The Exhibition of Aubrey Beardsley

Tate Britain, London SW1 (020-7887 8888, tate.org.uk). Until 25 May
Aubrey Beardsley’s career was a tragically brief one, Cut short by his death from tuberculosis aged just 25, it spanned a mere seven years – but “what a career” it was. A dandy with an “impish wit and a filthy imagination”, Beardsley (1872-98) scandalised Victorian society with his startling black and white drawings, gaining notoriety in particular for his illustrations of Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé. Taking influences from a diverse range of sources – from Pre-Raphaelite painting to Japanese prints – he produced more than a thousand drawings of “dazzling variety and originality”. His portraits, caricatures and illustrations came to be seen as the epitome of “fin de siècle decadence”. This new show at Tate Britain is the first major exhibition of his work in London since 1966, and offers an excellent opportunity to rediscover a singular talent. Bringing together more than 200 drawings and prints and reams of archival material, it is a “splendid” testament to Beardsley’s “genius”.

His images for Salomé are still “startling” today,“Corpses appear to levitate; the Moon has a bizarre female face; androgynous figures appear naked beneath Japanese kimonos and trailing peacock cloaks.” In an illustration entitled The Climax, Salomé stares raptly at the severed head of John the Baptist. Most of his work has a strong sexual undercurrent, but Tate Britain has reserved a side room for the most obscene prints, a “neverland of fauns, satyrs and androgynous beauties”, of “fleshy dandies”, “masturbating matrons” and young men with “colossal members”. His sexually charged images could not be further from our expectations of Victorian art, But many of his explicit pictures – notably one of a “woman having a powder puff popped between her bum cheeks” – seem embarrassingly “teenage”.

Beardsley could well be accused of having a “puerile sensibility”,But his “flowing graphic style – a harbinger, with its graceful arabesques, of art nouveau – was always supremely refined”. There’s also an unexpected poignancy: diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of seven, Beardsley was well aware the disease would take him young. In one 1894 self-portrait, he goes so far as to depict himself lying in bed, “a tiny, vulnerable figure in a polka-dotted turban”. This exhibition has its weaknesses, but often enough it is “drop-dead gorgeous”.