Aubrey Beardsley Stands the Test of Time
Best known for his salacious, perverse, and sometimes savage illustrations, the British artist Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898) fled to the south of France after Oscar Wilde’s 1895 arrest and died shortly thereafter from tuberculous at the age of 25. He was closely associated with Wilde’s decadent and provocative circle after illustrating the playwright’s English version of Salomé, and the trajectory of his career, illness, and other life events were covered by the press internationally.
In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Arts scoffed a few weeks after his death:
Beardsley was incapable of creating anything belonging to a higher and better art. His influence lowered taste and did not elevate it. His influence was only a passing one. Already his work is well-nigh forgotten… The grotesque and the bizarre, being the unnatural and the abnormal, never can be made to live. Common sense and blessed utilitarianism squelches it. A coming age will wonder why there was any brief interest taken in Beardsley’s work. It was a passing fad, a little sign of decadence, and nothing more.
And although artists and graphic designers appreciated Beardsley innovative design – influenced by Japanese wood block prints – and fierce wit, it wasn’t until the 1960s that his work exploded into the public eye with new appreciation for his psychedelic imagery that fit neatly with the reigning Carnaby Street aesthetic. Klaus Voormann cited Beardsley as an influence for his 1965 Beatle’s Revolver album cover, released shortly before the Victoria and Albert Museum presented an extensive and popular Beardsley exhibition in 1966. By the next year, Life magazine ran a fashion shoot based on the artist’s designs.
Beardsley’s work landed in New York at The Gallery of Modern Art the same year, and Jacqueline Barnitz reviewed the show for Arts Magazine.
During his life, his work was severely discredited as bitter satire by public opinion, though he claimed to have meant no harm, and last year’s exhibit in London [at the V & A] still attracted some adverse attention. He was a transvestite and drew himself into a few obscurely curious pictures along with fetuses and phallic symbols. There are hermaphrodites too—something for everyone. But perhaps when this kind of shock value has gone out of style, his drawings will be better appreciated for their adept and humorous subtleties.
On the 150th anniversary of Beardsley’s birth, the Grolier Club on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is exhibiting over 70 of his drawings, posters, books, photographs and other ephemera. The Grolier, established in 1884, is the oldest and largest private club devoted to books and the graphic arts in America The exhibition is free and open to the public; for those who haven’t visited the building, it’s a particularly rewarding experience. The show is small and quiet, with spellbinding objects that draw close attention, and the club itself is also serene. Borrowed from the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection at the University of Delaware Library, many of these works may no longer seem excessively transgressive to the contemporary eye, and Barnitz’s 1967 suggestion that this possibility might allow us to see the quality and humor of the work follows suit.
Aubrey Beardsley, 150 Years Young is on view at The Grolier Club (47 East 60th Street) through November 12, 2022.