The Victorians: buttoned-up, sermonising, empire-loving sexophobes. And their art? Sentimental pictures of big-eyed children and bigger-eyed spaniels, right?
Well, #NotAllVictorians. Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) did things differently. His slinky black-and-white drawings are filled with sex and death and… well, sex and death mainly. Associated with Oscar Wilde – he produced the illustrations for Wilde’s ‘Salomé’ – Beardsley’s images caused a fair amount of scandal.
They also titillated and thrilled, and while it would be false to imagine Victorians up and down the land plastering their bedroom walls with Beardsley soft porn (rather than imagining a smallish group of bourgie art-loving Londoners consuming it), the simple existence of it beautifully disrupts what we think we know about the Victorians.
This gorgeous retrospective covers pretty much everything Beardsley did, from early medievalist and mythological subjects through to illustrations for The Yellow Book (a quarterly arts publication) and explicit pictures of Ancient Greeks getting frisky. The earlier pieces are similar to Edward Burne-Jones’s work but while Burne-Jones was crushingly bad at depicting feet, Beardsley is king at drawing heels (an underrated talent if ever there was one). The small curve of flesh below the ankle is, perhaps, the sexiest thing of all in his artworks.
The obviously sexy pics, meanwhile – the ones with the extra-large cocks and the woman having a powder puff popped between her bum cheeks –
seem a bit teenage when viewed all together. As one of the plaques politely suggests, these images might well suggest ‘frustrations’ rather than wild sexual excess for the artist.
More interesting are the androgynous, gender-fluid aspects. Tate Britain’s emphasis of this could be an attempt to jump on the zeitgeisty bandwagon, but the theme emerges so naturally it doesn’t feel cynical. A photo-etching illustrating Théophile Gautier’s ‘Mademoiselle de Maupin’ shows the title character in frilled britches and a Musketeer-like floppy hat, looking not unlike Rachel Weisz out hunting in ‘The Favourite’. It’s audacious, bold, sexy and knowingly funny – and not a bit what you expect from the Victorians.