Oscar Wilde, l’impertinent absolu, exhibition at Petit Palais
Oscar Wilde, l’impertinent absolu, at Le Petit Palais from 28th September 2016 to 15 January 2017.
Being a literature scholar and peripherally interested in the life and work of Oscar Wilde, I decided to visit his exhibition that opened recently in Le Petit Palais. A friend that was visiting Paris also wanted to go so it tipped the scales in favor of doing so. There we were, at the right wing of the museum, all boarded up and made dark and “victorian”. Soon it became clear that the show was, interestingly enough, centered around two things. First was the expected cult of personality that Wilde cultivated (some pun intended) and the second one was his work of an art critic.
As you probably already know, Wilde was more famous of his eccentricity than he was for his writings. As a poet, he was never quite comparable to the classics of the genre that lived a couple of generations before him (Shelley, Coleridge, Keats, purposely omitting Byron here), always ering on the ‘b’ status. His work in drama is much more interesting and better – I dare even say to a certain extent underestimated. Partially that was due to his own ambition, centered rather on presenting himself as an eccentric, interesting figure rather than a dedicated and laborious poet. First thing that comes to mind when you think about Wilde aren’t his expressive excellence and the mastery of language, but his larger-than-life persona, (self proclaimed) appreciation of Beauty and a scandalous life style. Like few poets and artists before him (Byron, Goethe, to name some) and MANY after him, he too, again, though it was more important to present himself as a figure of a poet rather than to actually act as a poet. The cult of personality was more important than his work was – you could say that Wilde paved the way for Dali’s and Warhol’s of this world (thanks a lot, Wilde! A million thanks!).
Why this long and tenuous introduction? Well it is really important for this exhibition. They curators assembled a lot of the works he criticised and places his shortened opinion under each and every one of them. On the wall above all of the paintings, there was an apt witticism about the nature of life, art, Beauty, the futility and the lovely falseness of it all. The impression was, again, that Wilde spent a considerable amount of time just coming up with these.
Here is where the things get really interesting, specially if you (like I) are not really that familiar with Wilde’s work as an art critic. For someone who cultivates a persona of a sophisticated aesthete, who dedicated his body and soul to the idea(l) of Beauty, he is laughably ignorant of painting. Meaning, he is completely clueless when it comes to judging a painting and understanding what makes a good painting. In itself, it is not a big deal – you don’t need to understand everything about everything. But, if you are going to get payed for acting as an art critic, if you are going to construct your entire identity and a public persona around a certain notion – you should, really, have a clue regarding that. He however, had none. I cannot underline this enough. I was actually laughing out loud reading his comments of some of these paintings.
Here would be a crudely drawn cape that takes most of the painting and an ok-at-best depiction of the young adult’s body. A very ordinary composition, a technique that every student of fine art masters before he graduates – to Wilde, however, this painting ought be in Vatican right next to Michelangelo, as a greatest painting ever made. Seriously, Wilde ? A greatest painting ever made ? Forget about da Vinci, Raphael, forget about Ingres, Grunewald, just to name some; forget about your creative and innovative contemporaries Degas, Monet, Cezanne, Sisley, here comes, brace yourselves :
Love and Death c.1885-7 George Frederic Watts 1817-1904
An absolute masterpiece (according to Wilde)
Sleep and Death carrying the body of Sarpedon to Lycia, Sir William Blake Richmond, 1875. (sorry for the poor image quality, if I ever find a better one, I’ll replace it)
Another triumph of the visual arts and one “of the greatest paintings ever made”. Again, according to Wilde. Really.
Wow. Just, wow. I am making some strong statements here so I really need to explain myself better. What Wilde gets so profoundly wrong with painting as an art form is that it’s not about the subject matter that you are painting – it doesn’t matter if it’s Love or Death (or Love and Death combined) ; it doesn’t matter if it’s a figure of Greek/Christian myth; it doesn’t matter what is represented, it’s how it’s represented. Do you find my judgement to be anachronous ? Not really, as the era we are talking about is well aware of impressionism that states exactly that as its credo. His tastes are tragically neo-classical and bound into that particular aesthetics. There is nothing wrong with that per se ; I am a huge fan of Ingres, himself an embodiment of neo-classicism. But Wilde pays very little attention to the actual technique of the painting – he’s barely mentioning the composition, and does not at all mention the colours, the plans, the figuration etc. His criticism is reduced to banalities such are “I don’t like this face, it’s average”, “These clothes are so casual”, “This apple tree is the best part of the painting”. The best of them all is the Wilde’s commentary of Whistler, (not) surprisingly the only of the artists he commented on who actually withstood the test of time – he absolutely hated his work. It is as banal as it sounds; if it’s not deep into the Greek myth lore, if it’s not an ode to a beautiful (male) body, Wilde is not interested. Which is fine, as everyone is entitled to their own taste- but less fine when they are acting as art critics and are actually giving lectures on Beauty and are representing themselves as the embodiment of the notion. It really got me thinking about the world and the art world in general. The conclusion I got to was that you don’t need to know a thing about the subject matter you that you are professing to be an expert in, as long you as you do it in a convincing manner. I guess there is a lot of art in that. It needs to be said that a certain responsibility stays with the curators and their choice of Wilde’s commentaries.
But, let’s not be all that negative. The exhibition had good aspects as well. For example, there were these great illustrations of Wilde’s “Salome”, done by a very young and very talented illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. These are a joy to behold not only for their supreme graphic quality, but also for how far ahead of their time they were. On a very thin line between art nouveau and art déco, they appeared some thirty odd years before art déco as an era did. I dare say these alone are enough of a reason to go and see the exhibition:
The clean line, the boldness and simplicity of the composition, the elegant yet monolithic figures; the reduced drawing alongside rich ornamentation; these are really, really good.
Also, let’s be fair in concluding this review. The poster for the exhibition did say “the absolute impertinent”. Clearly, by that, they not only meant a lack of respect (as Wilde is, when it comes to his taste in painting, all about tradition and nothing at all about innovation) but also incoherence, being inappropriate, being unrelated. Wilde is very much impertinent when it comes to paintings and this exhibition shows it.
P.S Did you know that Oscar Wilde spent his final years in Paris, where he died and was buried ? That his grave is still at the most famous Parisian cemetery? Would you like to know more about Wilde’s Paris? Contact us for a Saint Germain tour, an Art Nouveau tour or an Orsay museum visit; they all relate to this topic in their specific way. Or, if you have a very specific love for Wilde, a custom made tour on this specific subject.