The Daily Heller: Aubrey Beardsley and the Extra-Fine Erotic Line

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Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898) is one of the cornerstone artists of late–19-century Europe and mid–20th-century youth culture; he is the British illustrator whose sinuous linear eroticism helped define the Art Nouveau and Decadent movements, and later inspired the mid-’60s salacious side of psychedelic art. This year marks Beardsley’s 150th birthday—and to look at the work, it feels like here and now.

To celebrate this milestone anniversary, the Grolier Club‘s exhibition Aubrey Beardsley, 150 Years Young, currently on view through Nov. 12, is devoted to Beardsley’s weighty influence on the realms of book and magazine illustration, graphic arts and poster design, as well as depictions of gender, sexuality and genitalia. (See the entire annotated catalog here.)

Beardsley was more nonconformist than deviant, and he was a popular media figure. As the Grolier website/catalog notes, he was “a modern innovator in form and design, as well as a cultural radical and provocateur. Beardsley’s approach could be summed up as playfulness, even outrageousness, with a purpose.”

John Davidson’s A Full and True Account of the Wonderful Mission of Earl Lavender … with a Frontispiece by Aubrey Beardsley. London: Ward and Downey, 1895

Beardsley tested the tolerance and mores of his times: “On April 20, 1894, an anonymous critic for the conservative Times of London newspaper stated, ‘If the New Art is represented by [Beardsley’s work] … it may be intended to attract by its very repulsiveness and insolence … [as] a combination of English rowdyism with French lubricity.'”

Meanwhile, “Today, we would call it breathtakingly modern and fearless,” assert co-curators Mark Samuels Lasner (Senior Research Fellow, University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press, and Grolier Club member) and Margaret D. Stetz (Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women’s Studies and Professor of Humanities, University of Delaware).

Beardsley’s work often challenged social conventions, as in his 1894 advertising poster in bold blue and green for the Avenue Theatre, depicting an improperly dressed woman, which caused controversy when it was displayed all over London. Also in 1894, Beardsley illustrated Oscar Wilde’s Salome: A Tragedy in One Act, and his frontispiece for it caricatured Wilde in The Woman in the Moon.

Beardsley served as art editor for the avant-garde publication Yellow Book, and an 1894 copy of Vol. 1 on view has a cover design that shocked the public and offended other reviewers. Later, his unused 1895 proof for the cover of the first number of Savoy, another illustrated magazine, cheekily shows a child urinating on a copy of Yellow Book.

Also on view is an illustrated edition of The Lysistrata of Aristophanes: Now First Wholly Translated into English and Illustrated With Eight Full-Page Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley (1896), which contains some of the artist’s most erotic and satirical drawings. Privately printed in an edition of 100 copies, this volume includes an autographed letter from Beardsley to the book’s publisher, Leonard Smithers, regarding the illustrations. The Slippers of Cinderella (1894), an original ink and watercolor drawing on view, was intended for a more tragic version of the later-tamed Disney fairy tale, in which the glass slippers would be ground up and surreptitiously fed to Cinderella, killing her. In the colorful image, the doomed heroine’s hand subtly suggests genitalia.

The Yellow Book: An Illustrated Quarterly. Vol. I, April 1894. London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1894. Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press

Beardsley’s drawings were reproduced during the ’60s in various copyright-free volumes and gained popularity among the young generation of illustrators at that time, who made copies and homages (or simply used the originals). When the youth culture outgrew the decorative erotic aesthetics and symbolism that marked this revival period, Beardsley’s work became passe. This exhibit celebrates that past as it hints at a reawakening.

Edward Tennyson Reed. Britannia à la Beardsley. Ink and watercolor on paper, 1894. Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press
Aubrey Beardsley. Poster for the Keynotes Series. London: John Lane, 1895. Color lithograph. Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press