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Sensuous, Sinful, and Sordid: Aubrey Beardsley at Tate Britain

4th March – 25th May 2020

Standard Ticket - £16

Concessions - £15

Tate Collective - £5


John Keats died of tuberculosis in 1821, at the age of 25. Aestheticized in the early nineteenth-century as a symbol of passion, spirituality and creativity, it seems fitting that decades later another tragically gifted artist would perish from the same disease at the same age. Aubrey Beardsley cultivated the connection, aestheticizing his life so that the horrific reality of suffering was overlooked for the beauty of artists doomed to die young. The rich tapestry of nineteenth-century art was Beardsley’s immediate context. Working with Pre-Raphaelitism (inspired, in part, by the legacy of Keats), Aestheticism (inspired, in part, by the legacy of the Pre-Raphaelites), Decadence, French Symbolisme, Impressionism, and more, it is little wonder that he produced more than 1,000 prints in his short lifetime. Beardsley knew he wouldn’t live a long life, and in the words of Arthur Symons, a contemporary and fellow contributor to the infamous Yellow Book (1894-1897), Beardsley had ‘the fatal speed of those who are to die young and the absorption of a lifetime in an hour’.

Aubrey Beardsley, The Climax 1893 (published 1907). Stephen Calloway. Image courtesy of Tate.

Far from being ‘half in love with easeful death’, Beardsley was very connected to the lively. This is most noticeable in the third room, described by the curator Caroline Corbeau-Parsons as ‘the heart of decadence’, which showcases Beardsley’s illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1891). These prints are intensely erotic and gruesome. John the Baptist’s head, severed, in most of the prints, from his body, has a long train of blood falling from it, which forms an elegant ribbon. Beautiful and disturbing symbols of this nature permeate all of Beardsley’s drawings, enhanced perhaps by his choice of medium: ink on paper. This new exhibition is important as it allows materials which have so far been neglected by traditional art history (with its emphasis on painting) to be given proper consideration.

Aubrey Beardsley, The Black Cape 1893. Princeton University Library. Image courtesy of Tate.

Beardsley’s particular medium allows for the subtlety and beauty of his ideas to become manifest in practical ways. His art was featured prominently in The Yellow Book and, later, The Savoy (1896), two of the most important ‘little magazines’ of the 1890s, and publications which can be seen as precursors to early twentieth-century modernist counterparts such as The Little Review (1914-1929) or BLAST (1914-1915). The silhouetted, erotic and grotesque figures which Beardsley presents seem to presage the way that modernism ‘makes no compromise with the public taste’. Indeed, like many avant-garde modernists, Beardsley straddles the divide between high art and popular culture. One room contains what is essentially pornography: Beardsley’s illustrations for Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. The Ancient Greek play is rife with sexual innuendo which Beardsley makes explicit. It was his final work, published by Leonard Smithers in 1896, who was the only person willing to publish the obscene prints after Oscar Wilde’s trial for gross indecency in 1895.

Despite the wealth of intrigue in Beardsley’s art, I nevertheless felt that the exhibition lacked ambition. Many references were made to Beardsley’s inspirations –the posters of Toulouse-Lautrec for example, which were dotted around Paris at the fin de siècle – but there was no exploration of Beardsley’s experiences in Paris. The exhibition made much of his Japanese style, but would have benefited from showing some of the actual Ukiyo-e designs that dominated Japanese art between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries and which Beardsley was inspired by. The style typically depicted a hedonistic lifestyle not dissimilar to fin de siècle decadence, though interestingly the method was in steep decline in Japan after 1868. These contextual details were for the most part missing. Where we got them – such as William Morris’s Kelmscott Press edition of the Morte D’Arthur alongside Beardsleys – they provided a useful context for Beardsley’s work.

Aubrey Beardsley, The Cave of Spleen (Illustration to Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock) 1896. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. William Sturgis Bigelow Collection. Image courtesy of Tate.

In many ways, this exhibition is long overdue. The last single artist exhibition of Beardsley’s work was 1966, at the V&A, and prompted what Tate Britain has called the ‘Beardsley Revival’. Inspiring psychedelic design, it is evident that Beardsley resonated with a new radical avant-garde. If Beardsley last had “a moment” in the radical atmosphere of the 1960s, perhaps this exhibition will inspire a new generation of artists.