Aubrey Beardsley is especially impressive as an illustrator because of his extensive experimentation with technique and style. Over the course of a short career, his art transitioned through very distinct phases. Beardsley's 1894 illustrations for Oscar Wilde's Salome are particularly striking. These works are characterized by bold use of black and white. Beardsley often fills large areas, such as a figure's clothing, with solid black while leaving much of the background completely white. The positioning of figures and other compositional elements results in large empty white spaces. The compositions are at times almost abstract, with figures that float or appear out of scale. The pictures often appear severe and otherworldly.
In The Platonic Lament, the design forms a backwards L shape that leaves the upper left side of the picture noticeably empty. All of the narrative is confined to the lower right side of the illustration. A seemingly nude male with long hair leans over a prone figure in a shroud and clasps its head. The shroud is represented by a large black shape with no interior line work that dominates the scene and contrasts with the simple whiteness of the nude figure. Under the supine body (which seems to hover in midair) a grotesque jester crouches. In the background, a flowering vine grows around vertical poles and a very geometric tree is visible. The illustration is striking because of its unusual composition and use of negative space. It is also mildly unsettling; the significance of the figures and of the other symbols in the picture is unclear.
Beardsley's later illustrations lack the graphic force of his Salome illustrations. As William Butler Yeats writes, "Mr. Beardsley created a visionary beauty in Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, but because, as he told me, 'beauty is the most difficult of things,' he chose in its stead the satirical grotesques of his later period."
1. In later works such as the illustrations for Pope's The Rape of the Lock, Beardsley almost never uses solid black or empty space. Instead he works with lots of thin lines to depict hair, detailed costumes, and elaborately decorated interiors. Very little space is left blank in these drawings. Why might the artist have shifted from a more avant-garde and decorative style to this elaborately detailed approach?
2. Comparing Beardsley's illustrations for Malory's Morte d'Arthur (1893-94), Wilde's Salome (1894), and Pope's The Rape of the Lock (1896), can the stylistic changes be described as following a linear evolution?
3. Do Beardsley's Salome illustrations resemble the work of any other artist we have looked at? Why or why not?
4. How do Beardsley's designs relate to the arts and crafts movement and the decorative arts?
5. Is the prominence of the bellybutton on many of Beardsley's figures significant?
William Butler Yeats. "A Symbolic Artist and the Coming of Symbolic Art" [an essay on Althea Gyles]. The Dome. London 1898.
Last modified 27 November 2006