Aubrey Beardsley, who died aged 25, was the most controversial artist of the Art Nouveau era

Domagoj Valjak
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To explore controversies in the behavior of artists over the course of history means to throw judgments at many of today’s eminent artists. Some world- popular artists who would inevitably come to mind are Picasso and Warhol, but also their prequel Aubrey Beardsley. The provocative Art Nouveau illustrator, along with his intriguing, somber art, cultivated a scandalous personality.

Beardsley, born as Aubrey Vincent Beardsley, was said to be an artistic prodigy since an early age. His family was destitute, so he and his sister, at 12, tried to financially support them by performing musical duets at public concerts. While he was attending grammar school, he drew caricatures and sketches and wrote poems for the school magazine Past and Present.

Beardley’s life expectancy appeared uncertain even in his childhood. When he was seven, he contracted tuberculosis, a disease that confined him to his bed, making him frail and unable to share his days with his peers. The struggle with tuberculosis extended to a lifelong health issue that, according to some art historians, was tightly linked with his fascination with the macabre and the grotesque, exemplified through his ink drawing Self-portrait in Bed (1894) where a small boy is swallowed by the bed on which it lays.

Aubrey Vincent Beardsley was said to be an artistic prodigy

Beardsley admired the Pre-Raphaelites and looked up to their style and artistic manner. When he finished grammar school, he worked as a clerk for an insurance agency and spend most of his lunch breaks developing a portfolio of drawings. In 1891, he and his sister decided to try out their luck at the studio of the painter and illustrator Sir Edward Burne-Jones, who was immediately enchanted by Beardsley’s talent and imagination, so he recommended him to the Westminster School of Art. Soon after, tuberculosis returned and it was more than obvious that Beardsley lived on a knife’s edge. This, however, didn’t discourage the young artist but, on the contrary, sparkled his lust for life as never before, nurturing his vigor in the face of early death.

Aubrey Beardsley

Within a year of enrolling in art school, he was noticed by all the teachers, who provided him contacts with eminent publishers and illustrators. One of them, the publisher Joseph Dent, offered him a chance to illustrate Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. This collaboration proved to be very beneficial for the young artist in regard to finances. Dent was impressed by Beardsley’s artistic skills but also noticed that he was “a peculiar boy who will probably not be long for this world.” In a short period of seven years, before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 26, Beardsley produced over 300 illustrations. As described in the Art Story, his work displayed a “blend of the classical poses and complex compositions found in Pre-Raphaelite art and the decorative patterning, flat two-dimensionality, and erotica of Japanese Ukiyo-ye prints with a Decadent fixation on death and decay.”

Et in Arcadia Ego

Beardsley’s artistic career developed simultaneously with his notoriety as one of the most controversial artists of his time. His bizarre sense of humor and fascination with the grotesque revolted and repulsed the Victorian audience, critiquing their concepts of sexuality, consumerism, gender roles, and beauty. The illustrations combined elements of Decadence, Symbolism, Aestheticism, and Art Nouveau, and their main aim was to shock viewers, rubbing images of unpleasant things such as vices and sexuality in their faces. Beardsley himself has once stated: “People hate to see their darting vices depicted but vice is terrible and it should be depicted.”

The work of Beardsley was easily produced due to the block prints and thus promptly overwhelmed the English publishing houses, which were eager for another piece of the diabolically beautiful presentations of life through Beardsley’s eyes. Most importantly, this so-called sinuous artwork marked the establishment of the Art Nouveau movement from Aestheticism.

The Dancers Reward, Salomé: a tragedy in one act

One of Beardsley’s fellow artistic accomplices in the humiliating of the Victorian regime was the author, Oscar Wilde. The artists shared a mutual admiration and Beardsley even illustrated Salome. According to Matthew Sturgis, the author of the biography ‘Aubrey Beardsley, sex had a profound influence on Beardsley’s work and his intense preoccupation with it was expressed in his pornographic novel Under the Hill, which was written and illustrated with erotic drawings by Beardsley himself.

“Isolde”, illustration in Pan magazine

There were various rumors about his erotic life and, a week after he died in 1898, the Times condemned his “morbid imagination,” while Edward Burne-Jones disapproved his association with Wilde and his “horrid set of semi-Sodomites.” In 1925, the journalist Frank Harris claimed that Beardsley had confessed an incestuous relationship with his sister who, presumably, conceived and aborted their child.

The Peacock Skirt, 1893

These notorious scenarios have provoked a number of scholars and art historians to delve into Beardsley’s work and find any elements that would endorse the assertions. However, there was hardly any evidence about this but, on the other hand, Beardsley’s association with the decade’s sexual deviants was explained as his fascination with a subculture whose intensity extensively contributed to his work.

Here is another story from us: When the Nazis entered Prague, they hunted down the elderly Art Nouveau pioneer Alfons Mucha, because he was a Freemason

The erotic drawings and the infamous social reputation that mostly relied on bohemian decadence and revolt left Beardsley penniless and condemned by London’s publishing world after Wilde’s arrest in 1895, in which Beardsley was considered guilty by association. In 1897 he returned to France at his mother’s home and on his deathbed ordered some of his “obscene” drawings to be burnt (but they weren’t). He died with his mother and sister by his side, who placed his favorite copy of La Dame aux Camelias in his coffin.