IN 1891, AUBREY BEARDSLEY wrote to a former teacher: "I am now 18 years old, with a vile constitution, a sallow face and sunken eyes, long red hair, a shuffling gait and a stoop." This self-image remained with Beardsley until he died of tuberculosis at the age of 25. But his artistic genius, his self-deprecating wit and his sexual fantasies combined to produce the most extraordinary line drawings of the late 19th-century England. Miriam Benkovitz has written a generally informative biography of this doomed artist who created powerful images from the mystery of his own frailty.
In his drawings and posters, the image of the "Beardsley woman" -- with a massive but graceful body, sensual lips, heavy-lidded serpentine eyes -- is commonly associated with the liberated New Woman of the 1890s, but she also represents Beardsley's domineering mother (his father seems to have played no discernible role) and possibly his sister, Mabel (later an actress), who he addressed in at least one letter as "Dearest Ma."
Rumors have persisted that he and Mabel committed incest, an attempt by the consumptive to merge with the life-giving female. Benkovitz reviews the charges brought by previous biographers against Mabel -- an illegitimate son, an abortion observed by Aubrey, lesbianism -- all without evidence. Concludes Benkovitz: "And she may have practiced incest. Who knows what goes on behind closed doors?"
In Beardsley's drawings and in his uncompleted Story of Venus and Tannhauser, sexual fantasies reveal his fascination with ritualized perversions. In the story, every conceivable form of sexual experience is depicted in an elegantly depraved mythological world, including Venus' customary morning ritual of masturbating her pet unicorn -- and more. In its ingenuity and wit, its elaborately artificial style, the tale evokes not lust but laughter.
In 1898, Arthur Symons wrote in an obituary that Beardsley expressed a vision of evil "with an intensity which lifted it into a region almost of asceticism." The leering street-walkers, erotic satyrs and dwarfs, walking fetuses, and exposed hermaphrodites are the private mythology of a diseased body and visionary intelligence that have witnessed, if only imaginatively, the agonies of existence. His own sense of displacement in the world was expressed to his former teacher at the age of 20, when he resigned from his dreary post with an insurance company: "If there was ever a case of the (square) boy in the (round) hole, it was mine." The sexual implications in his remark are equally obvious, which might dispel the notion of incest with his sister.
The "Beardsley Boom," or "Beardsley Craze," began in 1894, when the artist was 21, with his daring contributions to The Yellow Book, of which he as art editor and major contributor (the successful American novelist, Henry Harland, also a consumptive, whom Beardsley met in his doctor's waiting room, was the expatriate literary editor). As he acquired fame and monetary success, he progressively assumed the pose of a dandy to mask the decay beneath his elegant exterior, but one wit quipped cruelly that even his lungs were affected.
In April 1895, Beardsley was suddenly fired as art editor when Oscar Wilde was arrested for homosexuality (Wilde, who once said that Beardsley's face was like a silver hatchet, was not a contributor to The Yellow Book, but Beardsley was associated in the public mind with Wilde because he had illustrated Salome with drawings that were erotically suggestive, though he satirized Wilde's bloated sensuality in several of them).
In 1896, Beardsley became art editor and chief contributor to the short-lived avant-garde periodical The Savoy (of which Arthur Symons was literary editor). He again fell seriously ill early in 1896, though he continued to draw and write with unrelenting intensity. By late March 1897, he converted to Roman Catholicism, "the most important step" in his life, but he later offered his publisher some obscene drawings. Though his soul was presumably attended to, his body was still subject to fits of bleeding; in his letters to his publisher, he often wrote with levity of his agonizing existence, ending one letter with "Yours in a state of decay."
His father a consumptive, Beardsley had a profound sense of the inevitable brevity of his own life, prophetically depicted in an 1891 drawing (not discussed by Benkovitz), titled "Hamlet Following the Ghost of His Father," which shows a physically debilitated Hamlet in a shroud about to enter a seemingly impenetrable forest. Previously, he had drawn an illustration for Ibsen's Ghosts, which depicts the hero's doom because of syphilis transmitted from his father.
What appears to be insufficiently developed in Benkovitz's biography is interpretation of the artist's psyche "sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal," as W. B. Yeats writes in his poem "Sailing to Byzantium." A vision of Beardsley requires a grasp of the creative tensions of his ambivalent self-image as expressed in his life and art, at once ascetic and licentious. Shortly before his conversion, he wrote to a friend: "Chastity has almost become a habit with me now, but . . . it will never become a taste."
In telling the story of Beardsley's life, Benkovitz efficiently assembles the facts of his agony but reveals little of their imaginative expression. His final months of life are movingly depicted in the last pages, a rare instance when Benkovitz's prose rises to near eloquence. Like Keats, also dead at 25 from consumption, Beardsley, she writes, "outstripped time with his achievement."