comet Aubrey Beardsley visible in Orsay

It has been compared to a meteor, because of a short and intense life, but it is rather a comet, of those that we watch intensely the time it passes, with a mixture of fear and fascination, the memory of which lasts a moment in the memories, then eventually fades: born in 1872, died in 1898, at 25 years old, Aubrey Beardsley holds it. The Musée d’Orsay is devoting an exhibition to him, around 120 works (plus a few of his friends), drawings and engravings, the first in France.

Well, not quite: during his lifetime, he exhibited in Paris, Galerie Bing. There he rubbed shoulders with the painter Jacques-Emile Blanche (1861-1942), who had made a specialty of social portraiture. Or rather, demi-mondain, if one agrees to store literary and artistic glories there, as, after all, it would be appropriate in an orderly society … Blanche painted the face of this child born to people of few (her father did little jobs in breweries, his mother boiled the pot while giving piano lessons), but who, at 20, was already famous on both sides of the Channel.

Jacques-Emile Blanche’s painting shows an apparently gangly young man, with a long, somewhat pale face – he is suffering from tuberculosis, and at the time he is portrayed only has three years to live – turned three-quarters, hemmed with lips that, in the past, one would have qualified as sensual, dominated by a fine nose, but prominent, and hair a little long, but wisely combed with a parting in the middle. The jacket is adorned with a flower at the buttonhole, the white shirt is crowned with a slightly loose bow tie, the waistcoat buttoned up, and the silver-headed cane carried high as it should be.

Pig designs

A dandy, as the text introducing the first room of the exhibition describes it, “Symbol of the end of the century decadence, lover of the beautiful bizarre (…), unconventional and provocative ”, add the curators of the Musée d’Orsay, Leïla Jarbouai, graphic arts curator and Elise Dubreuil, decorative arts curator, associated with Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, curator at Tate Britain. We learn that he is also “Pioneer in the representation of identities and desires associated with sexual freedom and gender fluidity”. They did not go so far as to write the text in inclusive writing, but we have the feeling that the desire was there.

Read the article (from 1968): The return of Beardsley or the lace of sin

Nothing is known about Beardsley’s sexual preferences, and besides, it is only of relative importance. What is certain is that he made pig drawings (texts too, as evidenced by The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, published in French in September by Editions de Paris-Max Chaleil, 104 pages, 15 euros), and worked for a publisher, Leonard Smithers, who was a big fan of bizarre books, of those that were sold under wraps (but he also published the review The Savoy, with texts by Joseph Conrad, William Butler Yeats or Stéphane Mallarmé) in Victorian England. Contrasted end of reign, where, of a morality corseted by Queen Victoria, escaped some lustful young people, starting with his own son, the future Edward VII, who left a reputation of merry luron.

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