Was a Victorian illustrator the godfather of the graphic novel? A new exhibition by Aubrey Beardsley explores the question
Few have challenged the social mores of Victorian Britain as fiercely as Aubrey Beardsley. None have done it more salaciously, as an exhibit at America’s oldest bibliophile club proves.
Within the confines of its second-floor gallery, New York’s Grolier Club presents an intimate snapshot of a man whose erotic and satirical illustrations challenged contemporary norms of sexuality and gender. With images of bare-chested women, dicks, and whippings, it’s no surprise that Beardsley continues to be a favorite of precocious, artistic teens.
Marking the 150th anniversary of Beardsley’s birth, the exhibition features 69 works related to the artist. These include swirling and intricate ink-on-paper illustrations, provocative magazine covers, flirtatious theater posters and photographic portraits (including one he sent to a friend months before his death). at the age of 25 from tuberculosis, a disease that had plagued him since childhood).
“This is a time when new notions of gender and sexuality, beyond binaries, are all around us, including in art. Beardsley was there first,” said Margaret D. Stetz, co -curator of the exhibition, to Artnet News “He changed the look of everything from magazine publishing and book illustration to prints and posters.”
As ‘Aubrey Beardsley, 150 Years Young’ makes clear, both in scope and inspiration, the Brighton-born artist was forward-looking and international. He was an early champion of photochemical reproduction and benefited from the development of phototelegraphy, or electrical image transmission, a technology that allowed his images to be printed in countries around the world. His use of vacant space in his monochrome illustrations owes much to Japanese woodblock prints, and he was an avid reader of English, French and American literature – with his cover illustrations for works by Alexander Pope and Edgar Allan Poe on display at the Grolier Club.
Additionally, Beardsley’s distinctive sense of line and defiant wit remain influential. “Some genres, like the graphic novel, would be inconceivable without the example of Beardsley’s style,” said Stetz, professor of women’s studies at the University of Delaware. “We can draw a line between Beardsley’s outrageous street art and the idea of contemporary street graffiti as an artistic and political medium that attacks convention.”
Beardsley’s most famous artistic connection, however, is with Oscar Wilde. In 1894 Beardsley provided the illustrations for Wilde’s translation of Salome, including a grotesque shown at the Grolier Club which depicts the dancer holding aloft the severed head of Jean-Baptiste. The work displeased Wilde. He felt the illustrations overpowered the text, and when he publicly criticized Beardsley, a rift developed. Beardsley’s response, inevitably, was to write a cartoon. In Oscar Wilde at work, the writer appears as a lazy dandy who poses while surrounding himself with books. (When it comes to hard work, Beardsley stood on solid ground: Born into a modest family, he had been an insurance clerk until he got his break.)
Association with Wilde, who was tried for “gross indecency” in 1895, would cost Beardsley his position on The yellow book quarterly, of which he was the artistic editor. But no matter: Beardsley’s talents were sought after and widely recognized, as evidenced by the fact that between 1892 and his death in 1898 he produced over 1,000 completed drawings. The works exhibited here continue to titillate and surprise even the modern viewer.
“Aubrey Beardsley, 150 Years Young” is on view at Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street, New York, NY, 10022, through November 12, 2022.
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