Beardsley plate

In the teeth of copyright lobbyist pressures, Project Gutenberg continues to showcase what public domain is all about. And it’s just released another gem. This time, it’s The Art of Aubrey Beardsley, a 1918 illustrated edition of the work of the celebrated English aesthete, decadent graphic artist and erotic writer, originally published by Boni and Liveright in New York. It has a preface by Arthur Symons, himself a poet and critic of no mean renown, and 64 beautifully reproduced plates of Beardsley’s original work.

Beardsley’s art works particularly well in ebook or online digital format, since it’s almost always monochrome, and based on sharp lines and black-and-white contrasts. “Heset himself to see things as pattern,” wrote Symons. “He made the world over again in his head … in black line on a white surface, in white line on a black surface. Working, as the decorative artist must work, in symbols almost as arbitrary, almost as fixed, as the squares of a chess-board, he swept together into his pattern all the incongruous things in the world.”

As usual with Project Gutenberg, this digitized volume is available in most every format you could wish for, from PDF to online HTML, to plain text – pretty useless for the illustrations, but it’s there if you want it. The EPUB and Kindle/.mobi files both come in a choice of illustrated or text-only versions. So far as I can see, reproduction is crisp and accurate. You could perhaps hope for higher resolution on some of the really dense illustrations, like the series for Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, or Beardsley’s own Under the Hill (also available from Project Gutenberg since last month). For the earlier more abstract works, such as his illustrations for his friend Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, the reproductions are just fine.

“No artist of our time, none certainly whose work has been in black and white, has reached a more universal, or a more contested fame,”wrote Symons in his preface. “None has had so wide an influence on contemporary art.” And you can now enjoy all that, for free. Project Gutenberg, thank you.


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