LONDON – Tate Britain’s major new exhibition celebrates the brief but astonishing career of Aubrey Beardsley. Although he died tragically young at the age of just 25, Beardsley’s strange, sinuous black-and-white images have continued to shock and delight for over a century. Bringing together 200 spectacular works, this is the largest display of his original drawings in over 50 years and the first exhibition of his work at Tate since 1923.
Beardsley (1872-98) became one of the enfants terribles of fin-de-siècle London, best remembered for illustrating Oscar Wilde’s controversial play Salomé. His opulent imagery anticipated the elegance of Art Nouveau but also alighted on the subversive and erotic aspects of life and legend, shocking audiences with a bizarre sense of humor and fascination with the grotesque. Beardsley was prolific, producing hundreds of illustrations for books, periodicals and posters in a career spanning just under seven years. Line block printing enabled his distinct black-and-white works to be easily reproduced and widely circulated, winning notoriety and admirers around the world, but the original pen and ink drawings are rarely seen. Tate Britain exhibits a huge array of these drawings, revealing his unrivaled skill as a draughtsman in exquisite detail.
The exhibition highlights each of the key commissions that defined Beardsley’s career as an illustrator, notably Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur 1893-4, Wilde’s Salomé 1893 and Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock 1896, of which five of the original drawings are shown together for the first time. As art director of the daring literary quarterly The Yellow Book, the artist also created seminal graphic works that came to define the decadence of the era and scandalized public opinion. Bound editions and plates are displayed alongside subsequent works from The Savoy and illustrations for Volpone 1898 and Lysistrata 1896, in which Beardsley further explored his fascination with eroticism and the absurd.
Beardsley’s imagination was fueled by diverse cultural influences, from ancient Greek vases and Japanese woodblock prints, to illicit French literature and the Rococo. He also responded to his contemporaries such as Gustave Moreau, Edward Burne-Jones and Toulouse Lautrec, whose works are shown at Tate Britain to provide context for Beardsley’s individual mode of expression. A room in the exhibition is dedicated to portraits of Beardsley and the artist’s wider circle, presenting him at the heart of the arts scene in London in the 1890’s despite the frequent confinement of his rapidly declining health. As notorious for his complex persona as he was for his work, the artist had a preoccupation with his own image, relayed throughout the exhibition by striking self-portraits and depictions by the likes of Walter Sickert and Jacques-Emile Blanche.
Additional highlights include a selection of Beardsley’s bold poster designs and his only oil painting. Charles Bryant and Alla Nazimova’s remarkable 1923 film Salomé is also screened in a gallery adjacent to Beardsley’s illustrations, showcasing the costume and set designs they inspired. The exhibition closes with an overview of Beardsley’s legacy from Art Nouveau to the present day, including Picasso‘s Portrait of Marie Derval 1901 and Klaus Voormann’s iconic artwork for the cover of Revolver 1966 by the Beatles.
Aubrey Beardsley is organized by Tate Britain in collaboration with the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, with the generous support of the V&A, private lenders and other public institutions. It is curated by Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, Curator of British Art 1850-1915, and Stephen Calloway with Alice Insley, Assistant Curator, Historic British Art.
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