Visual Arts: The fine lines of a dirty mind

Decadent, kinky aesthetics? Maybe. But Aubrey Beardsley's art is more than that - it's a wonder of the modern world.
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The Independent Culture
Did you think you'd done Aubrey Beardsley and put the taste behind you? I can keenly remember, as a 16-year-old Rotring pen freak, avidly imitating the peacock-tail and serpent-coil patterns of the Salome pictures. Beardsley's appeal to adolescence is mainly in terms of neatness, minuteness, elegance, elaboration - about control, I suppose. Does he hold much for an older person? Or did his early death make him an eternal gift to youth?

Beardsley died 100 years ago, at the age of 25. No finer artist died younger. One should not de-romanticise this. He is a romantic figure. The sense of hurry is real. From his late teens he was coughing up blood: he had good cause to expect a short life, and to perfect his art fast. It's hardly more than five years' work that fills a sizeable centenary show at the V&A; five years that separate "early" from "late" Beardsley, and it's not absurd to use those labels over this brief span.

He crammed his development. From a starting point of schoolboy cartooning, he picked up late flowers of Pre-Raphaelism, Burne-Jones's mock medieval vignettes and William Morris's overgrown borders - and then drew on Greek pots, Japanese prints (no European artist learnt more), spiky Old Masters such as Mantegna, Baroque flourishes, Rococo ornament, and probably Lautrec's graphics, too.

In terms of a black-and-white art, his aim - his perception of need and opportunity - was unerring. It's probably just bad luck that his career ends on an uncertain note, with the doubtful move into half-tones and colouring, suggesting a sped-up cycle of rise, flowering and decline. He left two oil paintings, held by the Tate, not in this show and which I've never seen. What if...? What next...? God knows...

The exhibition is a solid, straightforward affair. It's good on Beardsley's sources: his "decadent" Nineties milieu and his professional situation. Almost everything was done for publication, in books or magazines. There's some original pen-and-ink artwork, but print is Beardsley's real medium: his work is made for "line block", a form of photo-reproduction that could pick up the finest marks, but didn't register half-tone. The show's main idiosyncrasy is its last room, showing Beardsley's heritage with special stress on the Sixties: the decade which saw his great revival and which produced plenty of Beardsley-ised Carnaby Street visuals and black-and- white psychedelia.

That's a good emphasis. It corrects a tendency to cast Beardsley as an artist made for the present fin de siecle - or at least it raises the issue. A 1960s Beardsley and a 1990s Beardsley are two different figures: the former an irreverent but basically genial hedonist; the latter something more dangerous, shifty and perverse. If the first is too blithe, the second is too melodramatic.

Of course, even as an innocent teenager, I could see Beardsley was rude. You can hardly miss the massive erect penises in the Lysistrata illustrations. (Incidentally, amid his remarkable fusion of adopted styles, these exquisitely drawn erections appear to be the only thing Beardsley certainly studied from life, perhaps in the mirror.) But a lot of his naughtiness escaped me then. I wouldn't have taken the mix of elegant form and lewd content as irony. I didn't really understand what "camp" meant.

The sensuality and the comedy now look plain enough. Beardsley's world is stocked with borderline creatures, such as the foppish, powdered figure of The Abbe, whose tight breeches intimate the goat-legs of a satyr, or the characters in the Juvenal pictures whose male torsos swell into female hips and thighs, or musclemen with limp wrists and the arid eyelids of Rossetti girls - crossovers between innocence and knowingness, grace and grotesquery.

The present show is on the clean side. It has almost no instances of Beardsley's fascination with the foetus and is generally low on direct kinkiness. But if Beardsley's deathbed instructions to destroy "all obscene drawings" had been obeyed, the loss wouldn't have been terrible. It's not at the level of overt imagery that he really gets under the skin. The style itself is designed for innuendo.

Pure blacks, pure whites, pure outlines; sometimes some dense hatching, and often finical detail, but never, almost never, any solid modelling or rendering of light and shade - a flat world whose very purity and economy lends itself to fantasy, ambiguity and slippage. Take those outlined, empty white spaces that the imagination, on a hint from the outline, fills up through a kind of mental undressing, even when the object is a dress. What an abundance of implied frills and quilted pleats unfolds in the white silhouette which is the dressing gown of La Dame aux Camelias. What impossible expanses of flesh must be supposed within the slow, massive curves which outline Ali Baba's legs. Surrounding clusters of close detailing only up the ante on these voids.

Beardsley's minimal manner allows him wild liberties. Dealing only in lines and spaces, he doesn't have to explain how the world he renders on the page might exist in three dimensions. He can make a baggy costume stretch as taut as skin, and needn't show just how the figure in it fills it - it's a couturier's dream; body and outre creation somehow perfectly at one. Or, in a Portrait of Himself in Bed, his tiny face peeps out from the centre of a spiral of overlaps - hemmed between bed, curtain, sheet, pillow, turban - and tucked into the giant bed as if into a piece of origami, which makes the bed feel like a spreading extension of the body (very true about being tucked up in big beds). Fusing bodies and fabrics like this is another distinctive sexiness in Beardsley.

And another is to introduce dislocations into the outlining of flesh, so that it feels both active and passive, sluggish and tender. Often, on the same arm or leg, you'll see the outlines either side are out of synch - one made with tight, bounding gestures, the other in a continuous, sleek undulation; or, moving along a single line, a torso's edge, say, a tense and descriptive stretch will slacken into lassitude; a languid, meaningless meander. Or a figure will have the contours of a lean body, but be as wide as a fat one (and vice versa). What's sneaky about Beardsley is that his simple means let him do these things so coolly, almost without your noticing oddness.

What he can do with simplicity, he can do with intricate elaboration. The Rape of the Lock scenes are embroidered with decoration at a cellular level, a sense of detail that is ultra-fine without quite blurring, and seems, in the context of Pope's poem, to signify a world madly socialised; a world of infinite nuances and artifices, codes and manners. Person, hairdo, frock and furniture are hardly separable in the all-over pattern of ornament-camouflage; they merge into a single, super-sensitive social body.

Returning to stark blacks and whites, we see a similar thing in the The Wagnerites, an opera audience whose faces and decolletages are the only islands of white in a sea of blackness. Or, for supreme, pure-line innuendo, try the book cover for Ernest Dowson's Verses, a three-pronged "Y", composed of tangential curves whose complex tensions might need equations to explain themselves, though any toilet-artist could spell out their multiple hints of cleavage, buttock and pubic triangle.

Innuendo, knowingness and sophistication are all there. But put the Henry James question - ask What Aubrey Knew - and it's not altogether clear. An amazing graphic inventiveness and intelligence combines with a very wide-ranging and subtle dirty-mindedness. What's disconcerting about Beardsley's art is that it's so knowing; so controlled. He seems to leave nothing to impulse. There's no effect, linear or psychological, which isn't perfectly judged and anticipated, and this prevents his art from being either truly cheering or troubling. It doesn't prevent it from being one of the wonders of the modern world.

Aubrey Beardsley: V&A, South Kensington, London SW7, 0171-938 8500; daily until 10 Jan; pounds 5, concs pounds 3.50