The naughty scribbles of a precocious boy: Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898)

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1. Een tijdsbeeld

Wil je zijn werk begrijpen dan moet je terug naar het Verenigd Koninkrijk in de 1890-jaren. Hij heeft ze in zijn bijna zesentwintigjarig bestaan niet eens helemaal uitgedaan, maar zijn toonaard, onderwerpen en vormgeving die Aubrey Beardsley tot de kunstenaar maakten zoals hij nu nog steeds uit zijn werk naar voren komt, zijn duidelijk in het doen en laten van dat tijdperk terug te vinden.

Nooit was de macht van het imperium zo groot. Maar de vragen naar het onderhouden van die sterkte brachten twijfelachtige antwoorden mee.
Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ maakte angsten wakker waarop door wetenschappers als Francis Galton, Darwins neef, driftig op zoek werd gegaan naar de genetische stock van de natie, een project door hem gemunt als ‘eugenics’.

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Een andere ‘denker’ uit die decade, de Oostenrijker Max Nordau: de oorzaken van de Britse morele degeneratie moet je zoeken bij kunst en cultuur beoefenaars inzonderheid de estheten en de decadenten met Oscar Wilde als ‘chief corrupting influence’, en om nog te zwijgen van Aubrey Beardsley, de grootste decadent van het tijdperk. ‘Degeneration’ heet zijn succesboek. Zeven drukken in enkele maanden.

Vanuit deze praktijken is Oscar Wilde’s ‘portret van Dorian Gray’ (1890) beter te begrijpen waar het kunstwerk veroudert terwijl de kunstenaar eeuwig jong blijft. Een zelfportret?

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Voor ‘eugenetics’ was een van de methodes om een ‘degenerate’ working class te bemeesteren ‘isolatie’, niet in een gevangenis maar in een asiel. Sommigen verloren hun vrijheid door ‘hereditary influence’, andere door de zogenoemde ‘sexual transgression’.
De ‘ondeugd’ van masturbatie werd gezien als het ondermijnen van de vitaliteit van de natie. En het idee van ‘sexual transgressie’ drong in het Victoriaanse bewustzijn nooit meer door dan toen in 1895 Oscar Wilde schuldig werd bevonden ‘of gross indecency’ en tot twee jaar dwangarbeid werd veroordeeld.

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2. Leven en werk

Zijn vader erfde een flinke som van zijn grootvader, maar beheerde zijn inkomen slecht.
Zijn moeder, pianiste en schilder van silhouettes, kwam uit een gegoede familie en ervaarde haar huwelijk als een mesalliance, een huwelijk beneden haar stand.
In 1872 werd hij geboren, zijn zusje Mabel ieen jaartje vroeger.
Uitgebreide gegevens zijn op het net rijkelijk aanwezig.
Een mooie samenvatting van zijn jonge jaren:

Little Aubrey’s talents showed quickly and equally quickly were they put to use to make the living for his family. Together with his sister Mabel, he performed piano concerts. At school he enjoyed literature and drawing: he drew caricatures of his teachers, aged 14 he published in school magazine his first poem (called The Valiant) as well as a series of sketches titled The Jubilee Cricket Analysis. However, he often didn’t attend school as he suffered from tuberculosis from the age of 7 and needed to stay in bed to rest, as depicted in this self-portrait, accompanied by a note in French “By the gods not all monsters are in Africa.” (Very dark humour, don’t you think? A thing typical of Aubrey, as you will see.)
(Magda Michalska Daily Art magazine)

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Financiële problemen dwingen het gezin de kinderen bij een grootoom onder te brengen. Ze maken lange wandelingen en ontdekken er een kerk met prachtige Pre-Raphaelitische glasramen (Dante Gabriël Rosetti)
Ook bellen ze aan bij de bekende Edward Burne-Jones die in Fulham zijn studio heeft.
“His kindness was wonderful as we were perfect strangers, he not even knowing our names.”
Hij bekijkt het werk van de jonge kunstenaar:
“There is no doubt about your gift, one day you will most assuredly paint very great and beautiful pictures…All [these drawings] are full of thought, poetry and imagination. Nature has given you every gift which is necessary to become a great artist. I seldom or never advise anyone to take up art as a profession, but in your case I can do nothing else.”
Burne Jones wordt zijn mentor en introduceert hem bij renaissance-kunstenaars als Sandro Botticelli en Andrea Mantegna.
En er komen de opdrachten. Te beginnen met Le morte d’Arthur.

