For the first time in more than 50 years, Tate Britain will display a rare two-sided painting by the controversial Victorian artist Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898). This mysterious painting forms parts of a 250-piece exhibition, spanning seven years of the artist’s prolific career.
Only one side of Beardsley’s mysterious artwork – and his only attempt at oil painting – has ever been on display. Entitled Caprice, it depicts a man with dwarfism inviting a shadowy female figure towards an archway. Beardsley painted an ominously masked woman towering over a small white mouse on the hidden reverse.
“We don’t know who this woman is – it could be an imaginary subject,” proposed the Tate Britain curator, Caroline Corbeau-Parsons. “It didn’t enter the Tate collection until 1923 and we have never shown this side.”
As a child, Beardsley’s mother called him ‘my little mouse.’ “There have been lots of Freudian interpretations of the mouse in the painting. To me, it looks a decadent Mona Lisa, but I just don’t know,” suggested Corbeau-Parsons.
Considered the enfant terrible of 1890s London, Beardsley lived a very short yet very racy life. He was born into a modest home in Brighton, but later escaping his detested job as a Clerk to become an artist in London. Before he died of tuberculosis at just 25, he produced more than a thousand illustrations and designs. In 1894 the charismatic Beardsley also famously illustrated Oscar Wilde’s tragedy “Salome”.
Beardsley is perhaps most renowned for shocking the prudish Victorian masses with his erotic and suggestive artwork. “If I am not grotesque, I am nothing,” once said the artist whose work was often censored by puritanical editors. Even his depictions of androgynous angels were considered too gender fluid for publication at the time.
Speaking about the subtle sexual intrigue of Beardsley’s drawings, chief art critic at the Guardian Alastair Sooke said “he never serves things bluntly, in the manner of a pornographer, for his audience to get their kicks. His subjects may still shock.”
Tate’s ambitious exhibition of Beardsley’s distinctive artwork is the biggest show on the artist since the V&A’s London exhibition in 1966. Visitors can even expect to find a purple-walled room filled with Beardsley’s most X-rated drawings in the exhibition, which continue to both startle and delight viewers over 100 years later.
‘Aubrey Beardsley’ runs from 4 March – 25 May 2020 at Tate Britain, London.