Drawing / Illustration / Look Back: Art History

Grotesque: Aubrey Beardsley and His Illustration

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.

Who do YOU like?? Only the cootie catcher can tell.

Who do YOU like?? Only the cootie catcher can tell.

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.

Aubrey Beardsley, Self Portrait, 1892. Pen and ink wash, 25 x 9 cm, London: The British Museum

Aubrey Beardsley, Self Portrait, 1892. Pen and ink wash, 25 x 9 cm, London: The British Museum.

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.

"Lancelot and the Witch Hellawes" from Le Morte d'Arthur, by Thomas Mallory, published by J.M. Dent and Co, 1893.

“Lancelot and the Witch Hellawes” from Le Morte d’Arthur, by Thomas Mallory, published by J.M. Dent and Co, 1893.

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.

Detail of a grotesque fresco from the Domus Aurea, 1st century AD

Detail of a grotesque fresco from the Domus Aurea, 1st century AD.

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.

Leonardo da Vinci, Two grotesque profiles confronted, 1485-90. Pen and ink, The Royal Collection.

Leonardo da Vinci, Two grotesque profiles confronted, 1485-90. Pen and ink, The Royal Collection.

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.

Beardsley, The Abbe Franfreluche, The Chevalier Tannhauser, Under the Hill, The Savoy, n.1, January, 1896.

Beardsley, The Abbe Franfreluche, The Chevalier Tannhauser, Under the Hill, The Savoy, n.1, January, 1896.

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.

The Dancer's Reward, by Oscar Wilde, published 1893. 16 x 22.7 cm, graphite.

The Dancer’s Reward, by Oscar Wilde, published 1893. 16 x 22.7 cm, graphite.

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.

Cinesias entreating Myrrhina to coition. Illustration from "Lysistrata", 1896

Cinesias entreating Myrrhina to coition. Illustration from “Lysistrata”, 1896

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.

The Mysterious Rose Garden. The Yellow Book, Vol. IV, January, 1895.

The Mysterious Rose Garden. The Yellow Book, Vol. IV, January, 1895.

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3 thoughts on “Grotesque: Aubrey Beardsley and His Illustration

  1. One of my favorite artists! Another wonderful (and controversial) use for grotesque is to describe the images in the margins of medieval manuscripts. A fascinating discussion how such a title may be a misnomer can be found in Michael Camille’s ‘Images on the Edge.’ Keep up the good work!

    • Sounds so cool! Yeah it’s amazing how many extensions the grotesque has in visual art. I imagine the whole concept gets even more tangled as you go into film, literature and other art forms.

  2. Good post. The term grotesque is from the discoveries at Herculaneum which were originaly thought to be underground, hence grottoes, where such Roman art was displayed on country estates, and famously at Pope’s grotto. In other words, grotesque is misunderstood domestic Roman art. The term causes considerable confusion regarding carvings on old churches with gargoyles. Grotesque here means a more modern ugly thing’ gargoyles are similar, but convey water spouts which gurgle, hence the name. Ah, the joys of migratory English meanings!

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