This Frontispiece to Chopin’s Third Ballade might seem a rather restrained work for Aubrey Beardsley, the naughty young dandy who scandalised and titillated late-Victorian London. There are fewer of the decorative inky curlicues that sprout with abandon across his signature works and no bare breasts and bold pudenda, not to mention the outsize rampaging hard-ons from his famed illustrations for Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Here his horsewoman is a picture of properness in her full skirts, blouse buttoned to the neck and a smart, feathered little hat. Yet the image’s libidinal current is only slightly subdued. With crop in hand this neat equestrian tames the careening white stallion between her legs: a prim dominatrix astride a whopper of a phallic symbol.
This work was created in 1895, the year Beardsley’s friend and collaborator, Oscar Wilde was arrested on charges of sodomy. Like the writer, whose play Salome he had illustrated, Beardsley cultivated an outré public image and was as renowned as a well-dressed dilettante as he was an artist. Caught up in the furore that followed Wilde’s arrest, he lost his job as art editor with The Yellow Book, the leading arts and literature periodical of the day. Forced to go underground, he fled to France where he became fatally ill. Following a religious conversion, on his deathbed he asked that his erotic works be destroyed, a dying wish that was fortunately never granted. Beardsley died from tuberculosis at the tender age of 25 but he lived long enough to become a poster boy for fin de siecle decadence – and indeed he created the moment’s most iconic poster images.
Frontispiece to Chopin’s Third Ballade is on show within Watercolour, Tate Britain, London until 21 August.