If ever there was a poster child for 19th century decadence, dandyism, and degeneracy – it was Aubrey Beardsley (1872 – 1898). Some revered him and many reviled him, but mostly all who had come in contact with his work felt compelled to react. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why he was one of the most singularly unique specimens to have emerged from fin de siècle England. An artist who rarely made concessions and delighted in what so many others were offended by, he was an aberration whose mere existence (let alone carnal illustrations) felt like a provocation and even, an affront. Unsure of how to categorize the man with spindly fingers, elephantine ears and hook nose, many labeled him – and so many other freewheeling writers and artists – as "deviant."
Back then it was a term that was bandied about as though there was a steadfast and unchanging status quo to deviate from to begin with. This, of course, has proven time and time again to be totally apocryphal as the only state that’s constant is change. Furthermore, aren’t we all deviants of a kind? In fact, didn’t the likes of Alfred Kinsey and Masters and Johnson later show us how we all deviate from this fabled norm? In many ways, it’s a term that signifies such a vast field of grey that it signifies nothing at all. Words like "deviance" were used to shame and strip agency from those who went against the grain of puritanical and Victorian creed. And, sadly, today these terms are still wielded in such a way in order to shun those who belong to the same pool and exercise a similarly unorthodox approach as Beardsley.
With quotes such as “If I am not grotesque, I am nothing,” ascribed to him, it’s no wonder that he was an absolute anathema to the prudent moralists of the late 19th century. Art critic Harry Quilter (1851– 1907) even went so far as to say that of all the art to have emerged from modern Decadence, “there is not one of them which is more perverted in what it says and suggests than these grotesques, in which types of manhood and womanhood are, as it were, mingled together, and result in a monstrous sexless amalgam, miserable, morbid, dreary and unnatural.” While such descriptors were intended to serve as a deterrent, they created intrigue around the Brighton-born artist. But why do we find such words so titillating? And why do images of massive phalluses, flatulent figures, and “grotesquely” shaped bodies provoke us? Perhaps, it has nothing to do with eroticism and everything to do with egalitarianism. Beardsley’s oeuvre, in fact, reeks of humanity.
The flourish of Beardsley’s line is far more than an aestheticization of deviance, for the entirety of his import as artist cannot simply be reduced and flattened to a frivolous and decorative black line. “Wickedness,” said Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900), “is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others,” and it is precisely this observation that is bound in Beardsley’s illustrations, forcing them to leap off the page and rest on the shoulders of their viewers as though they're impish demons of the subconscious. Many, admittedly, enjoy the searing discomfort and discontent that it elicits from those who are so offended by the material that they choose to not only denigrate but also demonize the man (whose own lewd sexual predilections are debatable at best) responsible for its existence. In many ways, Beardsley’s work almost assumed the role of the Rorschach test, prompting analyses concerning both its creator and its myriad viewers.
Journal Brush and Pencil voiced a commonly held opinion concerning Beardsley’s art at the time, which was that it was “distinctly unhealthy,” but why did it rouse such anger? Why was he regarded as some kind of malignant tumor against which society was flustering to create antibodies? Perhaps, by utilizing a style reminiscent of high-art in order to depict such perversions, he was threatening the hierarchy of the then (and sometimes still) archaic art world and establishing himself as one of the subversive few whose mere presence in society would bring about the collapse of a distinctly Victorian social stratum. Or, perhaps the priggish sort felt slighted by the satirical quality of the work. But, even more maddening could have been how sex, once sanctified and shrouded, was then being exposed and democratized. Alas, the grotesque had entered the upper echelons and did as they did. The times, it seemed, were wildly changing.
Beardsley’s immersion in such a subculture of hedonists and general eccentrics facilitated what would be an awfully brief but brilliant career in which he illustrated Oscar Wilde’s Salome, served as The Yellow Book’s Art Editor (until he was sacked by John Lane for his anti-moralistic nature), and contributed to Leonard Smithers’ privately printed edition of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata ( 411 BCE) amongst a variety of other commissions, all of which seem to be unclassifiable. It was likely this dubiousness and mystery, which emanated from both his person and his work, that left many feeling troubled. People, after all, love to label – and anything that fiercely defies categorization is an inherent risk to the illusory status quo.
Take, for instance, Beardsley’s design for The Yellow Book’s first cover, which depicts masked carnival-goers sporting sinister smiles and lustful gazes. The whole scene smells of abandon and depravity, triggering broadsheets like the Times to refer to the general air of “repulsiveness and insolence,” but it was hardly Lysistrata-bawdy. With Beardsley, it seemed, even the slightest intimation of vice left critics writhing in their seats. Hugh E. M. Stutfield in his article "Tommyrotics" aptly summarized the general air of disquietude at the time referring to the societal invasion as a “moral cancer” which had “roots deep down in morbid hysteria.” “That such morbidity,” he continues “is directly fed and fostered by the 'new' art and the ‘new’ literature – themselves symptoms of the disease – is a (to me) self-evident proposition.” It can be safely assumed that this “new” art included Beardsley’s drawings in which men examine one another’s genitalia (The Examination of the Herald), women emit gas from their anuses (Lysistrata Defending the Acropolis), and vulgar, winged figures dust the buttocks of women with powder-puffs, to name a few.
If anyone were to go back into the annals of art history, it would be made clear that Aubrey Beardsley was not simply a product of his own times, but a product of the past. In his constant communication with Greek-vase painters, Renaissance drawings and medieval woodblocks, he was able to in fact look forward; he was able to firmly situate himself in the new milieu where sexuality was becoming increasingly ambiguous, but at a cost. And it is a cost that many still incur to this day – something deviants, queers, and misfits have to fight for. “Just fancy a nation of Beardsleys!” wrote Quilter scornfully in his article “The Gospel of Intensity,” to which we say, we do and what a glorious nation it would be.