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Decadence, eroticism and indecent beauty: Aubrey Beardsley at Tate Britain

Megan Stevenson reviews Tate Britain’s virtual tour of their Aubrey Beardsley exhibition

Aubrey Beardsley was an intensely talented, risqué artist who stunned his late-Victorian audience. Loved by many for his depiction of the underside of London life, Beardsley was not afraid to draw what went unspoken with unparalleled detail and humour. He died of tuberculosis at just 25, but despite his short career, his work created such a powerful impact that the 1890s became known as the ‘Beardsley Period’.

The Tate Britain’s current exhibition of Beardsley’s work spans his 7-year career with over 200 pieces. It is currently available to explore on the Tate’s website, although it is more of a taster of what the exhibition has to offer than a substitute for a real visit. It left my appetite whetted for a possible visit in the future, in the hopes that the exhibition length will be extended in light of its current closure.

Starting with the ‘Beginnings’ section, the exhibition outlines Beardsley’s meeting with Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones and the encouragement he received from the famed artist. We are also told about Beardsley’s interest in sexual freedom and gender fluidity, themes which recur throughout his career, repeatedly shocking viewers.

As the exhibition progresses, we trace Beardsley’s rise, fall, and rise again, in and out of public favour. The images Beardsley produced are refreshing in their stark black and white lines, which have a simplicity of form that also allows him to create complex compositions; many have hidden features and humorous repeating motifs (the angry foetus being my personal favourite, see Enter Herodias and Incipit Vita Nova). The popularity of his style gave Beardsley the opportunity to illustrate famous works such as Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, and the controversial The Yellow Book, an avant-garde magazine first released in 1894. The association with Wilde, however, would prove to drag Beardsley down following his propulsion skyward. In 1895 when Wilde was prosecuted for “gross indecency”, Beardsley’s close association with the writer in the public’s mind’s eye was near fatal for his career. The exhibition goes on to document Beardsley’s attempt to rise again. The drawings he produces in this time are beautiful, perhaps out of a desire to prove oneself and redeem the fame that seemed lost.

But what is Beardsley most famous for today? Surely it is his eroticism. As I said earlier, this exhibition is clear to highlight his attitudes towards sex and gender for viewers right at the beginning, before Beardsley’s work has even been encountered.

Some of Beardsley’s pieces reference sexuality in subtle ways. Black Coffee, which shows two women sitting beside each other in a café. One woman’s hand reaches under the table towards the lap of her companion, who has brought both of her own hands beneath the table too. The surreptitious sideways glances and the hair pins denoting devil-horns suggest there might be more beneath the surface of this relationship (and beneath the table) than meets the eye.

Other pieces are more explicit. The Impatient Adulterer, for example, shows a man naked from the waist down, holding his penis and peeking between curtains at something we cannot see. A lot of Beardsley’s starkly explicit pieces were not advertised, instead being made available only to a small group of collectors. The “indecency” made the images unpublishable. The Impatient Adulterer did not even make it into Beardsley’s first retrospective show, held at the V&A in 1966. It was deemed too explicit. The world was still not ready for the drawing 70 years after it was created.

Interestingly, this exhibition in 2020 has separated the illustrations deemed most explicit, showcasing them in a separate room. Although on display, their erotic nature makes them distinct from Beardsley’s other works, this perception being emphasised by their physical separation within the exhibition space. Perhaps the world is still not quite ready for Beardsley in all his inky glory.

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