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The Ice Maiden
Alexa Actionable Analytics for the Web. AmazonGlobal Ship Orders Internationally. Amazon Inspire Digital Educational Resources. It can just as easily represent a rearguard action fought by the avant-garde against both the accepted art of the time and conventional cultural values.
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With almost no formal training in art, he learnt to draw by imitating engravings by Mantegna, Japanese erotica, and Walter Crane's picture books for children. A technical genius with no allegiance to one school or style, he also possessed an imaginative vision as far-reaching as any in British art. But his is an art of surface, not depth.
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It appeals to the eye and to the mind, but rarely touches the emotions. In this show we move from his stiff, medievalising illustrations for Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, to one of his most famous drawings for Oscar Wilde's Salome, in which he imitates Japanese art, treating pictorial space as a flat field on which to dispose figures and near-abstract forms.
And, in his frothy illustrations for Pope's The Rape of the Lock, he turns for inspiration to the French Rococo at its most frivolous.
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But what is truly decadent - and absolutely inimitable - about Beardsley has nothing to do with his eclectic visual sources, his exquisite draughtsmanship or his boldly original compositions. It is that his drawings exude a sense of evil so pure and palpable that it can almost make you reel. Look at the face of Salome as she prepares to kiss the severed head of John the Baptist: But you could never mistake Beardsley's leering, predatory street walkers for anything other than what they are.
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Whatever subject he is treating, he uses wit and sex as subversive weapons, trusting that his audience will spot the sexual puns discreetly inserted into apparently harmless illustrations and, in doing so, become complicit in the act of schoolboy transgression each represents. This sense of danger died in British art with the trial of Oscar Wilde for indecency in Wilde's conviction had catastrophic consequences for any artist associated with symbolism or decadence.
In particular, those identified with The Yellow Book had to be careful. When one review of the notorious periodical called for an Act of Parliament "to make this kind of thing illegal", he was referring primarily to Beardsley's illustrations - but "this kind of thing" could easily be construed to refer to the crime for which Wilde was sent to prison. At a stroke, a deeply ingrained visionary tradition in British art - extending from Burne-Jones and Rossetti to John Martin, Fuseli and Blake - was wiped out as a whole generation of artists either left the country or toned their work down.
Art in this country has never, before or since, sunk so low. Except, that is, for illustration. Taking their cue from Beardsley, black-and-white illustrators such as Laurence Housman, Sydney Sime, and Charles Ricketts all turned their backs on nature. It is as though they pulled down the blinds of their studios, the better to cultivate their beautiful - and often violent and erotic - fantasies. Now, too, they begin to send themselves up.
For the first time ever in British art, we can detect a distinct note of high camp. The one who came closest to catching the transgressive quality of Beardsley's art was the Irishman Harry Clarke, whose illustrations to Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination were directly responsible for the night terrors that helped to ruin my childhood. In this show, we see Clarke's visualisation of the horrifying scene from The Pit and the Pendulum in which the narrator, bound to a plank with crisscrossed strips of thick black cloth, stares out at us with fear-crazed eyes as rats swarm over his naked body, including his mouth and groin.
Clarke's genius resembled Beardsley's because he did not just illustrate Poe's stories - he brought out their sadomasochistic subtext. The work of Beardsley and Clark was intended for grown-ups, not children. But the extraordinary illustrations of the amazing Sidney Sime aren't so easy to categorise.