Aubrey Beardsley : A Biography

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9780006550563: Aubrey Beardsley : A Biography

In this informative life of Beardsley, the great turn-of-the-century illustrator, limner of impossibly elongated, imperious femmes fatales and fey androgynes, Sturgis captures both his precocious subject's rise to infamy and the cultural changes that made it possible.

Like Oscar Wilde, Beardsley was a leading member of the Decadent movement in England during the 1890s. Together they shocked the press and the establishment by cultivating the pose of dandies, coolly removed from prevailing social mores, and took aim at the dominant figures of the late 19th-century art world: moralizing critic John Ruskin and the sentimental pre-Raphaelite painters. That Beardsley met an early death at the age of 25 after a lifelong battle with tuberculosis was especially ironic, as the cult of the doomed youth was central to the Decadent movement. Throughout, Sturgis is in full command of the cultural conditions that led to Beardsley's emergence as an enfant terrible, such as the newly available illustrated picture press that made the artist's deliberately shocking drawings easily available to the masses and turned him into a media-art star avant la lettre. Sturgis never resorts to flimsy psychological conjecture (although his circumspection may in part be due to Beardsley's own efforts to fashion an elaborate mask for public consumption), and the biographer's prose is unexpectedly affecting when the end comes for his subject, as Beardsley rushes from spa to sanitarium, searching for a cure, frantically taking up and abandoning projects all the while. Arriving as it does in the midst of our own surface-obsessed fin de siecle, Sturgis's biography is not only a faithful record of Beardsley and of his world but also a useful study of the birth pangs of modernity. 26 b&w photographs and Beardsley's line drawings throughout.

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Review:

Diagnosed with tuberculosis at age 7, the talk of London before he turned 22, and dead at 25, Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) was a textbook example of the doomed artist he and his fellow decadents admired so much. British journalist and art critic Matthew Sturgis paints an evocative picture of the cultural milieu that shaped Beardsley, with its ferocious rivalry between the idealistic Pre-Raphaelites and the more sardonic English impressionists, who ultimately claimed Beardsley's loyalty (though the ambitious teenager initially gained the patronage of Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones). The author's portrait of Beardsley is equally vivid, limning both his dandified affectations and underlying sweetness, his dedication to art and the distaste for sustained work that made him the despair of his publishers. Beardsley's unique black-and-white drawings--perfect for the new technology of mass reproduction--made a sensation, first with the commissioned artwork for Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur and Wilde's Salome, then in the bold periodical he founded with friends, The Yellow Book. But Wilde's trial for gross indecency tainted Beardsley (though Sturgis's take is that he was more likely a virgin than a homosexual); he was fired from The Yellow Book; and his tuberculosis worsened along with his commercial prospects. The author depicts his subject's agonized final months with the same judicious sympathy he trains on "The Beardsley Boom" of 1894. --Wendy Smith

From Kirkus Reviews:

A portrait of the artist as a young decadent. Though tuberculosis killed Beardsley at the age of 25 in 1898, by then he had already attained success as an eye-catching illustrator and celebrity as the definitive graphic artist of decadence. As Stu rgis (Passionate Attitudes: The English Decadence of the 1890s, not reviewed) shows, Beardsley's accomplishments resulted from an intense dedication to his work and the sedulous cultivation of a doomed dandy's (ultimately well-justified) pose. For all his affectations, his family was thoroughly middle-class, though his mother had an unconventional streak. Before he began studying drawing, their straitened finances forced him to take a position in London as a clerk. Although Beardsley served an apprentices hip with the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Edward Burne-Jones (William Morris thought he had talent only for drapery), Sturgis also notes Whistler's influence, not only through his japonisme and the ``Ten O'Clock Lecture,'' but also through his extravagan t dandyism and instinct for public relations. Beardsley became famous for his erotic and cruel illustrations for Oscar Wilde's Salome, yet despite his independent achievement as art editor of the Yellow Book, his fate was linked with Wilde's scandalous do wnfall. Although he withstood the Victorian backlash and being fired from the Yellow Book, his death from tuberculosisthe era's epitomizing diseasein truth capped his career. The notable company Beardsley kept yields numerous interesting anecdotes and bon mots from Wilde, Whistler, Frank Harris, Max Beerbohm, and W.B. Yeats, though Sturgis always qualifies, and sometimes must correct, their unreliable testimonies. With occasionally arch prose, the author places Beardsley as a significant presence in a lar ger group. The only drawback to Sturgiss biographical approach is his failure to examine the importance of sexual obsession and satire to Beardsley's artistic persona. A life rendered with rich detail and sly touchesbut not deeply. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen) -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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