Aubrey Beardsley is best-known for his black and white, often erotic, illustrations that shocked the masses in the late 1800s. An upcoming exhibition of his works will include his only attempt at oil painting called Caprice (c. 1894) and a surprise gem: its verso. Underpaintings are fairly common when you start examining works but having an entire painting on the back is something less usual and Tate Britain is making sure you have the opportunity to see both of Beardsley’s works.
Beardsley’s works are often laden with sexual connotations and Caprice is no different. A dwarf leads a woman, dressed in black, towards a door in a sinister manner with overt sexual undertones. Though it’s hard to pinpoint why, the scene is unsettling. Though cruder than his sleek illustrations, the painting is included more as a curiosity than as a work of great art and its verso only adds to its mystic.
Turn Caprice over and you’ll find an image of a woman, dressed in black, vibrant red lips with a black mask sat before a white mouse. ‘We don’t know who this woman is – it could be an imaginary subject, said Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, curator of the Tate Britain, in The Guardian. ‘It didn’t enter the Tate collection until 1923 and we have never shown this side.’
Simply titled Masked Woman with a White Mouse, the portrait calls into question Freudian notions according to Corbeau-Parsons and Tate Britain, and this painting has rarely been seen. Growing up, Beardsley’s mother called him ‘my little mouse,’ thus opening the floodgates for speculation over connections Freud’s theories on symbolism and mice. However, according to Corbeau-Parsons, Masked Woman with a White Mouse ‘looks [like] a decadent Mona Lisa,’ so it seems that she, for one, isn’t entirely convinced of the Freudian connections.
For nearly a century, the painting has been on display at Tate Britain, showcasing Caprice. For Beardsley’s exhibition starting tomorrow, though, a special display case has been created so that visitors will be able to see both sides of the painting, so that they can take in both portraits and draw their own conclusions over its meaning.
The painting(s) will be shown alongside nearly 250 works, primarily drawings, by Beardsley. Though his life was short – he only lived to be 25 – Beardsley was prolific and prolifically controversial. Beardsley worked as an art editor for The Yellow Book, an avant-garde journal, when he produced the Comedy Ballet of Marionettes series, which was an obvious inspiration for Caprice. The young artist also worked with Oscar Wilde to illustrate Wilde’s Salomé. However, when Wilde was arrested and prosecuted for gross indecency, Beardsley was forced to resign from his role at the journal.
The exhibition will surely become a must-see as the artist has shocked and inspired viewers for over a decade. Seeing the two-sided portrait, though, will be an added bonus for those attending the show.
‘Aubrey Beardsley’ runs from March 4th through May 25th at Tate Britain.