Aubrey Beardsley (Victoria & Albert Museum, till 10 January)
Aubrey Beardsley, the Studio observed percipiently in 1893, 'distilled the very essence of the decadent fin de siècle'. That was quite right; so too was the fact that Beardsley had strangely foreshadowed the mood of the 1960s, which saw an even big- ger Beardsley boom than the naughty Nineties had. Now, of course, we're back at the fin de siècle, decadent as usual. And, as emerges clearly from the centenary exhibi- tion at the V&A, Beardsley — with his deflationary humour, sexual overtness, obsession with style — anticipated us as well as the psychedelic decade.
There was something slightly uncanny about Beardsley. He came, pretty well, from nowhere — in reality, from Brighton — with a mature sense of artistic poise and brilliant graphic skills (despite being virtu- ally untrained). He then proceeded to go through a complete artistic development, with different periods, diverse influences, in the few brief years before his death at the age of 25. Now, a hundred years post- mortem, it turns out that he is still a con- temporary, akin in mood and manner to Gianni Versace, say, and Leigh Bowery, Gilbert & George or Robert Mapplethorpe.
Apparently a fragile butterfly of a per- son, thin as a rake and given to Wildean epigrams, there was within rigour and steely toughness. This was evident from the exhibition of British Symbolists last autumn at the Tate. Amid acres of the misty dreams and grandiloquent absurdities by Watts, Bume-Jones and Rossetti, a few lit- tle black and white Beardsleys cut through sharp and hard as a weapon — precise, dis- ciplined, acid, funny, deadly. He looked the most modern and serious artist in the show.
Even a glance at this exhibition reveals part of the secret. Beardsley's art, especial- ly the best of it, depended on an almost abstract harmony, a knife-edge balance between wiry line, white paper and solid black. He found the cue for this spareness in Japanese art, as did a number of his con- temporaries — a point underlined by the beautiful design of this show, in the style of Whistler's architect E.W. Goodwin. Beard- sley — the rococo fantasist, the art nou- veau erotomane — was also a formalist of the most determined variety.
But Beardsley used this pared-down, proto-minimalism as a lens through which to view life around him. The results were shocking, not just because of their sexual explicitness — the preposterously swollen phalli of the Lysistrata, the salacious details which he smuggled into details and corners of many a scene. Even the most innocent subject became imbued with ambivalence, satire, a sense of pervading absurdity and corruption.
A prospectus for the Yellow Book, for example, showing a woman leafing through the stock outside a second-hand bookshop, becomes a sinister fantasia. The woman is not just a customer, but a spectral, sensual grande cocotte, with orchidaceous hat, bone-thin hands clad in long black gloves, rubber lips, flaring nostrils, an air of preda- tory menace. She is considerably more unnerving than the most seedy creation of Toulouse-Lautrec.
No wonder that even his more audacious contemporaries found him hard to take. Oscar Wilde, hearing Beardsley had made a drawing to advertise the Yellow Book made a guess at its appearance reasonably close to the above. 'Oh, you can imagine the kind of thing. A terrible naked harlot smiling through a mask — and with ELKIN iviATTHEws written on one breast and JOHN LANE on the other' (Lane and Matthews being the publishers).
Wilde, intermittently a target of Beards- ley's art, was an ambivalent fan. He urged Lane to commission the illustrations for Salome, with the Lysistrata drawings Beard- sley's masterpiece. But when they arrived Wilde wasn't quite sure about them (per- haps he was unhappy about finding his face caricatured on the moon, a heavenly body his text described as a mad drunken old woman 'seeking everywhere for lovers'). Beardsley, Wilde complained, 'gets on 'The Mirror of Love', 1895 one's nerves and is cruel' (while himself unkindly remarking that the artist had 'a face like a silver hatchet and grass-green hair'). Henry James found Beardsley per- sonally 'touching and extremely individual', but his art 'extraordinarily base'.
Possibly even today there are those who feel the same. The V&A issue a warning that 'some of the work in this exhibition is of an explicit erotic nature', which is an unusual step in the case of an artist who has been dead for 100 years. Some might even agree with the Westminster Gazette that 'we do not know if anything would meet the case except a short act of Parlia- ment to make this kind of thing illegal' still a common sentiment with regard to contemporary art..
Where did Beardsley get his vision from? Doubtless we should believe his own expla- nation — that he just saw things that way (it is probably the reason for most deep artistic originality). 'What I am trying to do is show life as it really is. I see everything in a grotesque way. When I go to the theatre, for example, things shape themselves before my eyes just as I draw them — the people on the stage, the footlights, the queer faces and garb of the audience in the boxes and stalls. They all seem weird and strange to me. Things have always impressed me in this way.'
He was a brilliant pasticheur of many styles — not only Japanese, but also French 18th century, Renaissance Italian, Ancient Greek. But he used them as a way of focus- ing on life around him. That is one reason why he seems so much tougher than Burne- Jones, Watts, Rossetti and so forth. For them, art was a method of escape into a world better, higher, or at least older. For Beardsley it was ultimately a way of under- standing here and now. He told Burne- Jones he hated the story of Morte d'Arthur, subject of the first big commission, -as he hated all mediaeval things (Burne-Jones, for his part, 'let him see pretty plainly that I wasn't anxious to see him again').
But not all the past styles he hoovered up served him equally well. It is plain at a glance that he needed the stark black and white to do his best work. That is why the Japanese Salome and Greek Lysistrata illus- trations, and others in similar vein, are so good. While the 18th-century mode of the drawings for The Rape of the Lock and Under the Hill is weaker and more prosey.
If this exhibition as a whole is less than a revelation, it is because we know Beardsley so well. He has never gone away, so he can't be rediscovered. On the other hand, even though almost all his work was not only designed for reproduction, but also endlessly reproduced — on posters, post- cards, everything — there is still an extra quality of nuance and subtlety that can only be found in the original drawings. Also, Aubrey Beardsley deserves a fresh look as we approach the end of another century. His own life was short, but artistically he is a remarkably lively centenarian.