When I was a freshmen undergrad at Columbia College Chicago one of the first reports I gave was on the Victorian illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. I remember spending hours thumbing through his works and admiring his editorial-like style, with sweeping curves and masterful line control. His use of standard black and white mixed with provocative and sexually erotic subjects juxtaposed biting social commentary – he pulled culturally profound statements out of bottles of India ink. This I have a huge respect for. While Aubrey’s frustrations with Victorian society were apparent his scandalous drawings were consumed almost as a precursor to Playboy magazine.
Per Wikipedia, Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (21 August 1872 – 16 March 1898) was an English illustrator and author. His drawings, executed in black ink and influenced by the style of Japanese woodcuts, emphasized the grotesque, the decadent, and the erotic. He was a leading figure in the Aesthetic movement which also included Oscar Wilde and James A. McNeill Whistler. Beardsley’s contribution to the development of the Art Nouveau style and the poster movement was significant, despite the brevity of his career before his early death from tuberculosis.
Bursting with talent from an early age, Aubrey began illustrating literature that he owned at age 15 (Madam Bovary and the like). A mix of the industrial age in which he lived and Greek art which one would find on a classical urn, his style was often described as “grotesque” and “naughty”. A homosexual who carved his name into art history with subjects including the evil female power figure Salome holding the severed head of John the Baptist, there is no question that a Victorian sensibility could be so easily offended. Amongst his famous works are illustrations for Le Morte D’arthur.
According to Erin Smith, he was fully aware that challenges to Victorian values came not only from the avant-garde, but from the Women’s Movement, which by the 1880’s, had made some gains in the areas of education and economic rights. Through his bizarre and symbolic style, Beardsley’s drawings blur gender lines and mock male superiority. They also play on Victorian anxieties about sexual expression and men’s fear of female superiority.
As a feminist, I am truly drawn (forgive the pun) to his fantastical and masterful ink drawings.