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Overall, it is calculated that Aubrey drew about 362 designs for Le Morte d’Arthur, some of them now considered among his best work. When Aubrey first began working on the illustrations, he tended to create figures reminiscent of Burne-Jones’s artwork, however as time went on, his interest in Japanese woodblock prints began to show through. This combination of influences created an interesting amalgamation of Medievalism and Japonisme, as can be seen in How Sir Tristram drank of the Love Drink (1893). (Corryn Kosik 2018)

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He realized that the nascent poster genre offered a new potential outlet for artists and inspired by the modern developments of theatre, he wrote an essay The Art of the Hoarding (1894) that the advertisements should be beautiful since they seem unavoidable in modern life: “London… resplendent with advertisements, and, against a leaden sky, sky-signs will trace their formal arabesque. Beauty has laid siege to the city, and telegraph wires shall no longer be the sole joy of our aesthetic perceptions.”
(Magda Michalska Daily art Magazine)

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The “Beardsley Boom” of April 1893 began when Aubrey was featured in the keynote article of The Studio, an art publication in London, titled “A New Illustrator: Aubrey Beardsley.” Within this article was also a drawing from “The Climax” of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé entitled J’ai baisé ta bouche, Iokanaan. When planning their English translation of the play from its original French, Wilde and his publisher, John Lane, already thought of Aubrey for the job because “he had grasped the essential nature of what was required.” (ibidem)

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En ‘The yellow Book, een viermaandelijks art-magazine (1894)
Beardsley became the art editor of the quarterly and managed to persuade William Rothenstein, Charles Conder, John Singer Sargent, Philip Wilson Steer, Frederic Leighton and Walter Sickert to contribute material for the journal. Harland also commissioned H. G. Wells, William Butler Yeats, Arnold Bennett, Max Beerbohm, George Gissing, Henry James, Edmund Gosse and Arthur Symons for the new venture. (John Simkin)

When The Yellow Book was first published, in April 1894, the Times referred to the ‘repulsiveness and insolence’ of the first cover and went on to describe it as ‘a combination of English rowdyism and French lubricity’ (quoted in Slessor, p.53).

Bij Wilde’s proces echter wordt de beschuldigde vaak ‘in het bezit van een geel boek’ vernoemd dat verkeerdelijk als een nummer van The Yellow Book wordt aanzien. Door de publieke ophef moet Beardsley zijn geliefde ‘Yellow Book’ verlaten.

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Alan Crawford has pointed out: “By the spring of 1892 he had begun to draw in the linear style which would make him famous, though nothing was published at this stage. He would sketch a design in pencil and then work over it in black ink, producing images of the strongest contrast: black, white, and no greys. He seems to have grasped the potential of the new process blocks, which were replacing wood-engravings at this time as a medium for reproducing images alongside letterpress. Process blocks were made, not of wood, but of metal, on to which the image was transferred photographically. Being stronger than woodblocks, they could sustain finer lines without breaking down in the printing press. The thin, isolated black lines which sweep so voluptuously across the white in some of Beardsley’s most famous drawings are a tribute to the process block, which no other illustrator of the 1890s exploited quite so tellingly.” (Simkin)

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That, classically, is the purport of lyrical art. Aubrey Beardsley was above all a lyrical artist — but one who was pounded and buckled into an ironist by the pressure of knowing, which he did virtually from the outset, that for him death would be not later but sooner. (Brigid Brophy)

