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Beardsley and the art of decadence; Aubrey Beardsley. By Matthew Sturgis (Harper Collins pounds 19.99). Rev iewed by Richard Edmonds.

Any study of Aubrey Beardsley, doyen of fin de siecle artist/illustrators evokes immediately a languid aesthete obsessed by his sister and also a member of that enchanted circle which included Beardsley's publisher Leonard Smithers, the poets Arthur Symons and Ernest Dowson and of course Oscar Wilde (with whom Beardsley was associated in the public mind during the sensational Wilde trials).

Beardsley is recognised immediately by his erotic black and white drawings for Lysistrata and Wilde's Salome, the former still possessing the capacity to startle with its gigantic phalluses elevated like erotic totems in the manner of Greek vase paintings.

The drawings for Wilde's play, which were published in 1894, catch at the eerie sensuality of the feverish text, and they still amaze today by their extraordinary flouting of the laws of descriptive drawing as understood by less excitable illustrators a century ago. These things have already been noted by Brian Reade in his study of Aubrey Beardsley published a decade ago.

As regards decadence, it is easy to believe that Beardsley had listened for too long to the siren-voiced Irish writer George Moore and had absorbed therefore the Decadents Movement's notion that to shock was infinitely better than to succeed.

A follower - or at least an admirer - of Whistler, Baudelaire and Gautier, Beardsley despised the middle class from which he had sprung in August 1872, and effectively embraced anything which was outrageous, including an incestuous relationship with Mabel, his actress sister to black magic and the occult.

The lewd drawings of Lysistrata are easier to understand when one recognises the decadence had a sub text containing one word - Shock! It was an attitude deemed of prime importance and to hell with the consequences.

In Beardsley's case in a post-Wilde world, his drawings and his associations cost him his position with the publisher John Lane at the Bodley Head.

Aubrey and Mabel enjoyed cross-dressing on occasion, which fitted in very well with Wilde's homosexual coterie at the turn of the century. Beardsley was pursued at one point by Andre Raffalovich, a gay writer of dubious purple prose and poetry given to chasing young men.

Raffalovich converted to chastity and Roman Catholicism in 1894 and persuaded Beardsley to embrace the faith soon afterwards. It was Raffalovich who paid Beardsley a quarterly stipend of pounds 100 to keep him in comfort - much more than Smithers was prepared to cough up.

Matthew Sturgis paints a vivid picture of the young Beardsley awaiting the arrival of Raffalovich in the latter's drawing room, sitting "among the treasures of which there was a painting by Gustave Moreau of Sappho". Beardsley was in a "fix" and althoughthis was helped by the monthly allowance, Sturgis raises the question of Beardsley's elusive sexuality which may have been the undisclosed payment for the favour.

Was he heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, or simply struggling with psychosexuality and the problem of Mabel?

The spring of 1895 was an unnerving time in any case for young men unsure upon which side of the sexual barrier they stood. Some, fearing persecution, fled to Paris, others suggested homophobia by cutting their hair short, giving away their illustrated copies of Lysistrata and subscribing to The Times Shilling Cricket Fund in order to assert their masculinity.

Certainly Raffalovich ignored everything and installed Wilde's protege, the young poet John Gray, in a flat around the corner from his own house in South Audley Street where he maintained a feverish interest in sexual deviancy contributing occasional articles to learned magazines.

But Raffalovich is only one character to hold the attention in Sturgis's fascinating study of Beardsley which brims with rich and carefully researched details which amplify and extend our knowledge of the most brilliant illustrator within this decadent period. In fact, I suspect Beardsley would probably have relished the end papers of this autobiography since they are based on a book design he did for the poems of Ernest Dowson.

But project after project was begun by Beardsley then set aside either through ill health or boredom. After the twin achievements of Lysistrata and The Rape of the Lock, Beardsley was beginning to lose momentum.

The Savoy - that remarkable publication so rarely found today, excited him and he pushed Smithers to include John Gray's poems - an unsuccessful bid, although Beardsley himself provided the marvellous covers for which The Savoy is celebrated today. He also had to cope with the rise of Phil May, a cartoonist who caricatured London types in a healthy heterosexual way. May was a guttersnipe compared to Beardsley's languid aesthete but he was influenced by Aubrey nonetheless.

The Savoy gradually fell into decline, helped by Beardsley's kamikaze exotica. "We might have survived but for our association with Beardsley," said WB Yeats in a surprisingly chilly comment. One editor of a daily newspaper made it a rule never to print a letter which mentioned Beardsley's name. Wilde's downfall had caused the house of cards to collapse.

The artistic circles which had shaped Beardsley's ideologies included the painter Simeon Solomon, the poet and lover of boys, William Cory, Swinburne (naturally) and Shannon and Ricketts, an artist and designer who lived together in brotherly love, claiming always the relationship was platonic.

All these men were either pro-matriarchal or candidly homosexual and they prepared the way for the camp young men of the 1920s also obsessed with decadence. But Beardsley - ill and distraught as his career collapsed - gave a sign that he was willing to drop his veil of secrecry and aloofness and come into the homosexual fold. His drawings for Le Morte d Arthur proved his affiliations and remain overtly gay.

That Beardsley arrived at the right time is indisputable. But his was an art which, although influential, could not last without the feverish, closeted society which nurtured it and so Wilde's disgrace signalled for all these men the end of an era. It left a bad taste and so a man in 1920 might study Beardsley's drawings for Salome then close the book suddenly, saying: "Beardsley has nothing to do with me at all."

As his health declined, Beardsley became Sidney Horler's reaction to his suggestive drawings for Under the Hill. " I have only read three lines," wrote Horler, "before I felt the urge to be violently sick." Beardsley's ability to offer a glimpse of a proscribed world "erotic, aesthetic, intense and unsentimental" had lost ground completely.

I have always thought Beardsley's fatal tuberculosis was exacerbated by his treatment at Dr Grindrod's hydropathic clinic in the hills above Malvern with its regime of cold, wet sheets wrapped around the patient, even in December.

The progress of the disease was inexorable and even priests brought to the dying man's bedside could not chase away finally "the Papillons noir" of depression or hold back the violent haemorrhages. The final act of renunciation of the old life was a letter, where the dying Aubrey begged Smithers to destroy all copies of Lysistrata and "all obscene drawings". Smithers kept everything, of course. Beardsley died at Menton. A visitor to the town some months previously had seen shockingly a "yellow skeleton in waterproofs fighting an umbrella on the steps of the chapel". It was Aubrey who, cheated by Smithers, was finally assigned in error a plot in the Menton Protestant cemetery.
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Author:Edmonds, Richard
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 21, 1998
Words:1207
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