Inventors of Gay: Aubrey Beardsley
Words by Christopher Harrity
August 21, 1872 – 16 March 16, 1898
A close friend and collaborator with Oscar Wilde, Beardsley had only a few brilliant years of artistic output before he died of tuberculosis at 25. He was daring, transgressive, and a darling of the Decadents. His black and white line drawings with flattened Japanese perspective were both beautiful and considered obscene.
After an early start as a musical child prodigy, he ended up working in a life insurance office. That did not last long. He attended Westminster School of Art, and soon his brief career— only six years— was off to a start.
He co-founded the legendary Yellow Book magazine with American writer Henry Harland. The Yellow Book was notoriously frank and is from where the Yellow in “Yellow Journalism” comes. He was also closely aligned with Aestheticism, the British counterpart of Decadence and Symbolism. In the 1960s during the revival of the Art Nouveau style, his work was rediscovered and became wildly popular, decorating posters, household objects, and clothing.
He created a large collection of very erotic work influenced by Japanese shunga (erotic) art with absurd sexual situations and gigantically large male genitalia. Some of these works were his illustrations for a privately printed edition of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, and his drawings for Oscar Wilde's play Salome, which eventually premiered in Paris in 1896.
Beardsley said, "I have one aim—the grotesque. If I am not grotesque I am nothing." And he was famous for his style. He was always dressed in extreme and flamboyant clothing that might be interpreted as “goth” today. His apartment was famously decorated all in orange and black. He was a completely unselfconscious oddball.
Oscar Wilde said he had "a face like a silver hatchet, and grass green hair."
Beardsley’s sexuality was always speculated on, but in his psychological self portrait (right), he answers all.
Oscar Wilde —Poet, playwright, and proto-homosexual. The wittiest man of the era.
Algernon Charles Swinburne—Poet rumored to be the real identity of Jack the Ripper.
James McNeill Whistler—Aesthete and second most witty man of the era—then there is the painting of his mother.
Why we care:
•His lascivious artwork convinced us that sex did exist before 1967—really crazy sex.
•He was unapologetic about his tastes and desires.
•His artwork influenced pop artists (Peter Max) and rock promoters (Bill Graham)
•He was goth, punk, and emo before the terms were coined.
Lucian's Strange Creatures
The Rape of the Lock
The Exaimation of the Herald
"Inventors of Gay" is our series on important people and cultural influences in LGBT history that helped create the culture we enjoy today.