Aubrey Beardsley

lysistrata

Aubrey Beardsley (1872 – 1898) was an English illustrator and author. His drawings in black ink, influenced by the style of Japanese woodcuts, emphasized the grotesque, the decadent, and the erotic.

He was a leading figure in the Aesthetic movement which also included Oscar Wilde and James A. McNeill Whistler. Beardsley’s contribution to the development of the Art Nouveau and poster styles was significant, despite the brevity of his career before his early death from tuberculosis.

His six years of major creative output can be divided into several periods, identified by the form of his signature. In the early period his work is mostly unsigned. During 1891 and 1892 he progressed to using his initials, ‘A.V.B.’ In mid-1892, the period of Morte D’Arthur and The Bon Mots he used a Japanese-influenced mark which became progressively more graceful, sometimes accompanied by ‘A.B.’ in block capitals.

He co-founded ‘The Yellow Book’ (a literary quarterly) with American writer Henry Harland, and for the first four editions he served as art editor and produced the cover designs and many illustrations for the magazine. He was also closely aligned with Aestheticism, the British counterpart of Decadence and Symbolism. Most of his images are done in ink, and feature large dark areas contrasted with large blank ones, and areas of fine detail contrasted with areas with none at all.

Beardsley was the most controversial artist of the Art Nouveau era, renowned for his dark and perverse images and grotesque erotica, which were the main themes of his later work. Some of his drawings, inspired by Japanese shunga artwork, featured enormous genitalia. His most famous erotic illustrations concerned themes of history and mythology; these include his illustrations for a privately printed edition of Aristophanes’ ‘Lysistrata,’ and his drawings for Oscar Wilde’s play ‘Salome,’ which eventually premiered in Paris in 1896.

He also produced extensive illustrations for books and magazines (e.g. for a deluxe edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’) and worked for magazines such as ‘The Studio’ and ‘The Savoy,’ of which he was a co-founder. Beardsley also wrote ‘Under the Hill,’ an unfinished erotic tale based loosely on the legend of Tannhäuser, published in ‘The Savoy.’ He was a caricaturist and did some political cartoons, mirroring Wilde’s irreverent wit in art. Beardsley’s work reflected the decadence of his era and his influence was enormous, clearly visible in the work of the French Symbolists, the Poster art Movement of the 1890s, and the work of many later-period Art Nouveau artists like Pape and Clarke.

Beardsley was a public as well as private eccentric. He said, ‘I have one aim—the grotesque. If I am not grotesque I am nothing.’ Wilde said he had ‘a face like a silver hatchet, and grass green hair.’ Beardsley was meticulous about his attire: dove-grey suits, hats, ties; yellow gloves. He would appear at his publisher’s in a morning coat and patent leather pumps. Although Beardsley was associated with the homosexual clique that included Oscar Wilde and other English aesthetes, the details of his sexuality remain in question. He was generally regarded as asexual—which is hardly surprising, considering his chronic illness and his devotion to his work. Speculation about his sexuality include rumors of an incestuous relationship with his elder sister, Mabel, who may have become pregnant by her brother and miscarried.

During his entire career, Beardsley had recurrent attacks of the disease that would end it. He suffered frequent lung hemorrhages and was often unable to work or leave his home. Beardsley converted to Roman Catholicism in 1897, and would subsequently beg his publisher, Leonard Smithers, to ‘destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings… by all that is holy all obscene drawings.’ Smithers ignored Beardsley’s wishes, and actually continued to sell reproductions as well as forgeries of Beardsley’s work.

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