The Weasel: Erotic enchantment

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The panto season is the perfect time for Dulwich Picture Gallery to mount The Age of Enchantment, an exhibition about illustration around 1900. Like pantomime, the works from this aesthetic cusp are concerned with transporting the viewer to somewhere exotic and magical. But anyone who visits Dulwich anticipating a wallow in the charming innocence of late-Victorian and Edwardian children's book illustrations an expectation fostered by the show poster, which features Edmund Dulac's gorgeous watercolour of an ice maiden flanked by polar bears is in for a shock. The first room is devoted to the seductive but disturbing work of Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), whose dark, precocious influence resonates throughout the show.

Populated by beautiful creatures of indeterminate gender, bosomy grotesques, sooty-eyed femmes fatales and haughty dandies, Beardsley's drawings, still mostly in private hands, are a grown-up, sexually charged version of panto. His bare-breasted Lady with the Monkey (1896), originally intended to illustrate Ben Jonson's Volpone, and his angry, dcollete heroine from The Rape of the Lock (1896), so much more vigorous and assertive than the shrinking, prissy males in the same picture, are astoundingly un-Victorian. His 1894 frontispiece for a collection by the forgotten playwright John Davidson includes caricatures of Oscar Wilde as Bacchus in vinous bondage and his sister Mabel Beardsley completely naked.

So utterly is Beardsley not of his time that it comes as a surprise to see that his beaky-nosed photograph, with chin cupped in hands like a Notre Dame gargoyle, was the work of the "Swan Electric Engraving Co". Similarly, it is slightly dismaying to discover that his work table, also included in the exhibition, is not embellished with improper carvings of caryatids, hermaphrodites and succubi. Though it comes with both the description ("wood, painted black") and provenance ("Aubrey Beardsley 1894-95...") customarily attached to artworks, it is a bog-standard Victorian kitchen table, very similar to the one currently creaking under weight of books in the Weaselian loft.

I can recall the terrific impact of the big Beardsley exhibition at the V&A in 1966 that revived interest in his work. It was sexy, naughty, stylish, corrupt and very much in tune with the Sixties. His monochrome swirls were suddenly ubiquitous in underground imagery. Dead at 25 from consumption, he was forever young. Beardsley's long-haired figures set a template for rock stars that continues to this day. Dress his Venus between Terminal Gods (1895) in jeans and white shirt and you have Mapplethorpe's portrait of Patti Smith from Horses (1975). His preposterous poseur The Abb (1896) is a young Freddie Mercury. Considering that the stylish corruption of his fantasies continues to entice viewers a century after his death, his potent influence on contemporaries is unsurprising.

The dark peril that is an essential part of panto is found in the work of Harry Clarke (1889-1931), described in the catalogue as taking "Beardsley's high Gothic line into new depths of depravity". His deeply eerie illustration for The Pit and the Pendulum is a perfect match for Poe's fervid imaginings: "Still I quivered in every nerve to think how slight a sinking of the machinery would precipitate the keen, glistening axe upon my bosom." More fish than human, The Mermaid by Sidney Sime (1867-1941) is a scary siren with mad eyes and mouth open in a silent scream. The most dedicated of Beardsley's disciples was a German artist known as Alastair (1887-1969), cheerily described in the exhibition catalogue as "obsessed with decadence and transvestism". His drawing of a high-heeled dancer from 1922 is reminiscent of Victoria Beckham in the figure-hugging gold outfit that grabbed the most column inches in coverage of the return of the Spice Girls. His 1928 drawing Passionate Embrace, in which an expiring woman is hauled from a floor-length floral dress by her besotted lover, is an unbuttoned version of Nicole Kidman's Chanel advert. Arthur Rackham's giggling, unclad Rhine maidens, their hair swirling in art nouveau curves, from an "adult-themed volume" of 1910 published by Heinemann is even more racy. Not only did sex exist well before the ending of the Lady Chatterley ban and The Beatles' first LP, but also the graphic novel.

Not having experienced his richly enjoyable illustrations in my youth, my greatest discovery at the exhibition was the French-born artist Edmund Dulac. I was particularly taken with his Arabian Nights watercolour from 1914: The room of fruits prepared for Abu-l-Hasan. In case this suggests that I am more interested in food than sex these days, I should explain that the bananas, oranges and coconuts are offered by seven equally delicious females. The exquisite detail and glowing colour of Dulac is a transporting feast for the eyes. After the mesmerising enchantments on the walls of Dulwich Picture Gallery, you emerge blinking into the suburban streets with the slight feeling that you have been booted out of paradise or at least the best panto in town.