Saturday, 17 January 2015

the yellow nineties or zero shades of grey

 I listened to a delightfully funny and engrossing panel-discussion on the controversial but probably well-understood artist Aubrey Beardsley. Forever twined with the scandals of Oscar Wilde—though professionally, the two always tried to distance themselves, fearing their individual and different flairs might be cancelled out as a talent combined, Beardley’s prints were repulsively erotic and decadent, debauched and corrupting, and despite sensibilities that have grown a bit more tolerant and receptive, I think the black and white illustrations still shock and still nudged underground, despite the brilliance of the artistry, and have no place in polite society. Indeed, looking at them, one does have a sense of having uncovered something supremely smutty and checks to make sure that no one is looking over one’s shoulder. Many times there are surprisingly lurid doodling details hidden in the loops and swirls.
It’s hard to find a modern analogue, I think, because Beardsley was apolitical, though importantly challenging society’s dirty little secrets and however disgusting one might find the pictures everyone intuited exactly what they were about, but maybe John Waters and his troupe of Dreamlanders (Divine, Mink Stole, Patty Hearst and Traci Lords) in transgressive films like Mondo Trasho, Pink Flamingos, Hairspray and A Dirty Shame maybe comes close. Beardsley’s sketches are quintessentially Art Nouveau but I did not realise that his foundry was really the propagating force behind the style, contributing-editor to a quarterly magazine devoted to graphic design (the publication was bound in a yellow cloth cover, hence the name of the decade that vied with the other designation, the Gay Nineties). Moreover the cultural-exchange between Japan and England, whose woodcuts strongly influenced the young artist, and the way that the style that typified the era was reimported and reinterpreted is fascinating to consider.