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  • Writer's pictureValeria Pugliese

Aubrey Beardsley: Tate Britain Exhibition

Today, 16th October 2020, London is entering into Tier 2 lock-down.

Weekend is coming and I am, this is my new tormented Friday evening ritual, pondering on what I CAN NOT do during my precious time off.

The lock-down switched down the dynamism and velocity of the city I love.

Interesting venues closed their doors, October macabre events have been cancelled (or are done via Microsoft Teams, how exciting), human carnality became an unlawful crime (although, below six, you should still be alright).

My extrovert personality is suffering, deeply.

I am slowly but surely learning how writing can be a pleasant distraction and a way to be verbose while alone.

I shall go back in time and tell you about an interesting exhibition I attended one month ago, back in September.

I deserved to claim, just for one day only, the right to ignore the work e-mail inbox, escaping around the silent city and transcending the three 2020 hot topics: COVID-19 and subsequent lock-down, financial and job markets' deep crisis and me stressing about being too overworked while despising who conceals laziness with complacent political correctness.

On my A/L request, I left the note "I need to take one ME-DAY off ".

Once approved, I booked and organised my visit to the Aubrey Beardsley exhibition.

Exhibition entrance

The Aubrey Beardsley exhibition opened the doors to the public on 04th March 2020; following the pandemic outbreak, it remained closed for months and, later in summer, re-opened with a welcomed extension until 20th September 2020, before moving to the

Musée d'Orsay, in Paris, from October 2020.

This exhibition has been the first dedicated to Beardsley at Tate Britain since 1923, and the largest display of his drawings (over 200 works) in Europe since the 1966 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

About Aubrey Beardsley

Aubrey Beardsley by Frederick Hollyer, 1893

Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (21st August 1872 – 16th March 1898) was an English illustrator and author.

Towards the end of the XIX century, period where a newly dawning modern age contributed to notable social and technological changes, a collective feeling of fear began to arise, an unconscious echo of the ancient Roman civilisation which, after reaching its peak, was doomed to a crumbling decay.

Artists and authors of the period retreated into a feverish imagination, where art had not purpose apart from being art itself ("Art for art's sake"), where nature was crushed by artifice and the artist sensibility was mere self-indulgence and decadence of morale.

No other artist captured the Beauty and the decay, the elegance and the cynicism, the erotic and the grotesque of this period as Beardsley did with with his sensual black and white drawings.

At the age of seven, Beardsley was diagnosed with tuberculosis (considered a terminal illness at the time) and sentenced to a brief life.

In 1891, under the encouragement of he PreRaphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones, he took the decision to become an artist as a profession, attended

classes at Westminster School of Art in 1892.

Burne-Jones, after admiring Aubrey's portfolio, said:

"I seldom or never advise anyone to take up art
as a profession, but in your case I can do nothing else."

This led him to work without rest, producing thousand illustrations

and designs in a career spanned just under seven years, continuously longing for recognition and fame.

In 2020 we say "dress for the job you want" (of that, I am the proudest ambassador).

Aubrey Beardsley, "witty, tall, spotlessly clean and well-groomed", dressed impersonating a delightfully refined and artificial dandy persona, which certainly impressed the decadent circles and made they embrace Beardsley: a young ambitious and talented artist, a charming dandy, a morbidly fragile figure, so intertwined with the decadent fascination with death.

Of his eccentric persona, Beardsley used to say:

"I have one aim—the grotesque.
If I am not grotesque, I am nothing."
Aubrey Beardsley by Jacques-Emile Blanche,1895

Beardsley was associated with the homosexual clique that included Oscar Wilde and the details of his sexuality remain a mystery; he may have been attracted to women although he pioneered and represented via his art "androgynous", or what we call today "gender fluid", desires and perversions.

The most recognised illustration projects realised by Aubrey Beardsley are:

- Le Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Malory

- The Yellow Book, co-founded with the American writer Henry Harland

- Oscar Wilde's play "Salome"

- The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope

- Magazines such as The Studio and The Savoy, which he co-founded

Year 1898, Aubrey Beardsley was seen in Menton (Alpes-Maritimes, France), his body deteriorated due to the hemorrhagic illness:

“A yellow skeleton in waterproofs fighting an umbrella on the steps of the chapel”

Shortly after, at the age of 25, Beardsley died; converted to Catholicism just one month before, his ultimate request was to have destroyed

“all my obscene drawings”.

About the exhibition

An virtual tour of the exhibition, published by Tate Britain during the lock-down phase, provides an overview of the exhibition structure directly from the two curators Caroline Corbeau-Parsons and Alice Insley.

Below, some photos that I took of the drawings which captured my attention the most, grouped per section (same structure of the exhibition).

