Notwithstanding the literary brilliance of Before the Art, I’m not sure if I’d want to be remembered through my creations. At least, the creations I’ve made so far, which are not that many, and tend to be along the lines of pinecone bird feeders, halfhearted sketches of dreary landscapes and the occasional cootie catcher.
But if I were to die today, I would be the same age as Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) at his death — 25. Unlike me, though, Beardsley’s creative output was extensive, versatile and fascinating. A late Victorian British illustrator, Beardsley was a master of the grotesque, and a grotesque figure himself.
This seems to be the effect he was after. “Of course, I have one aim, the grotesque,” he told The Idler in 1896. “If I am not grotesque I am nothing.” But looking at some of his works today, the connection might not be immediately clear.
Now we (you and I) might use the word “grotesque” colloquially to mean something along the lines of so super gross you can’t stop looking. While the grotesque in art has come gradually to align itself with that definition, originally it was slightly different. At first the word was used to describe the spidery flourishes in ancient Roman wall painting. Though some forms were recognizable, ‘grotesques’ were often simply symmetrical nonsense to frame and fill areas.
In the 16th century, artists took up grotesque patterns again, especially in works on paper. Patterns became fuller, busier and more elaborate. Sometimes artists would reproduce the strange expressions of little decorative figures as the subject of their works. Grotesque figures came to be subjects of their own, often ugly and strange.
In his work, Beardsley represented both kinds of grotesque, and mixed them together, along with references to the Pre Raphaelites, French Rococo and centuries of Japanese art.
Though in some cases the results can be horrifying, they can also be – at the same time – graceful and beautiful. His images both illustrate and lead the viewer’s mind to imagine something a little beyond the ordinary. Which is one of the points of the grotesque: to show otherness, dichotomy and the fantastic.
For example, Beardsley’s illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s adaptation of Salome are at turns beautiful and revolting, base and elegant. Deeply fitting for a dark, erotic retelling of a Biblical story.
Beardsley lived a life of opposites. Infected with Tuberculosis at 8 years old, he was always both young and dying. He was both awkward and dandyish. He was accused of both asexuality and incest. He produced shockingly pornographic images – exemplified in his Lysistrata – and yet with a year left to live, suddenly converted to Catholicism and begged his editor to destroy them.
Over time, the meaning of ‘grotesque’ may have changed, yet there’s always been a Beardsley image that encapsulates its meaning. If his only aim really was the grotesque (though with such a changeable figure how can we be sure?) he accomplished his goal, and remains a recognisable master of his craft even today, his 141st birthday.