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From The Magazine of Art: “Aubrey Beardsley and the Decadents”

The patient public is always having something offered it to live up to. Yesterday it was the blue tea-pot; to-day it is The Yellow Book and The Savoy. The majority, of course, plod on their stolid way, unconcerned with the baubles of art, but there are always some for whom its esoteric mysteries have a charm, and who would rather die than lag in an up-to-date movement. These are at present agog over the Decadents, whose dazzling travesties, in black and white, of “the human face divine” are art’s latest sensation.

    The blue tea-pot was a mild diet for the soul. It did not nourish, but it did not harm. The Decadents supply stronger food, but they mix it with a poison that makes it perilous to swallow. This I shall try to prove by an analysis of the wares of the chief purveyor, Mr. Aubrey Beardsley, and a glance at the general characteristics of the school.

    Mr. Beardsley might adapt the mot of Louis XIV., and say, almost without arrogance, “L’Art décadent; c’est moi.” In his work we have the most complete expression of what is typical of the movement—disdain of classical traditions in art, and of clean traditions in ethics; the fin de siècle outlook on the husk of life, and brilliant dexterity in portraying it; also, perhaps, a finer feeling for the tools of art than for its materials.

    Mr. Beardsley’s career has been meteoric in brilliance, yet at present he has all the appearance of a fixed star. He is one of those in whom genius is no smouldering ember, but a many-tongued flame.

    While still in art embryo, he caught and pleased the eye of Puvis de Chavannes and Sir Edward Burne-Jones. It said much for his talent that such diverse men combined to praise it. The qualities detected in the boy were no doubt those which Hamerton, in his critical note in Vol. II. of The Yellow Book, eulogises in the man: “Extreme economy of means. . . the perfection of discipline, of self-control, and of thoughtful deliberation at the very moment of invention.”

    Beardsley’s first big work was the decoration and illustration of Malory’s “Morte d’Arthur,” for Dent and Co. In this his bold use of black and white, with its skilfully-graded ink-values, made a palpable hit. True, some marked achievement in line-drawing was to be looked for as a result of the growing facilities for reproduction of line work. The opportunity was obvious, but that takes nothing from his feat, for genius just means, after all, an eye to perceive the obvious. The volume Salone left his hands next, and shortly after, in The Yellow Book, he made his bow independently to the public. At present he continues to charm by his work in The Savoy and Pope’s Rape of the Lock.

    The more we ponder these works, the more we see the justice of Hamerton’s criticism. Everywhere there is the prolific, yet thoughtful and seems to be a pecular tendency in Mr. Beardsley’s mind to the representation of types without intellect and without morals. Some of the most dreadful faces in all art are to be found in the illustrations of the play Salome. We have two unpleasant ones here (Yellow Book, Vol. I.) in L’Éducation Sentimentale. There is distinctly a sort of corruption in Mr. Beardsley’s art so far as its human element is concerned.” This is much from a man of Hamerton’s moderation, and it might be more. There is hardly an adjective in the dictionary too ugly to sling at the hectic vice, the slimy nastiness of those faces. And they can be pure and glad—some of them are—but Beardsley is a Decadent, and must do as the Decadents do: he must gloat upon ugliness and add to it; and when it is not there, he must create it. Compare his impression of a familiar object—Mrs. Patrick Campbell, for instance—with our own; the Beardsley trail is on her face, and it is curious to think what the Duchess of Devonshire would have been in his hands instead of Gainsborough’s. But this fact, while it exasperates, has its own comfort for those who would see the world fair; for if we find an artist besmirching his model when we can test results by our own experience, the chances are he is always at it, and the ugliness he dresses out for us is in his own eye.

    To be a devout Decadent, too, you must not only be wicked; you must be worse—as Punch would say—you must be vulgar. Mr. Beardsley has a trick of superimposing one style on another—Japanese on mediæval, mediæval on Celtic. That does not matter so long as he has the genius to unify; but what does matter is that the ground-work of them all should be Cockney, and the coster be so prominent in the motifs. “The Slippers of Cinderella,” in Vol. II. of The Yellow Book, is ‘Arriet on ‘Ampstead ‘Eath done into a Japanese patch, down—or rather up—to the very feather on the “donah’s” bonnet. In fact, The Yellow Book was just a glorified Pick Me Up, and both are utterances of the Cockney soul.

    There is nothing easier than to prove a kinship between the two. The Yellow Book may be considered as a younger brother who, through superior educational advantages, has forced himself into good society where the family taint, known as vulgarity at a penny, becomes decadence at five shillings. Yet the poor relation is perhaps the better man of the two; he has pleasant Cockney traits that the parvenu lacks, a certain sunny joie de vivre, and a kindly humour. In London’s lighter follies, made a specialty of by such men as Dudley Hard, Phil May, Grieffenhagen, Raven Hill, this sunny vein is to the fore. It is in most of their men and women who trip and swagger in the popular “weeklies.” Such draughtsmen dance to the tune of the letterpress, which is seldom a stately measure. They have a wonderfully versatile brush, and with one sweep describe an arc from Pick Me Up to Good Words. Their feud with the Philistine is no more; they and he kiss mutually over posters for soaps and toothpastes. One wonders if, on the whole, they do not gain by falling short of the dignity of decadence.

