Aubrey Beardsley's Siegfried

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Stephen Calloway:


I’m standing here in front of an extraordinary drawing by Aubrey Beardsley.  It’s called Siegfried, and it’s probably the greatest masterpiece of his early years.


Beardsley was certainly one of the most precocious artists of the 1890’s.  We have to remember that his career was incredibly short.  He came to fame at only the age of nineteen, and by the age of twenty-five he was dead from tuberculosis, so his career was constrained by these few years of the hectic activity.  This is one of the most extraordinary feats of draughtsmanship drawn with a very fine nibbed pen which Beardsley effected at this time, so that he could create the most intricate patterns of lines, but then with washes of ink, some diluted, some heavier, to create a richer tone.


The draughtsmanship was understood at the time to be of an extraordinary nature.  Beardsley gave this drawing to his mentor, Edward Burne-Jones, the Pre-Raphaelite painter. We know that Burne-Jones actually took down an engraving by Durer and actually hung this up in its place. Of course, Beardsley was immensely proud of this connection.  In later years they unfortunately rather fell out, but in that time Beardsley certainly considered it his finest achievement, and it’s the largest drawing that he did at this time, and also the most intricate.  If you look into details you can see that the fantastic floral details meet the eye first.  But if you look further and further you find more and more hidden details.  Some of the details are actually things like penises, which is a naughty school-boy joke that Beardsley liked to include in his drawings.  One of his later publishers said that you had to turn every drawing upside down and look at it under a magnifying glass to be sure he hadn’t hidden anything surreptitiously.


The subject of the drawing is Siegfried, one of the Heroes of Wagner’s great Operas that go to Danube. The image is of Siegfried here with the dragon that he is going to slay. The fascination at the time for Wagnerian subjects is a very important part of the art world, right across Europe. But in England, we know that Beardsley was one of the very early Wagnerites who went to every performance of Wagner’s operas that he could get to.  Of course the rich symbolism of the subject matter greatly appealed to the artists of that time.  Beardsley loved the whole idea of the Arthurian legends, which he’d illustrated, and those medieval stories, which he’d given a sort of subtle twist.  You always sensed that Beardsley is very close to sending up the subject matter.  There is almost a hint of satire in the way he approaches an otherwise serious and symbolical subject.


Any attempt to unravel a real symbolic meaning to the drawing has always failed. Beyond the suggestion of the story of the story of Siegfried, the details of which are the same as in Wagner’s opera, the tiny elements, which Beardsley added seem to be utterly capricious.


This very early drawing absolutely exemplifies the way in which a group of younger artists which we now call Decandents and Symbolists re-work some of the ideas of the original old aesthetic movement from the 1860’s and 1870’s, revisited some of the themes but in a much darker, more decadent light.  This kind of drawing certainly had very very wide appeal amongst artists, designers and people who considered themselves connoisseurs, particularly because of the European element.  Beardsley was certainly aware of Symbolist artists working in France in the 1880’s and 1890’s and in fact he had already visited Paris and seen some of these artists in the flesh.  So there is a very interesting development in English art at this moment where what had been quite an English movement suddenly takes on quite a European context.


'Cult of Beauty' exhibition curator Stephen Calloway discusses one of Aubrey Beardsley’s great early masterpieces, Siegfried, and takes a look at Beardsley’s short but extraordinary life as one of the most important and distinctive artists of the late 19th-century Aesthetic movement.



One of the most important and distinctive artists of the late 19th century Aesthetic movement...