Rare Books

Aubrey Beardsley - A Tribute

An online exhibition developed from the exhibition 'Aubrey Beardsley and the 1890s - a tribute' curated by Ann Galbally (Reader and Associate Professor, School of Fine Arts, Classical Studies and Archaeology) and Merete Smith (Rare Books Curator, the University Library).

This exhibition, using the resources of our Rare Books collections, seeks to reveal the extraordinary creativity of Aubrey Beardsley and the 'Decadents' in terms of book production and illustration.

From the perspective of 100 years how can we now view the avant-garde book production of England in the 1890s which claimed the black and white illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley at its apex?

Set against a background of the de-stabilising gender politics of the 1890s, it was a decade that produced the so-called 'Decadent' writers and artists, whose work combined sexual experimentation with spiritual questing in an intensely creative harness. Each expressed an impulse of the as-yet unborn modernism and much of the creative endeavour of these artists and writers can be interpreted as expressing pre-Freudian archetypes.

The Challenge of Decadent Art

Because of the fundamental challenges it posed to accepted standards of the period, much 'Decadent' art and literature received a hostile press at the time, as can be seen from the pages of Punch in 1894 and 1895 which castigate Beardsley in particular as 'Mr Aubrey Beer de Beers' and his 'comedy of leers'. Subsequent accounts of 90s art and poetry have been overshadowed by the scandal of the Wilde trials and the hysterical press coverage they engendered. Punch's derogatory agenda has been too easily accepted. Because of its newness and freshness and its allegiances to contemporary French culture, Punch deemed The Yellow Book as 'bilious' and the 'Queer and Yellow Book' in a vicious cartoon of February 2, 1895. Sensation has prevailed over analysis in almost all subsequent accounts of the period. Beardsley's taste for elegant erotica placed him at odds with polite society and he died completely out of favour. Yet this would be the element featured above all others in later accounts of his work and his biographers would trawl fruitlessly through the facts of his life for explanations.

With an inner circle consisting of Ernest Dowson, Arthur Symons, Aubrey Beardsley, Henry Harland, Oscar Wilde and Charles Conder, framed by an outer circle comprising Max Beerbohm, W. B. Yeats, Will Rothenstein, Charles Shannon and Charles Ricketts amongst others, they were classified by the late Victorians, with their passion for seeing everything in terms of linear development, as 'Decadents', that is, as coming after a high point of artistic endeavour.

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