Giant Penises And Nudity Galore: Aubrey Beardsley Makes Tate Britain Blush


Giant Penises And Nudity Galore: Aubrey Beardsley Makes Tate Britain Blush


Aubrey Beardsley, Tate Britain


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Aubrey Beardsley was the first editor of The Yellow Book. Image courtesy Tate.

A virile young Spartan brandishing a comically oversized penis greets an elderly Athenian with a withered member. The old man is so in awe, he reaches out to touch the Spartan’s genitalia.

This is the salacious world of Aubrey Beardsley — an illustrator so controversial he had to be censored. A lot.

While the young artist sometimes got away with explicit imagery, prudish sensibilities of the Victorian age usually meant Beardsley could often only hint at a sexual encounter. Two women sat in a cafe look chaste enough, until you spot one of their hands venturing beneath the table.

The Tate’s exhibition is filled with such hidden codes, and it pays to get up close and intimate with the art.

A self-portrait of the man himself. Image courtesy Tate

Early Beardsley drew inspiration from his love of theatre and it’s only when he started to get commissions that his drawings soared in originality. But the prudes were always on the sidelines; genitals are crossed-out by puritanical editors. Androgynous angels we can now freely admire were deemed too gender fluid for publication at the time.

It’s a shame Beardsley wasn’t let off his leash more — this was when he was at his bawdy best. Think Cupid dusting the bottom of a woman sorting out her make up.

It’s not all about the sexual and the scandalous though. Novel subjects abound, skimming dreamlike and nightmarish worlds — from a grotesque, grumpy-looking foetus to a floating Salome gazing lovingly at the decapitated head of John the Baptist.

Salome gazes longingly at the head of John the Baptist. Image courtesy Tate

Beardsley and his imagination were prolific — perhaps because knew he was living on borrowed time (he succumbed to tuberculosis, aged 25). Tate ensures the black and white portfolio is punctuated by posters and paintings that inspired him. There’s a silent film of Salome — the Oscar Wilde play that played muse to many of Beardsley’s drawings — and a room dedicated to the artist’s circle of friends that gives some wider context to his work.

Despite the Victorian censorship, enough of this will still make 2020’s Tate visitor blush. You can only imagine how much wilder Beardsley would have grown, given more time. And if your inner Helen Lovejoy is exclaiming “Won’t somebody think of the children!”, it’s OK, they’re all safely upstairs.

Aubrey Beardsley, Tate Britain until 25 May. Tickets are £16 for adults. Note: at peak time the exhibition will get busy, and there may be a small wait to get up closer to artworks.

Last Updated 03 March 2020

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