Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Following in Line

Aubrey Beardsley, The Peacock Skirt, 1894, Line block proof on Japanese vellum, Collection of Dr. Michael Richard Barclay

When Aubrey Beardsley, decadent bad boy of British illustration, died after a scant quarter century on this earth in 1898, he left a body of work that sent shock waves throughout the world of illustration. You either embraced or rejected Beardsley, but you could never ignore the boundless talent that created works such as The Peacock Skirt (above). The Peacock Skirt came to symbolize the abundantly overflowing skill of Beardsley and was quoted in the works of those who followed many times over. Rodney Engen’s The Age of Enchantment: Beardsley, Dulac and their Contemporaries 1890-1930, the catalogue to the exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, recreates this golden age of illustration that began with Beardsley in many ways but never ended in any real sense. Engen ties together many of the prevailing forces on artists of that era and highlights the art and personal lives of these great, often forgotten masters of illustration.

Edmund Dulac, Sinbad the Sailor entertains Sinbad the Landsman [from Stories from the Arabian Nights], 1914, Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection

The same Orientalism that flavored many of Beardsley’s works appears clearly in the illustrations of Edmund Dulac, the French-born Art Deco artist who took his love of the East and Far East further than any Western illustrator had done before. In his illustrations of the Stories from the Arabian Nights (an example above), Dulac created “a more refined world of orientalising, which greatly appealed to a younger audience tired of gloomy historicism,” Engen writes. Dulac’s close study of Persian miniatures, one of his many passions in collecting, provided a living sense of detail that comes across in his work. A friend of the W.B. Yeats, Dulac shared the poet’s love of the Japanese Noh drama, another aspect of the Orient that Dulac lived rather than copied in his drawings. A dramatic figure to the end, Dulac died in 1953, at 70 years of age, from a heart attack after dancing the flamenco.

Jessie M. King, The Sea Voices [from Seven Happy Days], 1914, pen and ink, watercolour, and sivler on vellum, Victoria and Albert Museum

Beardsley’s love of Arthurian legends continued on in the works of many artists, including Jessie Marion King. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their love of medievalism created a lasting impression on all British art of the period, but perhaps left their most lasting imprint on children’s illustration. One of the Pre-Raphaelites, Edward Burne-Jones, actually served as a mentor to Beardsley during his work illustrating Le Morte Darthur. After Beardsley’s death, however, the dark aspects of medievalism gave way to “a healthier, less dark and more wholesome love of fantasy,” as can be seen in such works as King’s The Sea Voices (above). King loved the folk ballads of her native Scotland and even designed her own mock medieval dresses to wear as an outward sign of her love of the Arthurian and the fantastic. The gentle washes of color add a softer feel to King’s art that the stark black and white of Beardsley lacked. After World War I, a rage for color eclipsed the days of pure black and white line illustration and further challenged artists.

Edward Detmold, Tiger, Butterflies and Fan Palms, colour etching, Private Collection

“With the rise of the wealthy Edwardian middle classes,” Engen writes, “came a yearning for escape from the horrors of industrialization and the urban sprawl that accompanied it.” Epitomizing this “new rural religion” is the work of Edward and Maurice Detmold, twin brothers who collaborated on works stunning in their naturalistic detail that drew comparisons to Durer while they were still teenagers. “The Detmolds were, for a generation of enthusiasts, the supreme masters of nature in art,” Engen claims, backing it such claims with works such as Edward’s Tiger, Butterflies and Fan Palms (above), painted after his brother’s tragic suicide in 1908.

The story of the Detmolds is just one of the many fascinating tales of these forgotten artists. Sidney Sime, who scratched imps and devils onto the walls of the coal mines he worked in as a child, rose from poverty to become a revolutionary figure in terms of technique and imagination, creating images as disturbing as any by Odilon Redon. When asked to explain his hesitancy over illustrating the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Sime responded, “You see, I am looking forward to meeting Poe in Hell and I am loathe to do anything that would embarrass the encounter.” Arthur Rackham created 3,000 illustrations and 150 books over a 40-year career dominated by Germanic influences such as Durer, Bosch, and Grunewald. His nephew called him “the only truly happy man I have come across” thanks to his ability to escape into his work regardless of wars and even air raids. Perhaps the most quizzical figure of this group, Alastair, drew fantastic, unreal images that echoed Beardsley at his most decadent and perhaps even surpassed the master. Engen calls Alastair “an enigmatic puzzle, a curious mixture of petulance, childishness and anger, who refused to be pinned down and was always on the move.” Engen gives each of these shadowed figures another day in the sun, spotlighting the immense talent behind these striking personalities.

Kay Nielsen, The Faun, watercolour and bodycolour, Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection

For me, the most fascinating of these forgotten artists remains Kay Nielsen, the Danish artist who took his love for folklore and married it to his encyclopedic grasp of multiple artistic cultures. “Nielsen’s winning formula was derived largely from his beloved folkloric background,” Engen argues, “he also borrowed from a love of early Italian painting, from the delicate Persian miniatures and Indian and Chinese landscapes which he mixed and borrowed in a process he called ‘artistic wandering.’” Such “wandering” led Nielsen to a successful career in illustration through works such as The Faun (above) and later brought him to America and Hollywood to work on Walt Disney’s Fantasia, specifically the “Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria” sections. Many of the works by Nielsen come from the Kendra and Allen Daniel Collection, which was on display in 2007 at the Brandywine River Museum in the Flights Into Fantasy exhibition (reviewed here). The inclusion of Nielsen in this international exhibition will hopefully raise his profile within the art world as well as establish this era of illustration as more than just kids’ stuff.

Aubrey Beardsley, Sir Launcelot and the Witch Hellawes [full-page illustration for Le Morte Darthur]. 1893-4. Private Collection

Engen chooses 1930 as the cutoff date for this exhibition with a degree of sadness. Although the taste for Beardsley-inspired art (including Le Morte Darthur, above) faded, the artists themselves remained to “live out their careers in disappointment, anger and soul-destroying neglect,” Engen laments. “As they watched the century progress and its poor standards of artistic taste surround them, it was for many too much to bear.” Edward Detmold continued working after his brother’s death, eventually becoming a hermit, until despairing over fading sales and taking his own life in 1956. Kay Nielsen died a broken and forgotten man in 1957. Many others simply faded into the shadows of art history, waiting to be rediscovered. Fortunately, the boldness and brightness of the work itself lives on in this catalogue and exhibition, perhaps finally reaching that hour when their lives, which Nielsen once said were “devoted to the lyrical and the poetic,” no longer seem lived in vain.

[Many thanks to the Dulwich Picture Gallery for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to The Age of Enchantment: Beardsley, Dulac and their Contemporaries 1890-1930 and for the images above from the exhibition.]

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