'Behind his grotesques, there seemed to lurk some curious philosophy', Oscar Wilde remarked of the equally curious Aubrey Beardsley. Beardsley's admittedly beautiful images used black and white drawing in a way never before seen in the West, but what are they really about and why do we still need them after a hundred years?
One example will suffice: in a rose garden, a bored, naked girl pretends too look the opposite way while preparing for her beau. A tall person arrives, his clothes bedecked with layers of flaps and sporting more hair than a small pony, making a pattern so hectic that he seems to have burst into flames. For the male - or not very male - lead is making his grand entrance, all swank and hair, whispering a dirty joke, but one lacking in libido or even a sense of fun, leaving his mate to play alone. Has his costume come out of a Christmas pantomime? And why is our hero wearing that wig? No wonder that the girl has decided to think twice about her hot date - Adam and Eve never behaved like this - and is on the point of simply giving up and eating the apple just to allay the boredom.
Studying Beardsley means that every rule propounded earlier in the 19th century has to be learned all over again - in his drawings he finds subtlety and beauty in everything, however horrid. Like a children's game, what is stated is immediately overturned, leaving certitude dangling in space. The High Victorians revelled in such nonsense, in the absurdities of Carroll and Lear, and rightly so. But as the end of the century drew near, a more frightening aspect appeared - after all, wasn't the fin de siècle getting out of hand?
For ordinary people, this signified something terrifying. For others, it was a great adventure with no end in sight, in the course of which new ways of thinking were born. For the rest it meant hatred for what they could not imagine: 'uglification', foreignness, the emancipation of women - not least symbolised in the figure of Beardsley himself: a giggling, unwell, dirty-minded oik living light years away from the ordinary. His one-man attempt to disgust was a complete success: 'If I am not grotesque, I am nothing' he proclaimed, and meant it. After all, he had plenty of practice. Beardsley slept with his sister, Beardsley went to Paris, Beardsley came under the wing of Wilde, who claimed that he had 'made' him. Better still, there were others like him, and what their behaviour meant for art at the time was tremendous. Beardsley was one of the first punks, while at the same time occupying the position of being the most unusual boys' school teacher in history.
But it is impossible to explain the man without his drawings. Their main impression is one of erotic game-playing, performed in the most superb way, or they exist merely as a vehicle, a gift, for showing off. No wonder - this was a child who never grew up and spent most of his life convalescing. Even when he drew himself in his sickbed, he depicted himself in the oddest way. More than anything, he seemed to evade his own image, his entire existence - not unusual for a boy in such straits - using pen and paper to conceal and erase himself. But this might also explain his fetish for dressing-up, wearing the very opposite clothes to those of, let us say, the suave Wilde.
Playful or serious sex-changes; flamboyant beauty shielding weakness; the role of truth or its opposite, were at the centre of Beardsley's work, intertwined in his intricate Japanese-inspired designs. Moreover, his deft use of comedy and spite belonged at the centre of a particular time: pre-Modernism, it might be called - all screens and hospital rooms. It's no surprise that this moment has evaded easy definition. One of the most important aspects of the 1890s was naughtiness - a penchant for smut that is also seen in the work of Alfred Jarry. But the fin de siècle could happily embrace this, along with the disruption of certainty and, at the same time, accommodate an admiration for Burne-Jones. Perhaps the sex jokes and the sheer cheek of Beardsley's work will be overtaken by an understanding of the drawings as perfect images of him dying, disappearing into his favourite colours: white and black.