The incomparable Aubrey Beardsley @Tate, London

March 2020

‘art in the time of Coronavirus’

No, I didn’t sneak into the closed, locked-down Tate Britain to see the boarded-up Beardsley show, tempting as it may be, knowing that the drawings and prints are still there, hanging in empty echoing galleries, seen by no-one.

Seeing Beardsley was actually the very LAST thing I did before the London lockdown due to Coronavirus. On March 14, I left the house with some trepidation, made my way on a largely empty Tube to Tate Britain and joined a bunch of other nervous people willing to sacrifice everything in order to see this brilliant retrospective of one of the world’s greatest drawing artists.

Yes it was worth it. I didn’t get coronavirus, and I did get to see something stupendous. Beardsley’s work is best know as prints; I have a several books of his work including this one, which is excellent:

But the books did not in any way prepare me for seeing the artist’s drawings, his originals as well as some drawings that were never printed. The drawings have a delicacy and intensity that the printing process cannot capture. Using the simplest media and the most basic tools, the young, fierce Beardsley made somehting like alchemy with them …

I was strongly influenced by Beardsley from a young age; I can’t remember where I first saw his drawings – probably in a book – but it was one of the motivations for me to take Art History courses at university (although the lecturer clearly had an antipathy to fin de siécle art). Beardsley was also the beginning of a trail that led me to Japanese art and to study orientalism… I also appreciated his connection to Wilde and the so-called ‘decadent’ poets like Arthur Symonds who is, I think, really under-rated.

The exhibit is, as is usual at Tate retrospectives, huge and normally would have been crowded. Thankfully it was not, because the pictures are small and we all had to get quite close to them. It was not really pleasant being so close to other people’s breathing but ‘ars longa, vita brevis’ … *

There were pictures in the show I not only had not seen before (which surprised me a bit) but also were themselves astonishing. His imagined portraits of Chopin and Weber struck me as especially wonderful.

Like Chopin, Beardsley died young, he was only 26 when he passed away from tuberculosis (the major killer of the nineteenth century) , a diagnosis he received in early childhood. Full cognizant of the fact he would not live long he poured his life energy in drawing and left behind a body of superb work that is a major contribution to the history of art.

His work is remarkable because of the way he wielded his pens and pencils, yes but also of the way he so fruitfully adapted his influences: mediaeval iconography and illuminations in his Morte d’Arthur illustrations, Japanese ink and print in his Salome, rococo drawing and painting in his Rape of the Lock and – even more wonderful – the way he merged them all, creating  glorious mash-ups of styles and techniques in a way that he fully, completely owned. This is what we mean when we say ‘Beardsley’: he became a category of art, sui generis; much copied, never bested, never bettered.

me at Tate, loved the show, very sad I could not see it more than once.

Tate’s Beardsley resources:

The (excellent) exhibition guide:

https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/aubrey-beardsley/exhibition-guide

The Story of Aubrey Beardsley in Five Artworks

https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/aubrey-beardsley-716/story-aubrey-beardsley-five-artworks

To buy the Aubrey Beardsley catalogue, go to the Tate Britain website shop:

https://shop.tate.org.uk/aubrey-beardsley-exhibition-book/24732.html?cgid=exhibition-books

*(it would have been nicer if the woman near had managed to shut up and just look, instead of blethering away to her clearly discomfited companion.)