Oscar Wilde: Insolence Incarnate, which is on view at the Petit Palais, Paris until January 15, 2017, is France’s first tribute to the flamboyant Irish playwright since his death in a rundown hotel in Paris. This wistful show includes a selection of more than 200 exhibits – among them, manuscripts, first editions, correspondence, paintings, drawings, photographs and personal effects – borrowed from various museums and private collections across the world.
The exhibition spreads itself chronologically across seven sections, charting the life, work and death of its subject. One encounters a wall-sized portrait of a pensive Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) at the entrance to the exhibition, striking in his pose as an aesthete for photographer Napolean Sarony. The first section is on the early life of the author. Childhood memorabilia, personal effects, paintings, drawings, writings and correspondence are displayed amid blue walls, one of them decorated with an ornate lily motif, again alluding to Wilde’s association with the aesthetic movement. One haunting exhibit is an envelope with a carefully preserved lock of hair of Oscar’s sister Isola, who died at the young age of nine.
Wilde’s early beginnings as an art critic are presented through a selection of pre-Raphaelite paintings in the subsequent section. Each painting is accompanied by an excerpt of Wilde’s witty (and at times, misplaced) critique of it. For instance, regarding the fireworks in Whistler’s Nocturnes, Wilde says, they were “worth looking at for about as long as one looks at a real rocket, that is, for somewhat less than a quarter of a minute.”
Oscar Wilde the aesthete
The Petit Palais