I wonder if a hundred years from now people will look back at the 1990’s and early oughts talking about the fin de siecle period of the twenty-first century and some explosion of the arts that we do not yet recognize because we are in the middle of it. I don’t see how. The turning of a century was once thought to bring its own special energy and daring. Certainly the emergence of the twentieth from the nineteenth was a breathtaking period in almost every field of endeavor. Just writing about it gives me that special skirl of energy and anticipation in the spine that you get just before an exotic trip or a new love—that lush, sensory cue that, if God truly does love us, He will let us ride on into the great mystery. I can feel that sensation and follow it studying Beardsley’s pictures.
I imagine sitting down on some random point in any of his lines, then riding it like a roller coaster ‘til it carries me to every part of his drawing. It is a breathless ride that twists and twirls through every surprising place. A great many artists have taken that same ride; Beardsley’s shadow looms large in the work of Edward Gorey and Gahan Wilson. His severe black and white tableau are the epitome of art nouveau flamboyance tempered by an academic English restraint. Which is not to say Beardsley didn’t let himself go. His illustrations for Lysistrata are so completely rude they would probably draw protests today. But the monstrously large genitalia of these illustrations make them about as prurient as a photo of a pine cone. They are less salacious than they are intellectually impertinent.
Despite his friendship with Oscar Wilde and his welcome within his inner circle, it is likely that Beardsley had little if any sexual experience. The pictures of Salome that he did for his friend’s play betray far better the likely hunger in his heart for a sexual life. His Salome is dangerous, indeed, in every way that matters.
At the end of his life he coverted to Catholicism and regretted what he now saw as his wicked art. He begged his representatives to destroy his “…bad pictures” so they could not be seen again. His agent lied through his teeth and assured Beardsley that he would handle it. His works survived to influence vitually all of illustrative art right down to the present day, just as Beardsley himself had once been influenced by the posters of Lautrec. All artists stand on the shoulders of the artists that have come before. Maybe that’s why so much modern art seems moribund. Maybe all the modern artists are feeling scrunched with so many giants beneath them. Maybe we should raise the ceiling.
They tell us that in this new age everything is so much faster. Our technology ensures that we make an impact on society in the shortest possible time. Maybe so. Beardsley died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five. John Keats also died at twenty-five. Seems pretty fast to me.