Beardsley the modernist

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The big Beardsley exhibition at Tate Britain was the first major exhibition that the virus kept me from visiting, and I got the idea that, using Linda Zatlin’s catalogue raisonné, I could stage a more comprehensive exhibition at home.  So I buried myself in her giant volumes and saw a lot I hadn’t seen before.  That was five months ago. Now the library has finally recalled Zatlin and sent me back to the topic from March.

Beardsley the Modernist, Beardsley the Pornographer, Beardsley the Puritan, Beardsley the Decadent, Beardsley the Teller-of-Stories or Beardsley the Burier of Secrets.

These strange appliances that continually recur, they must mean something else, because they are so exaggerated. Impossibly spindly candles burning away above the characters’ heads, consuming their own substance without end. They must be emblems of the temporary in spite of their inhuman stiffness and their appearance in phalanxes of three, impossibly near each other.   Beardsley learned that he had consumption, the nineteenth century name for tuberculosis, when he was seven.   He died eighteen years later in the South of France, a Catholic convert who sent desperate pleas home to burn his wicked work, which his friend and publisher disobeyed.   His room in France was a shrine to Mantegna above all, one of the most secular of classicists. His religious pictures are feeble. His favourite Gospel story, Salome’s unsatisfied passion for a saint she couldn’t corrupt (until death did it for her) was a favourite with Symbolists, who wrenched it away from the very idea of abstention. Beardsley’s drawings purporting to illustrate Oscar Wilde’s play, several of them completely re-thought to outwit censorship, had been calmed down perhaps, but were still lewd, if less directly.

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How can it be that this grisly, even necrophiliac subject pushes Beardsley towards a purely two-dimensional abstraction?   One of his most revealing remarks, quoted by Linda Zatlin (who produced the invaluable catalogue raisonné) from an interview in the Boston Evening Transcript (previously familiar to me only via one of T. S. Eliot’s jokey early poems), was that his works were just as good when you turned them upside down.   Early abstractionists have described being pushed further by seeing their own designs upside down. Beardsley was trying to de-toxify his work with this suggestion and making a claim to seriousness for Art’s sake. I took him up on it and spent an inordinate amount of time holding Zatlin’s volumes upside down. This works better with some than with others. Seeing growth hanging down instead of sprouting up can be invigorating. Some of the temporal dislocations in Strauss or Debussy feel like musical phrases turned upside down to echo a character’s alienation.

Beardsley is a radical and perceptive theorist of line who realises what he is doing when he prescribes that you should maintain the same thickness of line both in foreground and background, rather than getting thinner as you go further away. It sounds like a narrow point, but he is discarding illusions of space for the realities of the picture plane.

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Yet who has ever managed to look at Beardsley primarily as a formalist? Fifteen years before Beardsley, Gustave Moreau had been obsessed with the story of Salome in a whole series of paintings and watercolours of mesmerising richness, where a small company of onlookers provide sub-focii in the dense forest of detail, tile-covered walls, mosaic-encrusted vaults and flesh inlaid with jewels, from which Huysmans got the idea of planting gems in a live reptile’s shell, which would then grow around them, a description perhaps of the relation between characters and setting in Moreau’s frozen tableaux.

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At this point in his career Beardsley is stripping away detail from his narratives. In a mechanically reproduced form of the drawing much of the filigree has to be sacrificed to pure line and pure contrast, black and white and nothing in between, where both became stronger in this poverty or isolation.

Something became stronger but it wasn’t the bodies of man and woman. In this Beardsley composition Salome is a ghost, and Jokanaan a metaphysical phallus, a candle flame burning itself out and a liquid dripping into a lake where it remains on the surface like an oil slick or the design on a carpet. Mysteriously it inspires growth, an erect and a wilted version of the phallus which seems to be the story of Jokanaan telling itself over again.

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This confrontation of the levitating woman (orgasm? the illustration is called Climax – or is that just my name for it?) and the decapitated head – the essence of the man, or an utterly emasculated form?   This is a confrontation that goes on occurring–next time or the time before he is presented on a platter like a dish you could consume, but at the end of a hairy post, so another phallic terminus, and now there is nothing delicate about the effusion of liquid, it’s a dark mess spilling off the edge in more than one direction.

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I thought I had to begin the story at the end because that is where Beardsley began it, but there is a sense in which these episodes do not take place in ‘real’ or ordinary time but in a world of archetypes which all exist at once. So you have a couple looking at the moon who has the features of Oscar Wilde (their author?). Are they John and Salome? They both look utterly inexperienced, like frightened children who hesitate.   Male underdevelopment often takes the form in Beardsley of childish genitals which seem to signify somebody who isn’t ready to embark, a spiritual as much as a physical condition, and hard to connect with Beardsley himself, however much we try, who was well on his way to producing over a thousand separate works in a career that lasted six years, much of which must have been spent in devoted labour.

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As the moonscape is empty, this one is full, full of contending forces. Wilde is there again as a weird priest or impresario with the owl of wisdom functioning as a tribal headdress, ending in horns (a joke? Beardsley seems to treat him as fair game).   Herodias is bigger than the others who exist to serve her, including a foetus with what critics take for an unsatisfied erection pushing up through his clothes–if so, the most economical lewd reference ever.   Beardsley’s fascination with elderly foetuses must have a neo-Platonic explanation, the soul’s pre-birth and corruption occurring simultaneously.

Zatlin always plumps for Beardsley’s seriousness but goes on finding little erections all over the place, as if there could never be too many. Kenneth Clark surprises us with almost moralistic disapproval of Beardsley’s fascination with corruption. I can’t help seeing Beardsley as a kind of troll, offending Victorian sensibilities so plentifully that many references will escape. The effeminate creature who sports a vine-fig leaf formerly possessed a typically shrinking cock with feeble pubic hair. He got curtailed, while the delicate penis-candlesticks got waved through.