Beardsley is lyrical by virtue of his gift of line, which resembles the gift of melodic invention. Sheerly, Beardsley’s lines, like great tunes, go up and down in beautiful places… A Beardsley sequence is like a sonnet sequence. Yet it is never the literary content of an image that concerns him. His portraits, including those of himself, are less portraits than icons. He is drawing not persons but personages; he is dramatizing not the relationships between personalities but the pure, geometric essence of relationship. He is out to capture sheer tension: tension contained within, and summed up by, his always ambivalent images. (Simkin)

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Instead, Beardsley approached his art as an act of complementary interpretation rather than literal visual translation — his drawings are in intimate dialogue with Wilde’s text, often talking back with their own subversive symbolism. Wilde himself likened Beardsley’s drawings to “the naughty scribbles a precocious boy makes on the margins of his copybook,” which he meant as admiring praise rather than belittlement. (idem)

It is the characteristic of precocious children that, in childhood, they are astonishing because they resemble adults. In adulthood, they are often — like Mozart and Beardsley — astonishing because they resemble children. (idem)

Wilde’s biographer, Richard Ellmann has argued: “The young man (Beardsley) was strange, cruel, disobedient. He was making his way from a Japanese style towards and eighteenth English one. Wilde had expected a Byzantine style like Gustave Moreau’s. Instead Beardsley combined jocular impressions of Wilde’s face, as in the moon or in the face of Herod, with sinister, sensual overtones.” Wilde described the drawings as “quite wonderful”. However, he could not resist making a joke about his influences: “Aubrey is almost too Parisian, he cannot forget that he has been to Dieppe – once.”

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“People hate to see their darting vices depicted but vice is terrible and it should be depicted.”
All humanity inspires me. Every passer-by is my unconscious sitter; and as strange as it may seem, I really draw folk as I see them. Surely it is not my fault that they fall into certain lines and angles.

I see everything in a grotesque way. When I go to the theatre, for example, things shape themselves before my eyes just as a 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.
(From an interview given in 1894, as quoted in Aubrey Beardsley : A Biography (1999) by Matthew Sturgis, p. 220)

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In December 1896, Beardsley suffered a violent hemorrhage while walking with his mother at Boscombe. Afterwards, he moved to the nearby town of Bournemouth to dwell in the mild climate. On March 31, 1897 Beardsley chose to be received by the Catholic Church before his death, and as repentance for what he felt were his sins, he wrote to Leonard Smithers imploring him to destroy all copies of Lysistrata in addition to any other obscene drawings. Smithers ignored Beardsley’s request.

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During the last year of his life, Aubrey Beardsley moved to the French Riviera where he died on March 16, 1898.

“There were great possibilities in the cavern of his soul, and there is something macabre and tragic in the fact that one who added another terror to life should have died at the age of a flower.” (Oscar Wilde)

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https://www.theartstory.org/artist/beardsley-aubrey/

https://archive.org/details/underhillotheres00bearrich

Tate Britain: 4 March-25 May 2020: The largest exhibition of his drawings for 50 years.

Aubrey Beardsley shocked and delighted late-Victorian London with his sinuous black and white drawings. He explored the erotic and the elegant, the humorous and grotesque, winning admirers around the world with his distinctive style.

Spanning seven years, this exhibition will cover Beardsley’s intense and prolific career as a draughtsman and illustrator, cut short by his untimely death from tuberculosis, aged 25. Beardsley’s charismatic, enigmatic persona played a part in the phenomenon that he and his art generated, so much so that Max Beerbohm dubbed the 1890s the ‘Beardsley Period’.

This will be the first exhibition dedicated to Beardsley at Tate since 1923, and the largest display of his original drawings in Europe since the seminal 1966 exhibition at the V&A, which triggered a Beardsley revival.

The over 200 works include his celebrated illustrations for Le Morte d’Arthur, Lysistrata and Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. It will also show artworks that were key inspirations for Beardsley, including Japanese scrolls and watercolours by Edward Burne-Jones and Gustave Moreau.

https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/aubrey-beardsley

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