During his short career as commercial artist in fin de si*ecle England, Aubrey Beardsley scored an outstanding success. Unlike most illustrators, he attempted more than a mere commercial art, and he had enough technical equipment to become a significant draftsman of the nineteenth century.
Today, along with rising interest in the Art Nouveau movement of the 1890's, Beardsley has been brought once more into the limelight. As the show in Lamont testifies, his gifts were indeed impressive--he was a fine caricaturist (see his amusing sketch of Mendelssohn), his mastery of line at times equals Ingres' and his formal arrangements recall the brilliance of Toulouse-Lautrec. Though he was a clumsy landscapist, incompetent in his handling of perspective and an uninventive colorist, he had the good sense to play down these weaknesses and concentrated instead on the flat black and white sketches of people in urbane surroundings for which he is so famous.
After duly appreciating all this technical assurance, though, I remain unaffected by most of Beardsley's art. Almost all of his works suggest that he used his craft without conviction or spirit. In his very best work, the Salome set in particular, his skill is matched by a twisted demonic compassion, a wierd love of the grotesque which gives the drawings a forcefulness that commands attention. But the majority of pieces in this exhibition are merely lovely designs which at their best provide stylish colors for The Yellow Book.
Beardsley's subject matter is original and imaginative enough, with its grotesque women, debauched men, cavorting gnomes and malevolent dwarfs, but his technical approach to these appears off-hand, and insufficiently inventive. Though no design in this show is incompetent, most lack the power they might have had if Beardsley had been a little more adventurous and a little less facile. Even the fine Ali Baba, the epitome of gourmanderie, bulging with corpulence, could have used a more radical treatment. As it is, one finds it a very excellent, but conventional, treatment of an extremely unconventional subject.
Without a consistently dazzling and imaginative technique, Beardsley's drawings take on an unpleasantly decadent tinge. The super-sophisticated subject matter is not elevated or illuminated by the artist's compassion. Beardsley, one feels, did not really care about most of his work, most notably his slick "fashion ad" drawings for the Yellow Book. He drew the stylish and stylized images well, brilliantly often, but left them lifeless and hollow.
Included in this well-chosen show of the best of Beardsley's interesting, but unsatisfying, graphics are two paintings, by Burne-Jones and Albert Moore, demonstrating the Pre-Raphaelites' influence on him. When one realizes that these works were done by the leaders of late Victorian art, he can fully appreciate the scope and importance of Beardsley's technical accomplishment. Another artistic force in Beardsley's career, the Japanese eighteenth century print-maker, Utamaro, is likewise represented with two works. However, these subtle, lyrical works tend to point up Beardsley's limited emotional attachment. The conviction which dignifies the art of Utamaro rarely can be found in the elegant, but laconic creations of the gifted Mr. Beardsley.