When the Victoria and Albert Museum in London opened its summer 1966 exhibition season, it was little prepared for the rush and hype that surrounded its retrospective of an obscure nineteenth-century draftsman and illustrator. Yet in just four months more than 100,000 visitors thronged to a survey of the work of Aubrey Beardsley-more than for any exhibit of prints or drawings in living memory. The exhibition attracted viewers who were egged on by word of mouth and the scent of scandal: Charging obscene content, the Metropolitan police seized Beardsley prints from a shop near the museum soon after the show opened. Huge lines formed to view the museum's suddenly infamous collection of leering satyrs, wilting youths, and full-bodied giantesses who cavorted in unusual, often insinuating, poses. Writing in Art News, John Russell described a public 'stirred in many cases by reports of phallic enormities and fantastications [sic] of the anal orifice . . . and it must be said that they were not altogether disappointed'.1 The nearly antique Beardsley, who never had an exhibition during his lifetime, was hailed as 'the new hero in London'.2

Beardsley's posthumous exhibition offered harmless excitement and an intoxicating whiff of official disapproval, a sensibility that also pervaded Beatles concerts, the adoption of the miniskirt, and other popular trends of the period. Like Beatlemania, an 'Art Nouveau fever' infected popular culture in Western Europe and North America;3 in 1964 Time magazine airily declared that 'the revival of Art Nouveau' had arrived, its forms 'old and yet new'.4 The revival of interest in Art Nouveau that culminated in the '60s was evidenced in forms ranging from scholarly museum exhibitions to the mass-produced wallpaper. Moreover, as popular culture in the '60s began to change, the remnants of this musty, 80-year-old movement became the syntax of sexy, youthful rebellion. The older style was a boon to image-conscious graphic designers, spawning a wave of swaying, shimmying typography and illustration that enriched popular and artistic icons. The intertwining of this late-nineteenth-century art and design movement with the '60s counterculture led Time magazine in 1967 to rename San Francisco, a mecca for youthful chic, 'Nouveau Frisco'.

Superficially, this rediscovery appeared to echo the resurrection of other movements and styles in the history of art. However, the rehabilitation of Beardsley, as well as the Art Nouveau movement in general, was pervaded with a new sensibility that separates it from nineteenth-century revivalism. Beardsley and the Art Nouveau period lacked the aura of misty medievalism or the authority of antiquity that informed the Gothic and Classical Revivals of the previous century. The resurgence of interest in the art and design of the late nineteenth century suggests the beginning of a unique postwar tendency: a popular thirst for the recovery of earlier, and yet still modern periods at an ever-accelerating rate. But this tendency should not be dismissed as merely a series of reflexive stylistic gestures. Instead, it might be more usefully seen as representing a kind of subversion in which the artistic and cultural vanguard began looking backward in order to go forward. These groups, a kind of 'retro-garde', saw their approach toward the past spread quickly. And yet the extension of these ideas was also a sort of inoculation for the greater mainstream. Historian Fredric Jameson has suggested that as society has developed, it has found new ways to tell itself its own history.5 Retro allows us to come to terms with the modern past.

1. John Russell, 'London', Art News, LXV/52 (1966), p. 19.
2. ibid
3. Anthony D. Hippisley Coxe, 'Kinky Classics', Design, 188 (November 1964), p. 66.
4. 'New Look at Art Nouveau', Time, LXXXIV/52 (1964), p. 62.
5. Fredric Jameson, 'Nostalgia for the Present', Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late
(Durham, NC: 1991), p. 283.