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
In the 1880s, Wilde strived hard to create an image of an aesthete for himself. He wore his hair long, dressed in velvet and furs, and decorated his London apartment with lilies, sunflowers, blue china and other objets d’art. He once remarked: “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china”. In 1881, he published a particularly luxurious edition of a collection of his poems (Poems) – on view at the exhibition – which was well received initially, but later condemned for plagiarism, flamboyance and even caricaturised by Punch (also on view at the exhibition).
Despite the negative publicity surrounding the aesthetic movement, it nonetheless earned Wilde an invitation to make a lecture tour of North America in 1882. The Petit Palais exhibition dedicates an amusing, albeit non-judgmental, section to this important point in Wilde’s career. On view, thus, are thirteen of his portrait photographs from a series made by Napolean Sarony, several of the caricatures that appeared in American press, and a set of advertisements that used Wilde’s portraits and caricatures for publicity purposes. It is a fairly objective representation of the popular perception (and an entertaining representation) of the aesthete movement, and of Oscar Wilde as one of its proponents, and it does not fail to elicit a chuckle from the viewer.
London and Paris
Regardless of his popularity (or notoriety) among the intelligentsia, Wilde’s American tour did put him on the literary map. He spent the following years travelling between London and Paris. This was also the time when he married Constance Lloyd and had two sons. The exhibition examines the years 1883-89 with a selection of correspondence and notes exchanged between Wilde and French writers and artists (of whom he attempted make acquaintance while in Paris), family photographs and signed editions. French artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting, La danse mauresque (on loan from Musée d’Orsay), is a surprising focal point of this section, where Wilde has been painted, in back view, as part of a set at the Baraque de la Goulue cabaret.
Early 1890s were some of the most creative and successful years in Oscar Wilde’s career. Starting with The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Wilde went on to write Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895) and finally, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Wilde’s satire on Victorian high society and morals came in the wake of his own relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, which would also result in his ultimate fall.
Several signed editions of Wilde’s works have been presented in a dedicated section, following it up with a section dedicated entirely to his play Salomé, which he wrote in French during his stay in Paris in 1891. Although the play was banned in England, it was finally performed in Paris in February 1896. The exhibition showcases some of the black and white illustrations made by artist Aubrey Beardsley for they play all of which are breathtakingly beautiful.
Trial, exile and death
The final section of the exhibition is dedicated to the final years of Oscar Wilde spent between indecency trials and prison sentence in England, and in exile in France. As if alluding to the turbulent final years of its subject, the section is presented through a sparse selection of objects: trial documents and evidence, De Profundis (his letter to Lord Douglas), The Ballad of Reading Gaol and some of his personal effects. The exhibition ends on an appropriately solemn note, with a wall-sized photograph of Wilde’s grave at Pere Lachaise cemetery, and a filmed interview with his grandson, Merlin Holland, who has also co-curated the exhibition.
Oscar Wilde: Insolence Incarnate is an unbiased, intelligent exhibition in that it tries to neither applaud nor criticise the subject, but presents an extremely realistic portrait of him. The scenography is sensible, the exhibition is intimately curated, and Wilde is omnipresent with his quotes and witty one-liners. If you happen to be in Paris this winter, we recommend that you take some time out for this show.
Runs through January 15, 2017 – Petit Palais – Paris (€10-€7; Free under conditions and for Paris Musée card holders).
September 28, 2016 to January 15, 2017
At The Petit Palais
Oscar Wilde: Insolence Incarnate
Oscar Wilde: Insolence Incarnate, on view at the Petit Palais 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 Petit Palais