Aubrey Beardsley’s work is instantly recognisable: sweeping, sinuous black lines, sensual, mythological, with a haunting beauty all of its own. The new exhibition of his work at Tate Britain is the first there in almost a century, and the largest anywhere in 50 years. And it’s a delight to see.
As well as covering his most significant work, the exhibition features both self-portraits and portraits of Beardsley by his contemporaries. Tall, slender, pale, an impeccably dressed dandy, he joked that “Even my lungs are affected.”
Born in 1872, Beardsley had been diagnosed with tuberculosis as a child, and knew his life was likely to be short. This may be why he was so remarkably prolific; he produced over a thousand drawings in his career of around six years. Some 200 of them are in this exhibition.
With his beloved sister Mabel, Beardsley visited Edward Burne-Jones in 1891, showing him his work. Burne-Jones usually tried to put young people off becoming artists, but he was impressed with the 18-year-old’s work, and encouraged him to go to evening classes at the Westminster School of Art – the only formal art training he ever had.
Even his earliest work shows extraordinary self-confidence: an 1891 illustration of Perseus and the stunning 1892 Die Götterdämmerung. His first major commission, in 1892, was to illustrate Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur; he did 353 drawings for it. Becoming bored with the endless task, he started introducing incongruous elements – mermaids and satyrs.
He was enamoured of the bohemian scene of the 1890s, including Oscar Wilde and his circle. London was a small world for artists and writers, and Beardsley knew most of them.
His next commission was to illustrate Wilde’s play Salome, a rewriting of the biblical story of John the Baptist’s death. Right from the start he was playful – or perhaps subversive. The publisher John Lane said that Beardsley “was almost a practical joker, for one had, so to speak, to place his drawings under a microscope, and look at them upside down” to spot the painter’s innuendos. The exhibition includes both the published and rejected illustrations.
Beardsley was fascinated by sexual freedom and gender fluidity: although in many ways he epitomised the decadence of the Naughty Nineties, as an artist he anticipated some of today’s preoccupations.
He became art editor of The Yellow Book, a groundbreaking publication which put art on the same footing as literature. But it nearly led to his downfall. The magazine was notorious for its content. When Oscar Wilde was tried for “gross indecency” in 1895, he was seen carrying a “yellow book”. In fact this was a French novel, but because Beardsley was already linked to Wilde through his illustration of Salome, he was tainted by association. The Yellow Book fired him.
The following year, with the publisher Leonard Smithers, he launched a new magazine, The Savoy; it only lasted eight issues, largely, it seems, because booksellers were nervous about displaying Beardsley’s work in their windows.
Periods of illness interrupted his work. Although he and his sister lived for a time in Pimlico, very near today’s Tate Britain – one room in the exhibition, with orange walls, has the desk at which he worked – he spent an increasing amount of time in France, for health reasons.
Among Beardsley’s last works were illustrations to the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes. The women of Athens and Sparta went on a “sex-strike” until their husbands made peace. The subject could have been made for Beardsley. His highly explicit illustrations are in a separate room with an appropriate warning by the doorway.
Beardsley converted to Catholicism a year before his death; he died in 1898, at the age of 25, with a rosary in his hands. He was buried at Menton, in the French Riviera, following a Requiem Mass at the Cathedral.
On his deathbed Beardsley wrote to his publisher Leonard Smithers: “Jesus is our Lord & Judge. I implore you to destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings … By all that is holy, all obscene drawings.” One of the exhibition curators, the art critic and Beardsley specialist Stephen Galloway (himself epitomising the dandy), told me that Smithers ignored this. “He was a bit of an operator,” he said, smiling. Smithers had boasted that he would publish “what all the others are afraid to touch” and before long was selling prints of the drawings.
Beardsley’s work came back into fashion in the Sixties, inspiring artwork and album covers. It is still as powerful and as striking today as it was when it was drawn by a pale, thin, ill young man over a century ago.
Aubrey Beardsley is at Tate Britain, London, until September 20