Who Was Aubrey Beardsley?
My childhood in The 70s was spent riding horses, Roller Skating, and with my Mother’s shelves of art books which she allowed me to handle once I was old enough to manage them responsibly.
Art books of the mid-20th century were large and heavy table-top sized affairs that often had onionskin-paper between the pages so the bright colored inks in the graphics did not transfer over to the next page. It was in one of these books that I discovered the strange and fascinating world of Aubrey Beardsley.
Most art books at the time came in two different kinds of presentations; the comprehensive volumes which had everything in it including nudes and what some may consider “obscene”; and the commercial volumes that had a tiny bit of edgy stuff but was mostly “fit for the whole family”. It was in the latter commercial volumes that I first saw Beardsley’s work and was completely struck by the exotic tones of it. The more “in depth examinations” into Beardsley’s catalog of art was high up on another shelf that I could not reach. It would be over a decade before I saw Beardsley’s complete works and it was well worth the wait. I admit that some of his works are quite naughty. However, the best artists always have a bit of the fiend in them, don’t they?
Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) was a ferociously prolific graphic designer and illustrator, who lived a painfully unhealthy yet fast and furious life. He was born in England in 1872 and died in France in 1898 of Tuberculosis at the age of 26. In his brief yet no less passionate existence he was deeply admired for his talent yet was later reviled just like his famous frenemy, Oscar Wilde, who would also die in France just two years later. The two men knew each other professionally, openly admired each other’s work yet disliked each other immensely. The reason for the drama is not really known, but I suspect that Wilde’s paramour, Lord Alfred Douglas, may have been the reason.
Unfortunately, much has been made about Beardsley’s sexuality yet after 120-years no one has really pinned it down. Why it matters? I don’t know. Who he screwed and how seems to be an issue with some historians. All I know is, Beardsley hung out with the London theater crowd as his sister was a popular actress and his crew included many fashionistas and entertainment luminaries from Oscar Wilde’s clique. It has been written that Beardsley had relationships with both men and women, but was largely celibate due to his poor health. After all, it is difficult to have sex let alone think of doing so if you can’t breathe. He enjoyed wearing flamboyant fashions and it was rumored that he often donned women’s clothing at home as he found it “more comfortable”. In fact, he spent a lot of time drawing designs of women’s fashions and often depicted himself in his own drawings as a man with feminine features.
“I have one aim—the grotesque,” said Beardsley, and depending upon whom you ask, he achieved that. Me, I’m not offended by his work. Neither do I find it ugly. Bare breasts and bottoms don’t shock me. Perhaps me growing up with the history of European art at my fingertips has something to do with that. Mind you, I was conditioned early on to accept the natural and nude human form in art and not be ashamed of it. I was also taught from a young age to view art not as a definitive reality but as only one possibility that was subject to change at any time. That Beardsley referred to his own art as “grotesque” tells me that he didn’t think it was grotesque at all, but rather loved the idea that others were shook up by it. He was essentially a provocateur.
If anything were to be “grotesque” about Beardsley’s art it would be the cold and almost inhuman expressions on his subject’s maniacal faces. They are like the Japanese ghosts in Ukiyo-e prints; stark white, cold, feral and catlike. In fact, it is said that Beardsley’s art was influenced by Ukiyo-e woodcuts. I can see that it might have been, but I see other influences as well, namely Edward Burne-Jones and other artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, including the king of wall paper prints William Morris, believe it or not.
Beardsley’s illustrations in various books and magazines, particularly The Yellow Book, caused a huge sensation in 1894 by simultaneously managing to excite the social progressives and offend the aging Victorian moral majority who were disgusted that alleged “sodomite” Oscar Wilde was seen carrying a copy of The Yellow Book around town and into court where he was being tried for “buggary”. In the latter’s mode of thinking, Beardsley must be guilty of the same.
But the most astonishing thing about Beardsley’s art is, once he gave it to the public it never stopped being influential. Even after he died, his muse was instantly resurrected and he began to live on and on in every decade henceforth despite the fact he never walked this earth again. He didn’t have to. Beardsley’s ascendancy floated above the decades like a starfield that fellow artists could pluck a shard of light from and wield his dark magic anew. That is not poetry speaking. That is fact.
The Cult Of Beardsley: 1900 and Counting
During The Edwardian era and on through into The 1920s and 1930s you see the ghost of Beardsley’s salacious style of curves, his vision firm in the glorious works of Paul Poiret and Erté , both who softened the expressions of the women sublimely, a testament to their own talents that Beardsley’s inspiration only enriched.
In the 1960s and 1970s Beardsley would have a huge influence on psychedelic poster art, fashion and textiles. The Beatles “Yellow Submarine” channeled Beardsley heavily and Beardsley’s image appears on the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1967) next to notorious English occultist Aleister Crowley which indicates to me that they envisioned Beardsley as some form of a mystic.
