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The “Morbid Imagination” of Aubrey Beardsley – Art Nouveau’s Most Provocative Artist

Katie Vernon
Aubrey Beardsley

If you think of a provocative Art Nouveau illustrator or a prequel to Warhol and Picasso, check Aubrey Beardsley, the most controversial artist of the short-lived Decadent Movement at the end of the 19th century. Beardsley’s illustrations are remarkably impactful for their brevity and famous for their intrusive critique of the repressive Victorian concepts of sexuality, gender roles, beauty, and consumerism.

At the age of seven, Beardsley contracted tuberculosis. The disease confined him to his bed, and his life expectancy was uncertain ever since. Beardsley fought a battle with the disease until he succumbed to it when he was only 26. According to some art historians, Beardsley’s health issues were tightly linked with his fascination with the macabre and the grotesque.

The Barge, from The Rape of the Lock.

The Barge, from The Rape of the Lock.

The most typical example is his drawing in ink “Self-portrait in Bed” (1894) where he illustrated a small boy (himself) being swallowed by the bed on which it lays.

Born in 1872, in Brighton, England, Beardsley was forced to give musical concerts along with his sister due to their poor financial situation at home. Both children were considered artistic and musical prodigies. For four years he attended Bristol Grammar School where he was noted for his talent as a poet, and where he discovered his drawing skills.

Aubrey Beardsley

Aubrey Beardsley

In the 1885 June issue of Past and Present, Beardsley published “The Valiant,” his first public poem. The same journal published his first reproduced drawings, and he was engaged in various art projects and events at school.

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In a strange coincidence, Beardsley met the painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones who was impressed with Beardsley’s illustrations and suggested he attend night classes at the Westminster School of Art — which he did. Within a year of enrolling, teachers who noticed his talent provided him with contacts of eminent illustrators and publishers.

Et in Arcadia Ego

Et in Arcadia Ego

Hence, although short, a fruitful collaboration resulted in various publications that contained Beardsley work. Publisher Joseph Dent described the young artist as “a peculiar boy who will probably not be long for this world” and offered him the chance to illustrate Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.

In over 300 illustrations that Beardsley produced in his lifetime, he combined elements of Symbolism, Decadence, Aestheticism, and Art Nouveau. His recognizable style was a mixture of Pre-Raphaelite art, Japanese Ukiyo-ye prints, and a Decadent fascination with death and decay. His initial aim was to shock the audience stating that “People hate to see their darting vices depicted but vice is terrible and it should be depicted.”

“Isolde,” illustration in Pan magazine

“Isolde,” illustration in Pan magazine

Beardsley was known as eccentric not only in his work but also privately. He had a close friendship with Oscar Wilde, a fellow accomplice in their artistic battle against the Victorian regime. Wilde’s Salome was illustrated by Beardsley

They were so close that there were speculations about a possible homosexual relationship between the two. There were also speculations that Beardsley had an incestuous relationship with his sister who miscarried their baby, while according to some, he might have been asexual.

Aubrey Beardsley

Aubrey Beardsley

The author of his biography, Matthew Sturgis, believed that sex had a profound influence on the artist’s work for which he was frequently categorized as a pornographer by critics. However, Beardsley didn’t share that opinion and thought of himself as a fine artist and a dandy.

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Regardless of what he thought, Beardsley got caught in the Victorian ethics, was condemned by rumors, and was destroyed by his infamous social reputation. The more he kept to himself, the more speculations surrounded his sexual life. The erotic drawings didn’t help him out, and he ended up penniless with the publishing world closing their doors to him.

Beardsley died in 1897, in France, with his mother and sister by his side. His favorite copy of La Dame aux Camelias was placed in his coffin.