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LONDON — In turbulent times, turning to a fantasy world can seem distinctly more inviting than dealing with the trials of daily life. That was Miuccia Prada’s reasoning, at least, when in October she sent out a spring collection filled with silk pajama suits printed with Art Nouveau-style illustrations of fairies and wood nymphs creeping across the floaty fabrics. But Prada isn’t the first to draw on other worlds for inspiration.
A new exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery here, “The Age of Enchantment, Beardsley, Dulac and their Contemporaries, 1890-1930,” explores the sweet and sinister works of Prada’s predecessors, a group of Edwardian artists who took the fantasy world as their muse.
The show, which opened Wednesday and runs through Feb. 17, charts the vogue among such illustrators as Edmund Dulac and Harry Clarke for depicting ornate visions of fairies, monsters and literary characters. These artists’ works were fueled by the Edwardians’ appetite for limited edition children’s books, which demanded illustrated plates and engraved covers. And according to the exhibition’s curator Rodney Engen, they were often inspired by the heavily detailed pen and ink illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley, who died of tuberculosis in 1898 at the age of 25. “[Beardsley] was a cult figure of his day, and art students on the Continent decided it was [him] they should follow, and flocked to England,” said Engen.
However, many of the commercial works in the show were commissioned following the traumas of the first World War, and often portrayed a more idyllic view of other worlds than Beardsley’s decadent, fin de siècle illustrations. In this vein, the exhibition spotlights “The Sea Voices” by Scottish artist Jessie Marion King, an image of children playing on a seashore under the watch of ethereal fairies, who morph into the rocks and the foam on the sea. There are also pastel-toned watercolors by Danish artist Kay Nielsen, whose “Dancing Princesses,” wearing tiered crinolines, scurry through a forest of spindly trees topped with cotton-candy foliage. Indeed, Nielsen’s sugar-coated aesthetic lead him to be later tapped to work as an artist on Disney’s “Fantasia.”
The show contrasts these images with Beardsley’s unsettling illustrations, which Engen said can leave the viewer “with a bad taste in their mouth.” They include Beardsley’s elaborate illustration of a menacing Salomé; “The Peacock Skirt,” created to accompany Oscar Wilde’s play “Salomé,” and another of Salomé kissing John the Baptist’s severed head.
“It comes down to the artists’ personalities,” said Engen. “Some [works] are totally fantastic escapism, while [other] horrific images emulate the horrors of war.”
Indeed, a clutch of the artists in the exhibition reveled in the Gothic aspect of Beardsley’s influence. Sidney Sime, a coal miner turned artist, depicted darkly absurd images, such as a child about to be captured into a laughing goblin’s underground lair and fantastical beasts. Meanwhile, Harry Clarke’s illustrations to accompany an edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tales of Mystery and Imagination” were commissioned to heighten the horror of the stories. And Clarke’s image of a bound prisoner being set upon by rats, to illustrate Poe’s story “The Pit and the Pendulum,” has an echo of today’s Gothic fashion designer Gareth Pugh’s take on a fur stole — stuffed white rats stitched together, that seem to climb over the wearer’s body.
Engen isn’t surprised that designers and image makers have continued to draw on these visions of the enchanted world. “A lot of [the images] were taken from Mother Nature, who has always been the best designer,” said Engen. “In the Sixties and Seventies, Beardsley posters were everywhere. [This kind of art] waned for a long period, but I think now there’s a new generation of people who would like to discover [these works]…which came from a meticulous, well-studied background. It’s the kind of art that lasts.”