Aubrey Beardsley embraced the obsession with death and decay that defined the Decadent movement, as well as the crude sexuality of Japanese shunga.
When we think about illustrated books, we usually imagine books made for children. What comes to mind is probably a pop-up book full of pictures of smiling suns and talking bunnies meant to keep small kids amused as they learn how to read. We think of colorful images that simplify the story by representing characters and situations faithfully, making it easier to understand. What we don’t necessarily picture is a series of illustrations that show large breasted women and fairies with huge genitals. That was the kind of work that made Aubrey Beardsley famous in the 1890s, earning him a dubious reputation as a figure that loved to stir controversy through his illustrations.
Beardsley was born in England in 1872. As he developed his style, he wasn’t afraid of unoriginality, so he openly showed his artistic influences in his illustrations. As great artists do, he took ideas from radically different artistic movements from around the globe and integrated them in his work. He embraced the obsession with death and decay that defined the Decadent movement, as well as the crude sexuality of Japanese shunga. By combining the styles he loved, he highlighted a typically disregarded and conventional art form like illustration.
The appealing style of Japanese woodcuts also had a strong influence on him. Combined with a lack of coyness and restraint, his work was a perfect match for literary figures that were as transgressive as he was. His fame grew as he illustrated many books and special editions in England and France, which include Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock, Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat.
From the beginning, Beardsley recognized that desire is closely related to revulsion. Some of his illustrations show the perspective of a young person discovering sexuality for the first time, being equally disgusted and curious about it. The women he depicts aren’t innocent and submissive at all. They’re tall, confident, and powerful, contrasted with the small masculine figures. Sexuality is also represented in clever ways, as Beardsley let his sense of humor run free within his drawings. Just as an inexperienced person feels curious and afraid when confronted with their impulses, Beardsley’s Victorian audience scorned him while simultaneously keeping his works on the market.
The most iconic collaboration of Beardsley’s career was with Oscar Wilde. In 1894, after looking at just one of his illustrations, Wilde wanted Beardsley to illustrate the English edition for Salomé. He did so by adding more meaning to the text through visual symbolism, using his esthetics as a different kind of narrator. The result fascinated the public and increased his fame, both in a negative and positive way. Beardsley’s insistence on mocking Victorian’s repressed attitudes towards sex, and his ambivalent way of depicting gender, intensified the public’s outrage and interest.
Sadly, Beardsley was in the middle of his successful career when tuberculosis, a disease that afflicted him from a young age, killed him at 25. Did the idea of premature death motivate him to become a prolific artist while he lived? If he knew that the consequences couldn’t hurt him more than the disease, he was free to expand society’s limits through his art. Due to that boldness, his work still influences many designers today.
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