Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Aubrey Beardsley

Art Deco meets Art Nouveau... but with a grotesque twist. His name was Aubrey Beardsley, a young and talented English illustrator who despite his great potential, passed away from tuberculosis at the tender age of 25.

His drawings combine the organic and often risqué elegance of Art Nouveaux, with the exotic allure of Japanese woodcuts made popular in Britain in the late Victorian period.

Beardsley executed his drawings in ink by juxtaposing areas of intense detail or black space with pure white space, creating a stark, graphic style decades ahead of his time.

*Sigh* I swoon over the general grace of his work; the delicate balance of line and space and the marvelous intricacy of detail. How could someone so young be so refined in his aesthetics? What a pity he passed away before his time; imagine what he might have created in a few years?

Born August 21st, 1872 in Brighton, England, the young Aubrey exercised his verging talents by performing in several concerts as a promising musician. Later in grade school, he wrote and performed his own play, and soon his first drawings and cartoons were being published in the school paper. Later he attended the Westminster School of Art, and after being persuaded by two great artists of his time, the already ill-prone 19 year old Beardsley took up art as a profession.

Beardsley, along with Oscar Wilde and many other late 19th Century artists and writers, was a member of the Aestheticism Movement; a progressive group that rejected the repressive constraints of Victorian society. They celebrated art as an expression of beauty rather than morality, and created art for art’s sake.

Beardsley’s drawing style in particular gravitated toward the Decadent Movement's themes of eroticism in order to shock and satirize a rigid, hypocritical society. In a way, the Decadent and Aestheticism movements were seen as a transitory period between the idealistic Romantic Period and the cynical Modernist Movement.

Beardsley noted that as an artist he had only one aim--the grotesque. "If I am not grotesque I am nothing", he wrote. For all his "grotesquery" he still drew many stunningly beautiful pieces not grotesque in the least bit, which is good I suppose since I'm not a particular fan of his “obscene” work; a tad lurid and distracting for my taste, but I understand his aim. Mostly, I adore his intricate period pieces.

Like the Pre-Raphaelites, the Decadent Art Movement found inspiration in the same tragic and controversial characters: Oedipus, Orpheus, Ophelia, Isolde, and the ever intriguing, Salome.

In 1895 Beardsley abandoned the decadent style he had used in favor of a style reminiscent of old engravings. He borrowed an 1893 copy of Memoir of Edward Calvert from his friend, and the luxurious vegetation of Calvert's prints influenced Beardsley's drawing of decorative foliage.

Nearing the latter part of his life--either due to pressure from his tainted reputation, or out of a genuine concern for his appending death--Beardsley converted to Catholicism and subsequently begged his publisher to “destroy all copies of Lysistrata and... all bad and obscene drawings." His wishes were ignored and Smithers actually continued to sell reproductions as well as forgeries of his work.

Whatever Audrey Beardsley felt his legacy would become, I personally feel like I have found a sort of transcendence in the nature of his drawings; as if a formulaic balance of line and symmetry, black and white, can equal an unquestionable--yet intangible--truth. I'm grateful he was so productive in the short time he was given, and that now each of us may partake in a glimpse of his elaborate visions.


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