Japanese art and erotica: Aubrey Vincent Beardsley and Katsushika Hokusai

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Japanese art and erotica: Aubrey Vincent Beardsley and Katsushika Hokusai

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (1872-1898) died before reaching the age of 26 in 1898 because of tuberculosis. Despite living for only 25 years Beardsley leaves a powerful legacy within the Art Nouveau movement and similarly his poster styles were extremely significant for the period. Beardsley was clearly influenced by moku hanga which means Japanese woodblock printing.

Indeed, Beardsley would have been welcome with open arms within many aspects of Japanese ukiyo-e. This notably applies to shunga and the power of erotic art within this Japanese art movement. Also, aspects of the “grotesque” and the endless freedom of many Japanese artists irrespective of political laws sometimes infringing on art in this country, meant Beardsley would have felt at home in the land of the rising sun.

Katsushika Hokusai belonged to a world that was unknown to Beardsley and this applies to culture, thought patterns, different time period and a host of other important factors. Hokusai (1760-1849) is internationally famous because of creating many stunning pieces of art and the images of the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji highlight an artist who was in tune with nature. Likewise, the power of The Great Wave of Kanagawa is unbelievable. However, in the field of shunga and artistic creativity, then clearly Hokusai and Beardsley share a common theme irrespective of the art they produced.

The sensibilities of individuals and mass contradictions which are part and parcel of such a chaotic world, equally applies to the “labels” surrounding both artists. However, like usual, these “labels” can be destroyed easily despite all the conditioning which happens within each society, family structure and so forth. Yet “connections” remain standing long after reality is known. Therefore, while Hokusai is remembered for depicting stunning nature it is fair to say that Beardsley is also stereotyped in the opposite direction.

It is easy for many individuals to think about Hokusai and John Constable within the same area of art despite the art form being extremely different. After all, Hokusai and Constable are linked to classical art, culture, nature, landscapes and other positive images. This means that individuals connect Hokusai with stunning art like The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Fuji in Clear Weather, Red Fuji, Umegawa and so many other majestic pieces of art. Likewise images of Constable take you to the world of the The Hay Wain and Dedham Vale.

Despite this, Hokusai and aspects of the work of Beardsley could easily meet in the world of Japanese shunga. Notable pieces of art with erotic connotations by Hokusai can clearly be found in kinoe no Komatsu and the creativity and imagery of The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife is amazing. This notable piece of art is still powerful today because it takes people to a different world. In saying that, the richness of The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife may not be understood fully outside of Japan.

The J. Paul Getty Museum website states about Beardsley that “From a young age, Beardsley displayed a natural aptitude for drawing. Despite little formal training, he devoted his energies to art and produced drawings that revealed broad influences including Greek vase-painting, Japanese prints, French Rococo decoration, and the paintings of Andrea Mantegna. Embarking upon a brief yet brilliant career, Beardsley received a commission to illustrate a new edition of the King Arthur legend in 1893. The following year he became the art editor and illustrator of a new quarterly journal, The Yellow Book. Beardsley’s illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s celebrated play Salomé earned him his greatest professional acclaim, but his professional association with the flamboyant Wilde led to dismissal from the journal. Beardsley quickly rebounded, however, and became principal illustrator of another new magazine. During this period he also illustrated numerous books and composed poetry and prose. Aware that he was dying of tuberculosis, Beardsley pushed himself to explore new psychological and erotic realms. Ill from the age of seven, he died in Paris at twenty-five.”

Unless individuals have suffered from terrible illness and “faced death in the face” then one can only imagine the see-saw reality of the impact of tuberculosis on Beardsley. He knew that he was at “deaths door” and this fact can either crush individuals – or alternatively, it can free people during their remaining time on this earth. Of course, the psychological reality of death reaching out and coughing up blood daily must have impacted greatly on Beardsley. Also, being so young and gifted and not having the time to show the world the gifts that he was blessed with must have been terribly frustrating.

Ironically, just like Paris would impact greatly on Japanese artists throughout the Meiji period and right up until World War Two, the same angle also impacted greatly on Beardsley. He visited Paris in 1892 and the post art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec intrigued him greatly. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec also adored aspects of Japanese ukiyo-e and this art form was particularly popular in certain artistic communities during the time of Beardsley. These two areas of art would appeal greatly to Beardsley and influence him greatly during his six major years of creativity before passing away at the tender age of 25.

It is stated that Beardsley was notably controversial within the Art Nouveau art movement because of his sinister approach to art and fusing this with extreme images of grotesque erotica. The perverse nature of some of his images meant that controversy abounded because of the norms in society, or perceived norms outside of “closed doors.” However, in the world of Japanese shunga and the powerful images done by Hokusai, then grotesque erotica and sinister attributes will have been understood on the grounds of reality and artistic imagination.

Also, the nature of tuberculosis and seeing his own shadow getting weaker meant that eroticism may have been a connection with life itself. It is too easy to jump to conclusions because the reality that was going through his mind could have been a million miles away? Likewise the sinister nature and grotesque erotica of some of his art could be deemed to be the world he witnessed, whereby death was all too common, especially from diseases like tuberculosis.

Beardsley came full circle in 1897 because he converted to Roman Catholicism and turned against some of his art. This notably applies to Lysistrata but clearly Beardsley also had issues related to other art pieces that he produced. The following year the severity of several tuberculosis attacks would ultimately end his life at the age of 25. Yet, much remains a mystery and clearly nobody knows the path that he would have taken if he had lived into old age. Therefore, Beardsley responded to the negative cards that had been dealt to him.

Hokusai in contrast to Beardsley lived to a relatively old age and the commercial reality of shunga and different cultural connotations during the Edo period, means that “erotic art” will have had different cultural values in Japan during this period of history. Indeed, what may be deemed to be “erotic” outside of Japan may be viewed to be “normal” within the same country, based on cultural and different thought patterns related to art.  Given this, Beardsley is easy to understand within the ukiyo-e art movement because of the diverse nature of Japanese art when it comes to subject matters. Hokusai is internationally famous for reasons largely outside of shunga while Beardsley remains known to people who understand the richness of art.

The real tragedy is that Beardsley was never able to grow and develop. However, from a selfish point of view, if Beardsley had not felt the onrush of death and entered different worlds because of this reality, then maybe Beardsley would never have reached the same height? Of course, this is “a selfish comment.” Also, art, just like life, is unpredictable.  Therefore, nobody will ever know the true answer but irrespective of this it is clear that Beardsley achieved much within a short artistic life. Hokusai meanwhile could enjoy the many decades given to him to produce many adorable pieces of art. Given this, Hokusai’s stunning landscapes have reduced his shunga art to the shadow of history for the vast majority of people who don’t fully understand the diversity of this amazing artist.







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