Oscar Wilde: L’Impertinent Absolu

Forced into the Gutter, but Looking at the Stars

October 4, 2016By Heidi EllisonArchive

ParisUpdate-Oscar Wilde-PetitPalais-1.SARONY Wilde allongé

Like all tragic figures, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) fell from on high. He had it all, except perhaps beauty, but he made up for that with his brilliance, charm and wit, which were rewarded with fame and fortune. It all came to a sad end with two years of hard labor in Reading Gaol for “gross indecency,” followed three years later by his death in Paris at the age of 46.

Wilde made a name for himself as a sort of professional aesthete, but that vague appellation was backed up by his writing of poetry, plays and criticism. His relation to the world of art makes him an apt subject for a museum exhibition, and he is currently being celebrated at the Petit Palais with the show “Oscar Wilde: L’Impertinent Absolu.”

The chronological exhibition introduces Wilde’s talented parents – both of whom were published writers, although his father was also a surgeon – and offers plenty of memorabilia from his youth, including a photo of him dressed as a little girl (as was the custom of the day) in a blue velvet dress, school exercise books and a touching letter, illustrated with his own clever drawings, written to his mother from boarding school.

Even more touching is an envelope decorated with his drawings and inscribed “She is not dead but sleepeth,” containing a lock of the hair of his sister Isola, who died at the age of nine. Wilde kept it until the end of his life.

Another section presents photos and paintings of the actresses he fetishized and dedicated poems to, among them Sarah Bernhardt, Ellen Terry and Lillie Langtry.

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Wilde was rather harsh in his criticism of James Tissot’s “Holyday” (1876), describing it as an “ugly, painfully accurate representation of modern soda water bottles”  and its subjects as “over-dressed, common-looking people.” © Tate, London 2016.

From Wilde’s career as an art critic, we have a number of paintings by such artists as John Singer Sargent, John Everett Millais and James Tissot, along with excerpts from his published opinions of them.

There are, of course, many portraits of Wilde and his family and friends, both paintings and photographs. Among the latter is the series taken by Napoleon Sarony for Wilde’s wildly successful tour of America in 1882, when he gave talks on his brand of aestheticism to everyone from cowboys to miners (whose wide-brimmed hats, cloaks and high boots he admired in the press as serious fashion statements) and Mormons.

Sarony’s photos are the ones that have largely remained in the public consciousness as representative of Wilde as the ultimate aesthete. Many of them were even appropriated without permission and used in advertising, often in a mocking way.

Caricaturists also had a field day with Wilde’s U.S. tour. One quotes a certain rustic Brother John as saying, “Wal! England has sent us out many curious things, but this whips ’em all. Take it away!”

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Aubrey Beardsley’s “J’ai Baisé Ta Bouche Iokanaan.” The Studio, no. 1, April 1893. Collection Merlin Holland.

Another section focuses on Salomé, the play Wilde wrote in French in hopes that Sarah Bernhardt would star in it (that never came about) and which was used as the basis for the libretto of Richard Strauss’s opera of the same name. A real treat here is the full set of prints made by Aubrey Beardsley to illustrate the English edition of the play.

One revealing exhibit is “Mental photographs: an album for confessions of tastes, habits, and convictions,” a parlor game similar to the “Proust questionnaire,” in which Wilde responded to a set of questions about his preferences and personality in 1877. To the question “What is your aim in life,” he wrote: “Success: Fame or even notoriety.” He achieved both. And a quotation reproduced in the show has the same prophetic ring: “One should never make one’s debut with a scandal. One should reserve that to give an interest to one’s old age.”

Wilde certainly followed his own advice there, and the exhibition covers his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas; the trial instigated by Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, that sent him to prison; and his death in a room of the Parisian hotel now known as L’Hôtel, of which he famously said, “The wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.” He lost the battle.

This section has a number of fascinating documents (it’s amazing that they have been preserved; one wonders how), including the actual visiting card that the marquess left at Wilde’s club, on which he had written the insult (“sodomite,” misspelled as “somdomite”) that caused Wilde to sue him for libel (a suit he eventually dropped). In turn, the marquess countersued Wilde for “gross indecency,” which ended with Wilde’s horrendous stint in prison. We also see evidence submitted to the court, including a statement from a witness, Walter Grainger, that details rather graphically his supposed sexual encounters with Wilde.

Some visitors have complained that there are too many manuscripts in the exhibition, but I found it interesting to see them and felt that they were more than counterbalanced by the wide variety of other exhibits. If you are already a Wilde fan, you are sure to be entertained by the show. Those who know little about him will learn a great deal (especially by reading the labels on the exhibits, which are full of interesting information, in French only, unfortunately).

A line from one of Wilde’s plays, “Lady Windermere’s Fan” (1892) might serve as an appropriate epithet for Wilde and a summary of the impression left by the show: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”


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