Frans von Bayros in 1898

Franz von Bayros, though born in Zagreb and raised and educated in Vienna, wrote of his own creative life that ‘I would have to write at the beginning of my biography that I was born at Heinrich Knirr’s Art Academy in Munich in my thirty-first year’.

He came from an Spanish aristocratic family which had settled in Austria, and after leaving school studied art at the Viennese Academy with Eduard von Engerth. It took him some time to find his artistic feet, not helped by his father’s early death in 1888 and a short disastrous marriage to composer Johann Strauss’s daughter-in-law Alice Meyszner in 1896; during this period he concentrated mainly on designing decorative bookplates.

In 1897 Franz turned his back on Vienna and moved to Munich, at that time the art metropolis of the German Reich. The city was one of the main centres of German naturalism; it was also home to important illustrated book publishers including Albert Langen and Georg Müller. He studied at Adolf Hölzel’s academy in Dachau and Heinrich Knirr’s school in Munich, where Paul Klee was also trained. In 1904 Bayros mounted a successful exhibition in Munich, which resulted in several book illustration commissions, including Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut for Insel Verlag and Diderot’s Die geschwätzigen Kleinode (Les bijoux indiscrets) for Georg Müller. But is was his detailed pen and ink drawings on erotic themes, clearly inspired by Aubrey Beardsley and Bayros’s extensive study of French rococo, that brought him the most attention and income. The privately published Fleurettens Purpurschnecke in 1905 was the first of several portfolios produced ‘for the discerning connoisseur’, a style and method of publication which would eventually lead to his Erzählungen am Toilettentische being censored and banned in 1911, and Bayros having to leave Munich for a while.

‘Muschis’ (‘Pussies’), c.1910
‘Oral’, c.1912

The combination of Franz’s brilliant draughtsmanship and design sense and his carefully-considered erotic imagination made his work eminently approachable and desirable, both as high-quality art and as a vehicle for exploring the limits of sexual experience. As well as exploring transgressive subjects such as bestiality and sado-masochism, his illustrations also contain warmth and humour, often displayed as much in the background detail as in the main characters.

Illustration from Die Göttliche Komödie, 1921

The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 brought his publishing work to an abrupt end, and after the war ended commissions for book and magazine illustrations, bookplates and posters were slow to materialise, though his reputation slowly recovered. It was the 600th anniversary of Dante’s death in 1921 that inspired him to create what was to be his true masterpiece, sixty large watercolour illustrations for Die Göttliche Komödie (The Divine Comedy), published by the Vienna publisher Amalthea in three volumes. The edition was highly successful, but the detailed work on Dante and the devaluation of the Austrian currency took its toll on Bayros’s health, and he suffered a fatal cerebral haemorrhage in April 1924.