Aubrey Beardsley – Tate Britain

4th October 2020

“I AM NOTHING IF NOT GROTESQUE,” Aubrey Beardsley

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 at the age of 25. Beardsley’s charismatic persona played a part in the phenomenon that he and his art generated, so much so that the 1890s were dubbed 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’ArthurLysistrata and Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. It will also show artworks that were key inspirations for Beardsley, including a Japanese scroll and watercolours by Edward Burne-Jones and Gustave Moreau.

Tate Britain tate.org.uk

Introduction

It was my friend Selene who suggested we went to view the Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at The Tate Britain. Not having heard of the artist and not knowing the work I was intrigued to seek out the unknown. Having said this was one of her favourite artists and that she loved the work I knew I was in for a treat, as everything that Selene is enthusiastic over I have found myself interested in as well.

This exhibition was constructed of fifteen sections in eight rooms which were,

  1. Beginnings
  2. Le Morte Darthur
  3. ‘Something Suggestive of Japan’
  4. ‘A New Illustrator’
  5. Salome
  6. Posters
  7. Beardsley’s Circle
  8. The Yellow Book
  9. The Savoy
  10. The Rape of the Lock
  11. Mademoiselle De Maupin
  12. ‘Curiosa’
  13. Epilogue
  14. After Beardsley – The Early Years
  15. After Beardsley – The Sixties
Selene looking the work behind the curtain of a portrait of Aubrey Beardsley by Gerald Scarfe, 1967

8th October 2020

It was quite hard to navigate the first room safely, in fact it was a complete shambles of a nightmare, None of the Government Covid guidelines were adhered to. We literally stood shoulder to shoulder with people all cramped together and in some instances two or three rows of people crowding around to see the work. This in fact did cause me to panic as some people had even removed their masks once they were in the exhibition and no one pulled them up on it.

The exhibition displayed over 200 of Beardsley’s works which were completed in such a short span of seven years. Work that was detailed and original in form. The one thing that I found quite exciting and dramatic was how most of his work was drawn in black ink which is one of my favourite mediums to work in and Beardsley really had mastered the technique.

Due to the fact that much of the work was in black ink Tate Britain had painted the walls in bright colours which emphasised the work and pushed it forwards towards the viewer.

Salom, Beardsley

This is the first exhibition that the Tate have had of Aubrey Beardsley’s work since 1923 and they had organised his works in chronological order. I found that showing the work chronologically we were able to see how his styles evolved over such a short time and this helped to see how the influences within the Victorian era of the time helped to shape his progress.

The first room, aptly named ‘Beginnings’ showed Beardsley’s early works, with his 1892 self-portrait functioning as an introduction to the artist. Not only did it show some very detailed illustrations and graphic work but also other works of art that had influenced and inspired Beardsley such as Burne-Jones’s designs for his series, ‘Persues’.

I am not sure if it was because I was admiring Beardsley’s line work and composition but when it came to spotting the hidden sexual imagery I was quite poor at noticing it. Instead I was intrigued at his use of line which I had previously read about where Beardsley’s theory was to use the same value of line throughout the work rather than using thin lines to express backgrounds and thick lines for the foregrounds. Therefore I was obviously looking at the work from a different perspective than those who had come to see the content and context rather than the composition and construction techniques.

For me his illustrations contained so much information and the sheer yin and yang of the darkness of the ink against the lightness of the negative spaces just grabbed my attention. I found them very powerful and coupled with such bold and dramatic story lines with characters such as Hamlet, Queen Guenever and King Arthur I was trapped in my imagination. They are so stimulating to me.

Withered Spring 1891 graphite, ink and gouache on paper

When I arrived at the fourth room ‘A New Illustrator’, I was somewhat grossed out. I felt very uncomfortable viewing the caricatures he had drawn. It wasn’t even those that were erotic in content and appeared with genitalier and breasts openingly shown in images that would have the Victorians run to cover their eyes. It was in however the grotesque and misshapen forms of jesters, foetus’s and satirical images that just seemed to be perversions of the devil that made me squimish.

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.

Tate tate.org.uk
The Kiss of Judas 1893 ink on paper

Having predominantly studied graphic design at art college I was ever so happy to walk into Room 6, the Poster room. Already having seen some exquisites graphic designs in the earlier work these posters were unique in the fact that this work contained colour. Beardsley was influenced by the work of Toulouse-Lautrec and Japanese prints which he discovered on a trip to Paris in 1892.

The French posters showed the possibilities of this new mass-produced outdoor format and the potential of large-scale colour reproduction. Beardsley was quick to embrace this. Understanding that posters would be viewed in passing, often at a distance, his designs experimented with bold, simplified forms and solid blocks of colour. For Beardsley, advertising was central to modern life and an opportunity to integrate art into everyday experience. As he put it, ‘Beauty has laid siege to the city’.

Tate tate.org.uk
From Aubrey Beardsley Exhibition Book Tate Britain, Tate Enterprises Ltd, London 2020

The last room was also one of my favourites as it shows works by artists in the early 1900’s and in the Art Nouveau revival of the 1960’s who have been influenced by Beardsley. I particularly liked this room which was named ‘After Beardsley’ because it had various styles of work from movie posters, album covers and even a screen called ‘Le Morte Darthur screen’ which can be seen below.

Beardsley’s drawing style played a major part in the popular Art Nouveau revival. It found its way into posters and record-sleeves and psychedelic underground magazines such as Oz. It even influenced more mainstream advertising, commercial design and interior decoration. Beardsley’s images seemed to be everywhere.

Tate Britain Exhibition Guide

For more information the Tate Britain Aubrey Beardsley exhibition guide can be found here.


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