Aubrey Beardsley was an outstanding British graphic artist, illustrator, decorator and poet, prominent representative of Art Nouveau Movement, closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.
Aubrey Vincent Beardsley was born on August 21, 1872 in Brighton, in a family of a tradesman. Beardsley from his early childhood revealed his musical and artistic gift but was physically weak. When he was nine, he had had tuberculosis for the first time – the disease that would finally kill him. In 1883, the boy’s family moved to London, where he became known as “musical phenomenon” after concerts with his sister Mabel (she would later become an actress).
Beardsley demonstrated interest in arts from his childhood, but didn’t enter an art school – he started training in an architect’s office Guardian Life and later became a clergy in the Fire Insurance Company. His first works Aubrey showed to William Morris, yet they didn’t make him interested. In 1891 future artist met George Frederic Watts and Sir Edward Burne-Jones, who had a great influence on him so evident in his early period. Burne-Jones had acquainted Beardsley with Oscar Wilde.
According to Burne-Jones advice, Aubrey enrolled the Westminster School of Art, then under Professor Fred Brown, where he could learn to draw human figure. However, he studied there just for a short time: he achieved everything in art independently, so Beardsley could be called a genial autodidact. He learnt a lot during visits to museums and galleries of London, copying engravings and drawings of old masters. A prominent impact was caused by Japanese print and French rococo epoch.
The first work that ensured the artist’s success were a series of illustrations to the medieval novel of Thomas Mallory “Le Morte d’Arthur” (1892 – 1894), commissioned by a book publisher Joseph Dent. That publisher was the first one to believe in the talent of the young man (Aubrey was only 20-years-old, when they were introduced to each other).”Le Morte d’Arthur” was an ambitious edition, which included over 300 illustrations and elements of decoration – headpieces, tailpieces, drop capitals and vignettes. It could compare with best publications of “Kelmscott-press” with Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”, designed by Morris and illustrated by Burne-Jones. On the other hand, meanwhile Burn-Jones’ pictures were absolutely matched with the text, following spirit and letter, Beardsley’s drawings were a peculiar mixture of chivalric romance and antique grotesque: knights were neighboring with fauns on them and Christian austerity – with pagan frivolity. A certain flavor of Burne-Jones aesthetics is still noticeable in characters and theatricality of poses and gestures. But features of a new style also showed through in this work. It was based on laconism of Japanese prints, so praised by the author. Burn-Jones and Beardsley were two way that had the same beginning; they’re different poles of Anglo-Saxon aestheticism.
Disrespectfulness of Aubrey’s version of the Arthur’s image could not but shocked Pre-Raphaelites. His perception of the subject gave no hint at nostalgia about chivalry times and presented the world of the Round Table in rather sarcastic and sexually-brutal light. Mallory’s novel was an etalon of literature for the brotherhood. Moreover, the artist took undue freedoms with its interpretation that Morris and Burne-Jones, who highly valued his gift, considered his illustrations to contain hazardous tendencies that undermine and reject the bases of Pre-Raphaelism.
“Le Morte d’Arthur” cycle defined the aesthetical tideway of Beardsley’s oeuvre for next five years. Its success gained strength after appearance of “Studio” magazine in April 1893. There was an article about the master, written by Joseph Pennell – “A new illustrator: Aubrey Beardsley”. The text was accompanied with some works of the artist, including illustrations to Wilde’s play “Salome”, which had been published in France in February 1893. From then on Aubrey’s rapid ascent began. In 1894, he was invited to become an art-editor of “The Yellow Book” magazine and prepared the first issue in April 1894. That well-known quarterly literary periodical made the artist’s pieces available to vast public and brought him recognition. In 1893, he had been accepted to the New English Art Club and exhibited with Les XX in Brussels a year later.
In parallel with working over magazine, Beardsley creates a cycle for English edition of already mentioned “Salome”. Delighted with the article in “Studio” entrusted it to him and didn’t fail. Aubrey’s magnificent grotesques of the writer’s vicious drama inseparably linked the artist’s name with the most scandalous personality of the Victorian Age. So, that’s why after Wilde had to face the charges in sodomy, Beardsley, whose reputation had already been shady (he had been attacked by critics for erotical series of illustration to Lucian’s “True History”), was forced to leave “The Yellow Book” after creating four issues.
But the artist didn’t remained without attention for a while. Almost immediately, he received invitation to “The Savoy” – a quarterly magazine, established by Leonard Smithers. It was closed soon, but Aubrey managed to publish full of light eroticism drawings to “The Rape of the Lock” by Alexander Pope (1896) and “The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser”, inspired by the opera of Wagner, who he worshipped. In 1896 Smithers premiered an album of 50 Beardsley’s pieces. He supported the artist to the end of his days.
Scandal accompanied Aubrey during all his short but extremely bright and fruitful life. Together with Wilde he belonged to recognized “King’s of dandyism”. Member of the hedonist club he wore a faded rose in the buttonhole, penetrated into worldly avocations and sustained the scandalous aura around his personality in every possible way. Beardsley’s working cabinet was padded with black textile and was illuminated with only one candle. Walls of the guest room were covered with shunga – Japanese genre of erotic prints. He was also into black magic, mysticism and occult science.
Russian art historian Sergey Makovsky characterized Aubrey Beardsley’s graphics in following words: “Similar to flowers, cherished by a caring hand of a connoisseur, in a glass greenhouse with artificial moisture, as double, whimsically-bright and strangely-pallid flowers that have forgotten about native meadows, they beget visions, perverted and beautiful. Greenhouses of vice. Gardens of satiated voluptuousness. The world of fragile temptations, illusory in their unusualness. The poison of incense, which are too subtle and forms, which are too exquisite”.
During all his intensive life, the artist couldn’t get rid of the illness he had been suffering from his childhood. His tragic perception of world and sadness can be felt in illustrations to “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1895). But when the disease periodically receded, Beardsley created facile, witty and mischievous pictures, like erotic drawings to Aristophanes’s “Lysistrata” or “The Dangerous Liaisons” of Choderlos de Laclos.
In March 1896, while staying in Brussels, Aubrey Beardsley caught serious cold. His illness worsened, making him almost an invalid. In May of the same year he returned to England and moved to Bournemouth, where spent the whole autumn and winter. Beardsley converted to Catholicism on March 31, 1897 and the disease back down miraculously, giving the master one more year.
Searching for a better climate, the artist left for France, first to Paris, then – to Dieppe in July, 1897. He felt better there, but not for long, so they hurried to bring him to Menton on the French Riviera. Aubrey didn’t leave his room since January 25, 1898. In his letter to Smithers, dated March 7, 1898, he begged to “destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings … By all that is holy, all obscene drawings”. The addition “In my death agony” witnesses Beardsley was close to his end. He died in a few days in Menton, on March 16, 1898, 25-years-old.
Aubrey Beardsley’s oeuvre was sign of decay of Pre-Raphaelism. He became one of the brightest representatives of English decadency, whose fragile, pretentious and morbidly delicate drawings were close to Symbolism. Despite various influences, the his manner was highly unique and original. Being a graphic artist to the bone, Beardsley expressed himself in two-dimensional world. Space didn’t interest him. His posters were defined by the same refinement as ornaments in books. Tending to monochromic compositions, he rarely used two or three colors, which emphasized decorativeness of the forms. Apart from resemblance with Japanese visual language, Aubrey’s figures reminded of antique vase painting, but they were totally self-sufficient, embodying the spirit of fin de siècle.
Aubrey Beardsley had many imitators and adherents, the most noticeable of whom were Charles Ricketts and John Duncan.