 5 1⁄8 × 4".

Aubrey Beardsley

Drawn from the holdings of the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection at the University of Delaware and hosted by the oldest bibliophilic society in North America, “Aubrey Beardsley, 150 Years Young” was a bookish yet buoyant romp worthy of its subject. The curators of the sesquicentennial exhibition, Mark Samuels Lasner and Margaret D. Stetz, stuffed the second floor of the venue’s neo-Georgian town house with amusing bagatelles and ephemera—from a teenage self-caricature as Whistler’s mother to a letter recounting flirtations with the occult (specifically, an “unpleasant experience with a Planchette” that left him “no longer the same woman”)—alongside the indolic profanities that made Beardsley a carrier of the proverbial cold hard flame of late-Victorian decadence.

Roger Fry posthumously christened him “the Fra Angelico of Satanism”; another critic, reviewing the debut of Beardsley’s drawings in the magazine The Studio, accused him of “blasphemies against art . . . impotent imitations of [Edward] Burne-Jones at his very worst with pseudo-Japanese effects, [served up] with a sauce of lilies and peacock feathers”; yet another writer denounced the “repulsiveness and insolence” of Beardsley’s art as “a combination of English rowdyism with French lubricity.” Edward Tennyson Reed, an illustrator for the conservative satirical journal Punch, or The London Charivari, makes the artist into a harbinger of civic decay in his 1894 cartoon “Britannia à la Beardsley.” On display at the Grolier and featuring a dandified English bulldog, a drowsy lion, and debauched sybaritic Britannia, Reed’s parody portrays the allegories of the nation corrupted by moral lassitude and louche effeminacy.

The aspersions cast upon Beardsley and his circle would go well beyond drawing-room persiflage when, in 1895, Oscar Wilde was charged with and convicted of “gross indecency,” sparking a moral panic that led to Beardsley’s firing from his art editorship of the Yellow Book, the namesake literary quarterly of the Yellow Nineties. It mattered little that the two men were, by this time, less friends than rivals: On view here was Beardsley’s contemptuous 1893 caricature of the eminent wit and raconteur’s creative process, showing him liberally availing himself of Swinburne’s collected poetry and such volumes as French Verbs at a Glance while penning his one-act tragedy Salome (1892). Beardsley’s illustrations for the play’s English translation had nonetheless yoked the artist to the writer in the public imagination; his drawings, Wilde wrote, were “cruel and evil, and so like dear Aubrey, who has a face like a silver hatchet, and grass-green hair.” Alongside the prototypically decadent J’ai baisé ta bouche Iokanaan (I Have Kissed Your Mouth Iokanaan), 1893—its an-fractuous line manifesting Wilde’s eponymous femme fatal as she delectates over the severed head of Saint John the Baptist—the exhibition included The Toilette of Salome, 1893, an illustration deemed too bizarre for publication. Heedless of Wilde’s text, it depicts the villainess couched in onanistic repose in a fin de siècle dressing room, attended by gynan-drous equerries and powdered by a limp-wristed masked Pierrot.

After Beardsley’s dismissal from the Yellow Book, he was tapped by bookseller and pornographer Leonard Smithers to oversee the art for the short-lived little magazine The Savoy (his expurgated cover for the inaugural issue originally featured a saucy putto pissing on a copy of the former periodical). Smithers would also partially indulge Beardsley’s lifelong writerly ambitions, publishing bowdlerized installments of his “romantic novel” The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser. An uncensored copy, printed after Beardsley’s death in 1907, was on view at the Grolier, turned to a baroquely smutty page relating an interspecies liaison between the titular goddess and her pet unicorn: “Adolphe had been quite profuse that morning. Venus knelt where it had fallen, and lapped her little aperitif!”

As to Beardsley’s own sexuality, we can only speculate: Some contend he had an incestuous affair with his sister, while others say that he died a virgin and was “boyish enough to pose as a diabolical reveler in vices of which he was innocent.” Shortly before his death from consumption at the age of twenty-five, the artist converted to Catholicism and begged Smithers to destroy “all [his] obscene drawings.” Thank Satan he didn’t.