Le Morte D'arthur

In 1892, Beardsley received his first major commission from the publisher J.M. Dent: a large illustration project for the XV century book "Le Morte Darthur", Sir Thomas Malory.

Beardsley realised 353 drawings, paid £250.

This commission freed Aubrey to leave his job as a clerk and dedicate himself in pursuing the career as illustrator.

"Something suggestive of Japan"

In 1891 Beardsley visited the London mansion of the shipping magnate Frederick Leyland, where he remained mesmerised by the "Peacock Room".

After this experience, Aubrey started to adopt Japanese woodblock prints (Ukiyo-e) as graphic influence.

Beardsley wrote:

"I struck for myself an entirely new method of drawing and composition, something suggestive of Japan...
The subjects were quite mad and a little indecent."


Let's just say that this is too beautiful to be a section of this post and it deserves an article on its own.

A note: "L'Apparition", Gustave Moreau, was there.

Stay tuned...

The Climax


During his first visit to Paris in 1892, Beardsley understood how advertising would be a new statement of modern cities and an opportunity, really, to integrate art and city life. His poster designs are characterised by bold, simplified forms and solid blocks of colour.

The Yellow Book

In 1894, Beardsley became art editor of The Yellow Book.

The Yellow Book was a British quarterly literary periodical that was published in London from 1894 to 1897 by The Bodley Head Publishing House.

The yellow color of the magazine covers set its provocative and controversial tone, recalling the wrappers of popular French "naughty" erotica.

In Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian is corrupted by "a yellow book" which Lord Henry provides him after the suicide of his first love.

Critics say that this infamous "yellow book" is À rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans, literary masterpiece of Parisian decadence.

The controversial fame of The Yellow Book reached its peak after Oscar Wilde arrest, prosecuted for "gross indecency"; it has been reported that Wilde was carrying

a copy of The Yellow Book when he was arrested at the Cadogan Hotel (1895) although it was a copy of Pierre Louÿs' novel Aphrodite.

A further section of the exhibition was dedicated to the magazine The Savoy.

The Rape of the Lock

Beardsley, great admirer of the poet Alexander Pope, decided to embark on an illustration project of the mock-epic poem The Rape of the Lock (1712).

The poem mocks an historical incident during which Lord Petre (the Baron) cut off a lock of the hair of Arabella Fermor (Belinda) without her permission, causing a prolonged dispute between their families.

The Cave of Spleen

The logo of is inspired to one of the cave's characters.

I had some fun with digital art, adding my signature mole, a cleft chin hint and a roman nose.


In 1896, Beardsley began his most explicit series of drawings inspired to two classics:

- Lysistrata, by Aristophanes - Athenian and Spartan women end the conflict between the two cities by refusing to have sex with their men at war until there is peace;

- Sixth Satire, Juvenal - misogynistic attack on the morals and sexual habits of the women of Ancient Rome.

The characters reflect Beardsley’s dark humor and grotesque fascination with sexuality.


After Beardsley: early years to the sixties

Aubrey Beardsley illustrations had been much imitated both during his lifetime and following his death.

The 1966 Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum revived the interest towards fin de siècle and Art Nouveau artistic periods.

The young audience identified with Beardsley's alternative style and ideas; his illustrative style became the point of reference for the representation of the new counterculture.

Portrait of Marie Derval, Pablo Picasso, 1901
Marchesa Luisa Casati, Illustration by Alastair (Baron Hans Henning Voigt), 1914

I heard of this exhibition back in February 2020 when, during my commute back from work, taking the tube at Heathrow T1,2,3, I noted the advertisement, almost hidden by the moving trains and the frantic sound of luggages and TfL announcements.

I recall having smiled.

I foretasted a shift in taste in London, a fin-de-siècle art revival, a renewed interest for Decadence at least, events and lectures about the theme, masquerade balls, networks and groups of London Decadents, the opportunity for London to re-consider his forgotten aesthetic past, a London that re-values Beauty...

Sadly, this never happened.

At the exhibition, I saw no young people, only a masked and socially distant mature public, wondering eyes tracing Beardsley's sinuous lines, some "Amazing!" muttered under the masks.

My for-me-only day continued with a long and reflective stroll across Westmister until the West End.

Once back and, again, locked home, I had a tea in my new mug and the time to interiorise the sultry sensuality, the feverish torments and the grotesque Beauty illustrated by a belowed artist and the acrimonious sadness in recognising that, this time, London, with its "cool" young groups and politically correct countercultures, will not care at all!

I read a Beardsley's novel quite some time ago.

I opened the book again, late in the evening in the feeble candlelight, a way to escape from the sadness and move within the idealised world of myth, eroticism and Beauty of Aubrey Beardsley.

The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser is a beautiful read. I recommend it.


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