“I have kissed your mouth, Jokannan, I have kissed your mouth.”, Salomé says as she holds John The Baptist’s severed head in her two hands. Her look is bold, poignant and, admittedly, a little frightening. She is afloat in the sky, her tentacle-like hair is lost in gravity with her. Our article all fine and dandy is a look the world of Aubrey Beardsley through the world of his illustration
This description above is of “The Climax” – an illustration of Aubrey Beardsley, created for Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé. The one-act tragedy, which was published in 1894, tells the Biblical story of Salomé and her desire to call John The Baptist’s head her own. This image may very well be the illustrator’s most well-known and acknowledged one. That is if you know him and his work.
During his short life, Aubrey Beardsley introduced obscurity and eroticism to the Victorian world of art and stretched the boundaries of what was acceptable to create and look at – he mostly did so through his world-famous illustrations.
Only having used black ink to create them, his work is characterized by the defining black lines and the white spaces sitting in between. This fatal contrast defines the banality of what you’re looking at. Despite only having used just two tones, it is so enticing and startling to keep your eyes on a little longer. There is something very beautiful about this obscure scene.
Enchanting, whimsical obscenity. A common theme in Beardsley’s illustration work.
Born into an originally wealthy family in Brighton in 1872, his parents soon found themselves battling constant poverty after having to sell their property in the seaside town. They moved to London, where Aubrey began to play music on stage with his sister, Mabel. He would also start to work on his illustrations and drawings during this time.
In an adolescent letter addressed to a friend, he proudly discusses his latest creative endeavors: “I now have seven distinct styles and I will succeed in all of them.”
This early pride and confidence in his talent was reason enough for him to keep working on his craft and reinvent himself over and over again.
His work always was a reflection of what he had seen and what had lingered around in his mind. In 1892, he traveled to Paris and saw the poster art of Henri de Toulouse Lautrec. He soon after found himself enchanted after seeing the Peacock Room by James McNeill Whistler and other work of the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as the traditional art of Japanese woodcuts. This constant stream of ongoing new muse is evident and reflected in his work, although he made sure to always take an idea and make it his own.
After designing the cover of the first edition of The Yellow Book, an up and coming London art magazine, alongside being interviewed in it, Beardsley found overnight fame in 1894.
What followed was an enormous boom around his persona and his work – it was controversial and displayed shocking and provoking scenes. This very much was the artist’s plan:” If I am not grotesque, I am nothing.”
In Victorian times, art almost always aimed to portray something beautiful and sometimes even otherworldly: imposing colours, fairy-like and fragile women, poetic scenes – an idealistic world.
Beardsley’s work portrays characters erotically showing a lot of skin, sometimes with physical features and appearances that were looked down upon and that people had not previously seen in art. He drew hermaphrodites, transvestites and played with gender roles, that left women looking hellishly fierce and men soft and feminine, sometimes accompanied by transcendental beings.
He soon found an exciting group of people to surround himself with and talk all things society, art and decadence: the Bohemian circle around Oscar Wilde amongst others. Beardsley felt he was where he was meant to be and adored the fact he was part of something revolutionary and exciting.
After some time, he also began to work with Wilde and he soon became the go-to illustrator for the author’s plays and stories.
If you’d have seen Aubrey Beardsley on the streets of London, he would have worn a flamboyant outfit coupled with a chic, vibrant walking stick. He was a mastermind in being his own publicist and making sure what it is the papers will say and write about him. His unconventional persona, clothing and accessories were all aids to make him seem more appealing, shocking and push sensibilities of the times.
In the midst of his golden years and his hiatus of fame, his life was cut short in 1898 after being diagnosed with tuberculosis.
His illustrations and paintings stayed popular throughout the years, but after displaying the largest collection of his drawings at the Victoria & Albert museum in 1966, a spectacular Beardsley revival occurred. Alongside other artists of the Art Nouveau era, like Toulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha and Eugene Grasset, the drawings, paintings and fonts were back in style and heavily used in pop culture all over Europe – just take a look at the cover of Procol Harum’s first self-titled record (1967) or The Beatles’ Revolver (1966).
If you are curious about the mysterious and somewhat sinister world of Aubrey Beardsley’s imagination, you simply cannot miss the current exhibition dedicated to him at Tate Britain.
After opening this collection to the public on March 4th, it was closed soon after because of COVID-19 safety precautions.
It is planned to reopen soon – so mark your calendars and get ready to explore this one-of-a-kind trip to Beardsley’s mind for yourself.
Find out more on Tate’s website here.
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