The Arcade Era: Beardsley Undercover
Unfortunately the majority of people involved in the classic arcade collecting community -in fact, I’d wager around 99% – don’t know who Aubrey Beardsley is let alone care enough to consider why his influence on several of Universal’s arcade games is so important. I know because I have been trying to point this out for at least a decade and the majority of people think I’m crazy. Regrettably, there exists people who have no feeling for art and view people who do as being “weirdos”. But back in 1979 when Universal released Cosmic Alien and Cosmic Guerilla the design of the games cut an impressive silhouette and moved a lot of people. But it was the art work upon them that was even more compelling, specifically Magical Spot (1980) with its Beardsleyian nymphs:
Two twin nymphs pose with their trophy -the severed head of a moth whose wings they’ve stolen. Note their outfits and accessories are made up of pieces of past trophies from other hunts. Although I do not know who the artist hired by Universal was, from the nymphs’ dark and exaggerated nipples, to their long and angular faces and sinuous soft-bellied bodies, the “school of Beardsley” is definitely in session here.
Whereas most arcade games at the time followed a standard utilitarian shape, Universal/Japan chose to put their Space Invader clones into Art Noveau-style cabinets with an undulating curve around the “head space” which gave the cabinets a sexy and provocative shape. This deviation from the norm was a deliberate design attempt to give the player of the game an extended perception of closeness with the monitor which is essentially where the sensation of the game “lives”. When you play a Universal game that curve gives you the feeling that you are being pulled into it. It’s subtle yet intimate and pure design magic.
The art work on Magical Spot, Cosmic Alien and Cosmic Guerilla are definitely Beardsley-inspired and only added to the darkly alluring pathos of the design. Although not particularly great games, they looked good, and to collectors like myself who value the artistry of these forgotten hold-overs from the psychedelic era, they are grails. I have three Universal titles myself and I went through years of searching to find them.
The greatest compliments paid to Aubrey Beardsley’s art to happen in my lifetime prior to Universal’s fabulous Beardsleyian arcade games, was Fleetwood Mac giving a nod to him on the cover of their 1977 album “Rumours”. Beardsley would have loved those two little balls dangling and the man’s foot on the tuffet. He would have found them quite amusing and kicked himself for not thinking of it first.
When I bought my Magical Spot for a measly $300 in 2014 quite a few fellow collectors snickered at me for doing so, thinking that my interest in arcade games as objets d’art was pretentious and rather strange. Others ignorantly proclaimed the game was “ugly” and had (forgive me) “trannies” on the front. I was also told that the game “sucked” and was a “shitty Space Invaders clone”. But I have never allowed someone else’s indifference to art or literature to affect my love and admiration for both. All I saw in that game was Beardsley. My advice to anyone is, “If you feel something…whether it’s for a person, a painting, a song, or a view overlooking a city that no one ever noticed before. Gather it in and hold it. It’s been looking for you, too.”
On the day I finally got my Magical Spot, I was so stoked about it that I had to fight back tears when I saw it for the first time in the parking lot of a Portland, Oregon gaming convention where I picked it up. It was only when it was loaded into the back of the truck and I was on the freeway that I let my emotions loose. And like a sentimental fool who remembers everything about the moment when someone or something moved their soul, in perhaps one of the most eerie moments of synchronicity that I can remember, Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” from the “Rumours” album bearing Beardsley’s imagery came on the radio:
“Loving you isn’t the right thing to do;
How can I ever change things that I feel?
If I could, maybe I’d give you my world…”
Aubrey Beardsley did just that. As a young artist with a tragically short life span and only 5 years to create his entire body of work, he gave us his world. All that he had. His influence lived on in every generation since his death, impacting the design of everything from dinner plates to even video game cabinet art and design. The least we can do is try to preserve what is left of that legacy and keep looking for art and beauty in strange places. You honestly never know where you’re going to find it.
Beardsley is seen as much today as he was in in The 1960s due to a resurgence of interest of psychedelia and its various artistic styles. From fashions to wallpaper to house furnishings -you can find it. I suspect with the publishing of this piece Beardsley fans will learn for the first time that you can also own at least three vintage video arcade games that pay homage to him. To my knowledge no one has ever made the Universal Arcade/Beardsley connection but me. Granted, I’m weird. Ever since I was a child I’ve looked for the distant past around me and I’ve usually found it.
In fact, I promise you this: If you just stop and look around you, you will see the long ago past in modern culture and understand that everything around us is but a continuation of someone else’s dream that was cut short or ended naturally; that nothing ever truly falls out of fashion but is born over and over again, propelled by the tailwinds of the next speeding generations of youth. I am pleased to see that Beardsley is once again popular with young people and I look forward to seeing what brilliant things they accomplish under his influence…including video games.