“I am nothing if I am not grotesque,” Victorian illustrator Aubrey Beardsley once said when asked to explain his art.
It’s a fitting summary for the new exhibition of his work at Tate Britain, which takes the viewer on a tour of life’s darker and more sinister corners.
Wandering its 15 rooms, you are shunted continually between the gruesome and the bawdy, the ugly and the erotic. One minute you’re looking at an image of Salomé kissing the severed head of John the Baptist, the next a caricature of a man with a comically giant erection.
Given the amount of material on show, it’s a surprise to learn that Beardsley died in 1898 at the age of just 25. By that time he had produced well over a thousand illustrations, working feverishly because he knew the tuberculosis he contracted aged seven would make his life a brief one.
During that quarter of a century, he did all he could to push the boundaries of Victorian propriety. Beardsley was known as a decadent dandy, probably dabbled in transvestism, and counted Oscar Wilde as one of his closest friends, something for which he once lost a job on a society magazine. He refused to shy away from sexuality in his work, and there are drafts in the exhibition where penises have been scribbled out by nervous editors.
You can put your phone away, because this is not a blockbuster spectacle of an exhibition. In fact there’s barely even any colour, the whole thing having a brooding, gothic sensibility befitting of the artist.
The real joy of Beardsley’s work is getting drawn in to the details. The cast of recurring characters who linger suspiciously in the background of his works include gnarled foetuses, little demons, mermaids, and horned, goat-like deities.
His illustrations may have been made in the dying days of the Victorian era, but their bold style, sense of humour and rebellious spirit means they remain as pertinent as ever.