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Taboos & Tolerance

The art of love: Aubrey Beardsley

Sharp lines and strict eroticism

Aubrey Beardsley: Frontispiece to 'Earl Lavender', 1895

Aubrey Beardsley was naturally drawn to the whip. A Full and True Account of the Wonderful Mission of Earl Lavender, Which Lasted One Night and One Day is a satirical romp through decadent London of the 1890s, written by a Scottish poet John Davidson. There is one episode set amongst flagellants. That's what Beardsley illustrates for his frontispiece to the work.

It's a little masterpiece of elegance and economy, irony and dirty-mindedness. In a well-furnished drawing room, a woman busting out of her corset raises a scourge. Her victim, stripped to the waist, kneels before the fireplace. His head bends out of the image's oblong border in an act of pictorial humiliation.

Beardsley is drawn to the subject because he can find many affinities between sadomasochism and drawing. His lines make every edge feel fine opulently delicate, exquisitely sensitive. The straight lines are like rods. The curlicues are sharp as fruit-knives. The whole scene tingles. The exactness of his draftsmanship has connotations of strict discipline.

Two types of lines are especially notable. There are the outlines of the victim's skin, rather sluggish, the flesh awaiting the lash. And there are the three single lines that represent the whip's thongs, creeping like wires through the air, each with a tiny little knot. Beardsley gets perversity into the very grain of his medium. Ouch.