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The Toilette which follows is one of the outrageous ones and was replaced by the most abstract and severe, without the bystanders or the upsetting jokes. Here exquisite appliances lend themselves to suggestive acts. The long tall extension of the stringed instrument, the strange dripping forms under the left-hand boy’s seat, the glances exchanged or not exchanged by the two nude boys, one with pubic hair and a hand that doesn’t look innocent – there’s all that ‘activity’, and then the amazing emptiness of Salome’s clothes which are no more than two extra-thin lines making a bounded place in which nothing is allowed to take place. These disparities are rich with irony and an almost philosophical appreciation of the void. The distancing around Salome and the coiffeur, who mixes hints of bats (his mask) and spiders (his hands), creates a whole other world.

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Arthur and the Questing Beast is a step back into a different and earlier world still working itself free from William Morris and Burne-Jones’s medievalism and an earlier Victorian love affair with the Middle Ages. Beardsley’s drawing shows an encounter between a knight and a dragon, as you’d never guess, or not quickly, and not a heroic but an entangled one, which you settle into disentangling, which has set a hundred traps for comprehension.

Beardsley has equalled Moreau in density and also—without colour!—his own form of richness and of confusion, making things out of lines and vice versa. Turning things into other things obscenely, giving new meanings to the word, metamorphosis as anarchy and detail as madness—all of Beardsley’s themes tumbled together—gawky erections that disappear out of sight, snakes, spiders, satyrs from a different world of myth entirely, clothes as intricacy and prison, acting like tourniquets on the flesh. The overpowering sensation is the fickleness of matter, solid one moment and a beguiling scribble the next. Stringy birds deconstructing themselves into individual feathers, snakes made of curlicues slithering through viscous liquids, and really monstrous forms whose eyes are fringed with rows of tiny breasts like Diana of Ephesus, or tiny growths like leprosy or testicles, whose tufts of hair are like lines gone completely crazy, a trap for perception rushing everywhere or nowhere. Arthur looks sideways at the graphic riot as if it is all a hallucination he has had, not a comforting thought because it means he is trapped in the web.

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There was a way out via a simpler printing process that allowed you, if you gave up subtle differentiations of tone and texture and settled for black and white in their full crudity or purity, the chance to reach bigger audiences much more cheaply. Beardsley found his way there via his biggest project, a commission to illustrate Malory’s Morte d’Arthur with an incredible plethora of 350+ separate designs which became a laboratory for simplifying without giving up mystery and power, an effort which offered him a vast field for subversions, antagonising William Morris who accused him of plagiarism, seemingly unaware of how radically Beardsley overturned Arts and Crafts ideals. Beardsley’s knights set off a disruption like a flurry of shrapnel—leaves, shields and oversized thorny stems all slicing, chopping and piercing their way through the mellow world of the past.

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For the publisher of Malory he designed an icon based on a pun. Dent, the publisher’s name, became the dandelion’s tooth and in Beardsley’s hands the prong of a phallic explosion observed by an unlikely serpent.

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Further unlikelihood in pagan youths, pure immaturity instructed by satyrs who only belong in Malory as general disruptors of Christian principles.

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There’s a whole category, calligraphic grotesques., which Beardsley produced on demand for Dent in years overlapping with the work on Malory, mostly small designs which are some of the purest expressions of his kind of iconoclasm, images where every feature is senselessly perverted into something else–eye for mouth, eyebrow for moustache, lips for eyes, breasts for horns, leaves for hair, face for chest and curlicues throughout to undermine the last illusion of representing anything sincerely or consistently.

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Reptilian foetus-forms keep it from seeming real play. Innocent designs are few and far between, and even they upset things by turning the lower half of a cheery face to opposed 3’s lying on their sides.

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Finally, we hit on a scrap of harmless peacock fluff, but it too conceals a plump Wilde-decadent.

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The later Beardsley went through the most astonishing series of style-shifts. Each new commission seemed to provoke another twist of the late style: The Rape of the Lock prompted a fantasia on the Rococo, with a sub-species consisting of welters made entirely of dots, a new orthodoxy for rendering lace or reality at its most intricate, in tapestry, upholstery and foppish dress. Next come the Lysistrata illustrations where the erect penis finally has its day, in which all mystery has departed and the idea of flesh is flattened.

The last project Beardsley worked on was an edition of Ben Jonson’s bitter, disillusioned play Volpone, or the Fox about a miser’s corrosive progress. Beardsley took this as a chance to send up the pompous version of Baroque, piles of fruit as imposing as cannon balls, satyrs as thick as oak stumps. The single fresh note in this heavy world comes in a hypnotic design for the cover, which he drew first in black and white but always meant for transfer into its opposite, turning light to dark and vice versa.   The black and white version (which I only heard about when I had long known the gold on blue result) is much crazier, jumping with demented motion, a jitter missing from the printed cover.

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The cover, a brilliant disintegration of Baroque continuity, translates pomp into a storm of fragments, but feels as if, if you worked at it, you might be able to cajole all the confusion and repetition to fall back into its proper places. But why would you want to do that? Isn’t the lumbering old Baroque better as an explosion than as the symmetrical reassurance of the old order? Brilliantly, the new cacophony consists entirely of recognisable elements of old conventions, which Zatlin suggests Beardsley meant as the phantasmagoric flashing of the fox’s tail.

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And if you let yourself sink into it, you find there are even more frantic jitterbugging couples here, like the pair standing on V O L P.  It’s a fertile field for hallucination, full of birds, mammals (including sharp-nosed foxes) and who knows what else, filling all the left-over dark forms.

To get these effects you need to read the blue as solid forms, and the gold as background or surrounding void, as I forgot to say clearly enough.

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