    This term, in itself, is rather damning. Instead of an upward mounting to the zenith, it suggests the downward slope of things to night and death. The nations ripe and ripe, and when they rot and rot, decadence is the tale that hangs thereby. There seems to be, in the story of every people, first the battle for life and the hardy growth; then the early spring voices of the poets, and the sound, sweet fruit of art. The bloom of the fruit continues, but the plague-spot is at the core. This spreads till it poisons the eater, and the best that can befall is some strong wind of change—revolution or even extinction—to shake it to earth, that wondrous alchemist who transmutes all decay into new life.

    If we accept this figure as illustrative of the Decadents, it saves us the difficulty of a definition, but commits us to rather a sad view of our times. I think it is both pleasanter and truer to see, in the decadent movement, just the inevitable swing of the pendulum. We have had as much corruption before, followed by the most austere purity. England has wonderful recuperative powers. She has been sick to death a dozen times, but never dreams of dying. She has a day of asceticism and a day of debauch. Congreve and Wycherly were the reaction from Milton and the Roundheads; and Messrs. Beardsley and Company may quite well be the swing-back from the somewhat emaciated purity of the Pre-Raphaelites. The spirit has had its innings—now for the flesh and the devil. And, after all, it is a very partial swing.

    But there is a happier way still out of the difficulty. Why not hoist the Decadents altogether off our shoulders and saddle them on to France? She has a nice broad back for such things, and Mr. Beardsley won’t be the last straw by many. Let us hug ourselves on our iron constitution, and the clean bill of health we should have, but for the tainted whiffs from across the Channel that lodge the Gallic germs in our lungs. Our Beardsleys have identical symptoms with Verlaine, Degas, Le Grand, Forain, and might quite well be sick from infection. If we are to blame them at all, it is only, so to speak, for their trick of hanging round Dover, not to hear Matthew Arnold’s “eternal note of sadness”—the sadness of the great soul’s baffled longing, echoed by the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of the sea, “retreating to the breath of the night-wind,”—but to have news of the café-chantant.

    Ought public feeling, then, to run dead against the Decadents?—and do the notice and praise they have won point to a debased standard of criticism among us? This is just a paraphrase of the old problem, Does art exist for art’s sake, or as the handmaiden of morals? Is beauty enough without goodness? Here, as in everything else, it is the perception of half-truths that halves the world for warfare and pitches its opposing camps. If in unity we would dwell, we must work our way up earnestly from fractional to total surveys. Entire praise, and entire blame of men such as Mr. Beardsley, is each but a half-estimate. We must apply the half-estimates to the corresponding half-achievements, and join them by a hyphen before we get the final word of truth. Art-critics are apt to err in their partial definition of beauty. Ought not the term “beauty” to connote all that elicits the permanent joy and approval of mankind over the whole field of experience, both sensuous and spiritual? Each of us is but a unity in the sum of being, and can contribute but a mite to the sum of beauty. Some may try to do it ethically, by pure conduct; some asethetically, by pure line. But, while none can be expected to emphasise more than one or two points in beauty’s limitless field, and the tendency George Meredith complains of in us, to judge works of art by what they are not, is absurd; still, in the emphasis of one point there must be no denial of another. Art for art’s sake is sound doctrine. The first concern of pictorial art is with line and colour. It has no more to do with preaching than a sunset. Non-moral it may be as much as it pleases, but immoral never. The moment it becomes immoral it does concern itself with ethics, and denies the principle of beauty in its moral manifestation.

    That art like Beardsley’s, so excellent in technique and so detestable in spirit, wakes more repugnance than praise—proves us a nation stronger in ethics than in art. We are true to the Teutonic strain in us, and we are not Goths for nothing. But there is Latin blood in us as well—enough, let us hope, to temper harshness, and allow us to give the Decadents the honour which is their due. In the externals of art they are doing good work, and even their flippancy may have its uses, if it jeer us out of conceit with the bourgeois sentimentality of the average painter.

    Hamerton closes his criticism of Mr. Beardsley with a kindly hope that he may yet “see a better side of human life.” ’Twere a fair hope to have realised in us all. There may be a better side of life than any of us have yet beheld, reserved for the vision of the pure in heart, who in God’s works see God.

MLA citation:

Armour, Margaret. “Aubrey Beardsley and the Decadents.” Rev. of The Yellow Book. The Magazine of Art, 1897, pp. 9-12. Yellow Nineties 2.0 , edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.