Artist in Focus - Aubrey Beardsley 150
This week marks the 150th anniversary of Aubrey Beardsley's birth, an English illustrator know for his controversial and often morbidly erotic art that both shocked and delighted his audience.
The split response to his work is a result of the divided Victorian attitude to the licentious and pornographic which was a simultaneously prudish or lewd society often dependent on class. However, his work has been controversially erotic even long after his death such as when an exhibit of his prints at the Victoria and Albert museum in 1966 was raided by the police and the owner charged under obscenity laws. Beardsley was often plagued by bouts of illness, having contracted tuberculosis at age 7, and his career, and life itself, was rich but tragically brief, reaching artistic success at the young age of 20 and dying at the age of 25.
After travelling to Paris in 1892 he was introduced to the poster art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Japonisme trend popular at the time and these influences on his work are overt. His drawings using heavy black ink are clearly inspired by the ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock printing immensely popular at the time and, consequently, made his bold art which featured largely dark and largely blank areas were easy to reproduce and widely circulated making his work very influential. His balance of the decorative qualities of the Aesthetic movement with the dark and macabre hedonistic humour of the Decadent movement meant that he was often the perfect choice for illustrating the works of his literary peers. These included commissions for works by Malory, Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’ and, perhaps most significantly, Oscar Wilde’s Salome, many of which are included in this collection.
In his illustrations, Beardsley managed to both depict the events in the literature and critique Victorian values, including the notion of the dominant and promiscuous ‘New Woman’. He skilfully portrayed the shockingly salacious and grotesquely gruesome with stylish elegance and often the limiting medium of black ink and blank space.