18 March 2020, The Tablet

Aubrey Beardsley: delivered from decadence

Aubrey Beardsley: delivered from decadence

The Peacock Skirt by Aubrey Beardsley, 1893


Tate Britain’s Aubrey Beardsley show reveals the elegant and erotic drawings of the fin-de-siècle British artist – but his conversion to Catholicism remains unexplored

“Decadent” is a pejorative term that – like the word “wicked” today – acquired a positive meaning for a rebel generation in the 1890s. In the “Naughty Nineties” it was a badge of honour for flouters of conventional Victorian morality such as Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley.

Tate Britain’s Aubrey Beardsley exhibition (until 25 May) confirms the stereotype of Beardsley as a counter-cultural hero who – in defiance of “a vile constitution” weakened by consumption – courageously cultivated the art of outrage until his tragic death from TB aged 25. But the accepted version conceals a more complex story, which begins with his early drawings in Room 1.

The Litany of Mary Magdalen (1891), showing an innocent young girl kneeling in prayer, was drawn when Beardsley was just 18. Its composition borrows from the works of Andrea Mantegna, which his mentor, Edward Burne-Jones, had urged him to study. But an element of grotesquery haunts the faces and postures of the surrounding figures tempting the Magdalen away from her devotions – an element that became more and more pronounced until it hardened into Beardsley’s trademark style.

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