‘Art is long-lasting, life is short,’ said Audrey Beardsley. The artist died at twenty-five, due to tuberculosis, and the content of his exhibition at Tate Britain gives us a peek into the urgency of his mind. He knew he would not live long, so his entire art was fuelled by that sense of urgency and mortality.
The exhibition is constructed chronologically, showcasing his art in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, journal illustrations, and even posters. Beardsley shocked the late Victorian society with his erotic and grotesque drawings, often including same-sex couples or caricature-like figures, devilish, repelling and seductive at the same time. He found his voice hovering between dandyish decadence and a ghostlike, black & white framework, stemming from his own sallow countenance.
Beardsley merges nature with our own human desires seamlessly. The figures on his drawings communicate with each other through the subtlety of looks and gestures, and I imagine them always floating, never walking on hard ground. One can also find flowers at every turn, whether in the background or as a sort of stand-in for sexual encounters. Nature can be perceived as something dangerous, as if he was trying to present human nature, human desire, as similarly dangerous—and similarly inescapable. On the other hand, the continuous floral add-ins may be associated with a life in bloom, blossoming in every context and every scenario, even in spite of itself.
Another recurring element in his work are the elongating clutches of trees or hair. Like waves, encompassing the entire frame, entangling the viewer in their embrace, making each drawing cramped within itself as if trying to say, Life’s too short to breathe. Does that signify freedom or confinement? In most cases, I see the entanglements as fluidity and flux, but in his work, ‘The return of Tannhauser to the Venusberg’ (1895), trees almost look like prison bars, literally disabling the figure from movement outside of the framework.
Beardsley was as immediate as he was versatile. Open to various art forms, inspired by ancient mythology, music, or Japanese art, his work, in turn, influenced a multitude of art forms and styles. Picasso’s early work, the album covers of The Beatles or Procol Harum, or even the entire sensibility of the 1960s with its ‘Victoriana’ revival, his work is a symbol of subversiveness and sensuality.
Although still striking, the discourse on his art does not bear the same meaning today. When looking at his works, the figures seem to consume one another, and that’s one of the primary words I’d use when describing his work. But, back in the 19th century, the word ‘consume’ still made one thought of sensual matters, and not of society’s downfall into inertia and commodification. The word ‘consume’ was tempting—the stark edges, the black & white in-betweens calling us, entangling us in the waves of trees. Today, consumption is not an act of defiance but a default, and dandyism may not be enough to make a difference.
That does not mean, however, that we shouldn’t be inspired by the array of Beardsley’s work. ’I am nothing if I am not grotesque,’ he said, claiming his art depicted his perception of the world. In regular circumstances, it might take an entire life for someone to open their eyes, but Beardsley did not have that luxury. He knew he had no choice but to take the blinding spectacles off and see the world as he was made to see it. As a result, he gave us a glimpse into his mind that we can now translate into the world.
The majority of us may have the luxury of time, but time can also entrap us, slow down our pace, multiply our inhibitions. If there’s anything we can take from Beardsley’s work today, it is that the inspiration will strike if only we learn to seize the urgency.
Aubrey Beardsley at Tate Britain will run between the 4th of March and the 25th of May 2020. For more information, please click here.