When Oscar Wilde saw the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley for the first English translation of his Salomé play of 1891, he was at first not impressed. “They are cruel and evil, and so like dear Aubrey, who has a face like a silver hatchet, with grass-green hair,” said Wilde, in his typically spiteful manner. “They are like the naughty scribbles a precocious schoolboy makes on the margin of his copybooks.”
Beardsley – who had an extreme, prolific and shockingly short career – was a perversity portraitist and a decadence draughtsman. Using his exquisite Japanese woodcut-inspired black ink sketches, he conjured images of the elegant and erotic, the grand and grisly. "I have one aim - the grotesque," he said. "If I am not grotesque, I am nothing."
Beardsley was a talented artist who grew up in Brighton, in 1872. Introduced by pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones to Wilde, he became a pioneer among the aesthets gathering around the famous playwright, who described Beardsley as "the most monstrous of orchids."
Wilde and Beardsley's work became intertwined in 1893 when The Pall Mall Budget editorial commissioned the draughtsman to create a set of drawing in response to Wilde's play Salomé – a retelling of Herod's stepdaughter's biblical story, asking for John the Baptist's head on a silver platter. Beardsley portrayed Salomé embracing a snake-like haired head – Wilde saw it, liked it and chose Beardsley to represent his play's 1894 English version.
Almost every critical work of the resulting illustrations described them as "grotesque" and Beardsley did not help matters, saying that "to me [people] are mostly grotesque, and I represent them as I see them." Beardsley 's career has been cut cruelly short – he died from tuberculosis at only 25 – but his illustrations' legacy lives on. His work, capturing the spirit of the 1890s, embodies a particular moment in British culture that straddled the virtues of the Victorians and the excesses of the Edwardians. And yet his drawings also have an undeniable modernity for them, particularly in gender blurring – as well as a beauty that fully transcends those times.
Aubrey Beardsley's work is currently at Tate Britain, London, however the exhibition is temporarily closed due to the events caused by Covid-19. Although, you can enjoy your free online tour here.
The industry’s most renowned designers from Alexander McQueen and Hedi Slimane to Rick Owens and Yohji Yamamoto have sought inspiration for their collections in the work of artists outside the realm of fashion.