Aubrey Beardsley, 150 Years Young
On ViewThe Grolier Club
Aubrey Beardsley, 150 Years Young
September 8–November 12, 2022
Aubrey Beardsley was elegant, savagely funny, irreverent, and naughty. As a child, I climbed a ladder to reach the forbidden top shelf of my parents’ library where “the dirty books” were secured. Beardsley’s Lysistrata and Balzac’s Droll Stories were the forbidden fruits. My young eyes were riveted on Balzac’s violated nuns and Beardsley’s giant penises. Seeing The Lysistrata of Aristophanes: Now First Wholly Translated into English and Illustrated with Eight Full-page Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley (1896) at The Grolier Club brought on a wave of nostalgia. There in a vitrine was Beardsley’s drawing of a Greek matron in a ruffled peplos standing next to a shoulder-high, column-sized phallus that had remained etched in my memory for seven decades. It was like visiting an old friend. Beardsley, and his sometime friend and collaborator Oscar Wilde, had captured my childhood imagination because both men ran the gamut from the salacious satire to the fairy tale. Reconnecting with these poets of the nineties, and devil-may-care decadents at The Grolier Club provided relief from our current humorless, puritanical correctness. Beardsley’s collaborators and contemporaries like Wilde and Max Beerbohm, with their Rabelaisian send-ups, felt like an antidote and a tonic in our current age of authoritarian restraint. They were participants in a joyful phallophoria and being offensive could be good fun.
The exhibition title, Aubrey Beardsley, 150 Years Young, refers to Beardsley’s (1872–1898) birth 150 years ago, and the freshness of his work today. He was a consumptive who died at the tragically early age of twenty-five, and here we see the scope of his early genius. Unlike Beerbohm and Wilde, who were educated at Oxford and Trinity College Dublin, respectively, he was the product of a local red-brick education and the middle class. His adolescent preciousness is on display in perhaps the exhibition’s most hilarious drawing from his Brighton Grammar School days (1886, as a fourteen-year-old): Venus Appeareth to Aeneas, in Nineteen Early Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley: From the Collection of Mr. Harold Hartley (1919). Beardsley has drawn Venus as a giantess (a caricature of an overbearing Victorian woman) with Aeneas cowering below as a tiny homunculus. The bossy matron archetype has become taboo in our age of undifferentiated female empowerment, a sacred cow not to be tipped. I miss Peter Arno with his pearl-dripping matrons built like dreadnoughts and James Thurber’s self-righteous club women as Wagnerian battle-axes in horned helmets. In my dreams, I imagine Beerbohm, Beardsley, and Wilde invading the sacrosanct precinct of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974–79) and creating priapic versions of her vagina dinner plates.
A young genius and velvet-clad dandy, Beardsley was also a revolutionary. He used black and white in prints and drawings in a way which made them suitable to the photomechanical reproduction he championed, and desirable for mass marketing. His elegant book bindings turned books into affordable art objects for the populace. A wonderful selection of his book bindings is on display at The Grolier, the most spectacular being an edition of Volpone (1606) by Ben Jonson (1572–1637), produced near the end of Beardsley’s life. The Volpone cover is the height of elegance, decorated with leaves recalling his earlier, more minimal, Japanese-influenced aesthetic.
His posters often upstaged the plays they advertised, like his Poster for the Avenue Theatre [London: Avenue Theatre] (1894) made for Florence Farr, a “new woman,” friend, writer, and producer. Beardsley also made a very risqué drawing for Farr’s novel, The Dancing Faun (1894). The head of the faun was a caricature of James McNeill Whistler’s visage, holding its leg as though encircling a huge hairy penis. I kept thinking of Vaslav Nijinsky’s gesture in Afternoon of a Faun (1912), which totally disrupted the Paris Opera House. Beardsley was the antecessor provocateur with this faun and his fantasy of Venus masterbaiting her unicorn!
Beardsley, along with the American Henry Harland (1861–1905), founded a literary journal, The Yellow Book in 1894; there, art would not be simply illustration but stand independently. Harland was the journal’s literary editor, and Beardsley was the art editor. The posters for The Yellow Book, along with the journal’s history, is one of the most interesting sections of the exhibition. At The Grolier, we encounter his feminine counterpart Ada Leverson, who did her own sendup titled “From the Queer and Yellow Book I–1894 (By Max Mereboom),” Oscar Wilde’s trial set off a wave of queer house-cleaning, and Beardsley was fired after Wilde’s 1895 prosecution for “gross indecency,” even though Beardsley was not part of Wilde’s gay mafia. The exhibition contains works from the next, even more sexually provocative period of Beardsley’s career. Stranded, he began working for Leonard Smithers (1861–1907), a publisher of pornography, including Smithers’s Catalogue of Rare Books, and The Savoy: An Illustrated Quarterly. Here, Beardsley would find he didn’t have to add sexual inuendo when illustrating A Full and True Account of the Wonderful Mission of Earl Lavender (1895), by John Davidson (1857–1909). Davidson, with his scenes of flagellation in “The Whipping Room” by “the Lady of the Veil”—in a place called “The Underworld”—are out of the Marquis de Sade with sadomasochistic possibilities galore. The Yellow Book would publish The Toilet of Salome, in A Portfolio of Aubrey Beardsley’s Drawings Illustrating “Salome” by Oscar Wilde (1906), eleven years after firing Beardsley. Both men experienced a revival after death—Beardsley died in 1898 and Wilde in 1900—and Salome proved to be a masterwork.
The exhibition contains drawings, letters, books, and an impressive collection of Beardsley material by a long-time Grolier Club member, Mark Samuels Lasner, and his partner, Margaret D. Stetz, the Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women’s Studies and Professor of Humanities at the University of Delaware. Their scholarship and connoisseurship are remarkable. Here we are given a window into a world where art, poets, scholars, and a readership came together on the highest level. As we witness a dismissal of European Culture, and a frightening decline in academia, The Grolier Club with its holdings feels like a refuge. In my former Yale graduate art history class of forty-eight students, only three had read Euripides. These poets and artists of the nineties mined the classics and brought Aristophanes to life! My visit to The Grolier Club to see this remarkable exhibition felt like a pilgrimage, and a meditation on what we are now missing.