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Aubrey Beardsley the Showman

Aubrey Beardsley, the subject of a self-titled exhibition at Tate Britain, makes an excellent subject for a one-man show. Beardsley lived fast and died young. He befriended (and on occasion offended) some of the greatest cultural personalities of his time, and he experimented with sexual imagery in a way that both shocked and titillated his contemporaries.

The curators' task should be relatively simple, since there is an abundance of works from which to choose. Beardsley was prolific, producing over 3,000 pen-and-ink drawings (and one double-sided oil painting) in the space of seven years, before his tragic early death, in 1898, at the age of twenty-five. Unlike the usual Tate staples, such as Hockney, Blake and Turner, Aubrey Beardsley has been rather neglected from the exhibition scene: the last Tate show dedicated to him was in 1923, followed by a major V&A retrospective in the 1960s. If you're a Beardsley buff, you've waited a long time to see him given this much attention.

Aubrey Beardsley's Masquerade, the cover design for The Yellow Book, volume 1 (1894)

There is a fascinating story bubbling away here, one of sexual tension, catastrophic ill-health, and the stoking of controversy. And yet Tate hasn't quite pulled it off, despite the curators' best efforts. There are no real fireworks here. The visitors are encouraged to view Beardsley through a reverential lens, and the artist's foibles are never quite brought to the fore. We discover that he ruffled feathers, and that he undoubtedly suffered (quite literally) for his art. But could there have been more focus on his personality, a better understanding of what made him tick?

Beardsley's works are relatively small in scale, and deserve detailed attention. This presents challenges of its own, especially in the cavernous galleries of Tate Britain. The sheer volume of his drawings has been addressed in this exhibiton by presenting as many of them as possible, arranged in fifteen sections plus one room showing the film of Alla Nazimova's Salomé (1923). For the casual visitor, this can be overwhelming, and I was wilting long before the finish. Quality over quantity remains my maxim, however exceptional the artist. Even Beardsley was prone to become distracted, I noted. For the J.M. Dent edition of Le Mort d'Arthur alone he made an extraordinary 353 drawings, many of which featured motifs and characters that were absent from the text.

Aubrey Beardsley, an illustration from Le Morte d'Arthur (1894)

Contextualisation is a moot point here. There was a relative absence of scene-setting in Aubrey Beardsley, in the form of artefacts and photographs of his family (if they existed) or the places in which he grew up. There was little mention of his father, and you would have been forgiven for not knowing that Vincent Beardsley outlived his son but had also inherited tuberculosis from Aubrey's grandfather. The pivotal moment in Aubrey Beardsley's own brief life was his diagnosis with tuberculosis at the age of seven.

I longed to learn more about his childhood and his subsequent relationships, but this all felt rather glossed over in the attempt to prove that he was a prodigy.

One senses that Tate has missed a real trick here. Beardsley was a true 'Pimlico man', who lived near the site of the gallery in two separate phases of his short life. The British Museum's recent Edvard Munch exhibition had more of a biographical slant, which in turn exposed (and explained) the artist's frailties and motivations. We know, for example, that Aubrey Beardsley became entangled in the public disgrace of Oscar Wilde, but how exactly was he implicated? Did he have any love interests? These questions and more seemed worthy of further exploration.

Aubrey Beardsley's Cul de Lampe, the cover for Oscar Wilde's Salome (1893–94)

The room devoted to Beardsley's erotica, entitled 'Curiosa', felt curiously unerotic. Some exceptional drawings were on display here, among them Lysistrata Shielding her Coynte (1896) and the gigantic phallus of The Examination of the Herald (1896). We learned that Beardsley was himself influenced by Japanese and ancient Greek art (a nod to this with the inclusion of a Greek urn on a pedestal in the middle of the room, which the visitors studiously ignored). We also discovered that these drawings were sold by Leonard Smithers to private clients, and that Beardsley begged on his deathbed that the works be destroyed.

Aubrey Beardsley, The Examination of the Herald (1896): image courtesy V&A

But could the curators have been bolder? I missed the detail of who had purchased these erotic drawings (mostly men, apparently), and it would have been interesting to discover the reaction when they eventually came to public attention. Did they damage Beardsley's reputation in the way that he feared? Who, exactly, was shocked? The decision to segregate them in a room of their own, with appropriate sign-posting, also seemed strange. In the room devoted to the illustrations for Oscar Wilde's Salome, the highlight of this exhibition and the high-point of Beardsley's brief career, the original, pre-censored drawings, equally offensive in some eyes, were hung in the open gallery for all to see. Has prudity won out over lewdity?

The original version of Aubrey Beardsley's The Toilette of Salome (1893): image courtesy V&A

The ending of this exhibition, regrettably, fizzled out like a damp squib. Instead of concluding with Beardsley's tragic death, which would have packed a real emotional punch, the final room was reserved to his posthumous legacy. Why wasn't Monsieur Abel's extraordinarily moving photograph of Aubrey Beardsley in the room in which he died, at the Hôtel Cosmopolitain in Menton (1897), placed in a more prominent position? Could there have been more focus on his final months? (This may have been the moment to bring in Beardsley's plea to destroy his erotic drawings.) I counted thirty-three works beyond Abel's photo, purportedly showing the artist's influence, and including such items as the album cover for Revolver by The Beatles, inferred by some to be inspired by Beardsley primarily because it is in black and white. Aubrey Beardsley's real impact felt diminished by what was, in effect, an add-on. By stopping abruptly in 1898, the visitors would have been forced to contemplate what else he could have achieved, and to leave the gallery lamenting the artist's early demise.

Monsieur Abel's photograph of Beardsley at Menton (1897): image courtesy National Portrait Gallery

There are some fine artworks on display, and the curators and Tate have done Aubrey Beardsley a wonderful service by bringing him back to public attention. But I like exhibitions to be uplifting for the soul. Beardsley's career is a real tale of courage over adversity, yet this show never quite ignited in the way I had hoped.

(A brief note of caution: if you are visiting the exhibition in this post-lockdown era, be prepared to queue for your designated time-slot. It can take a fair while to make it through the doors of the gallery.)

Aubrey Beardsley

Tate Britain

Until 20 September 2020

Julian Harrison for Cradles & Labels

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