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Oscar Wilde: Insolence Incarnate in Paris

29 November 2016


For more than a century, the genius of Oscar Wilde has patrolled the outskirts of French literary greatness, patiently waiting to be welcomed inside the fold. For all his great works, this literary rock-star and ardent Francophile – who even went so far as to die in the French capital and be buried in Père Lachaise cemetery – is seldom placed in the canon of outstanding French literature… however, a new exhibition celebrating both his work and his life is now set to redress the balance.

Oscar Wilde: Insolence Incarnate, is the writer’s first major show in the French capital, and gives you an in-depth look at both his work and the troubled life behind it. Here you will manage to separate the man from the bravado… and discover an artist who’s self-proclaimed genius was far more than just a whimsical boast.

Petit Palais Hosts Oscar Wilde: Insolence Incarnate

On entering the main gallery, its walls painted a deep blue, the viewer first encounters a photographic blow-up of a pensive Oscar Wilde – various private collectors have provided exhibits from Ireland and England that sit alongside a selection of the Musée d’Orsay’s public collection.

Illuminated in the darkened space of the gallery, the mixture of personal items and correspondence invites you into the writer’s childhood, whilst giving a prescient insight into his downfall.

The “Scenography for the exhibition has been carefully orchestrated to provide all kinds of surprises,” allowing you to experience the ups and downs of his life. Moving from one room to another, it feels like the spirit of Wilde is urging you to inspect the physical echoes of his life. Your gaze is drawn towards an envelope containing a lock of hair from Oscar’s sister, who died at a young age. Devastated by her death, Wilde later devoted the poem “Requeiscat” to her. Merlin Holland, Wilde’s grandson who donated the piece said, “It must have been with Oscar until his death.” The exhibit blends the sadness of his loss with haunting undertones, a trait present throughout the show.

Public Persona of Oscar Wilde

From childhood to death, the exhibition is an attempt to break through the walls of Wilde’s public persona as a “dandy” and shows how his life and works reflect beauty, lust, success, mockery, death and defeat.  With Wilde’s poems placed next to a caricature from Punch magazine, we see a jibing reference to his work. While other publications such as Athenaeum accused Wilde of indecency, we encounter in Punch’s caricature, the exaggerated aspects of a dandy, a portrayal commonly adopted for the rest of Wilde’s life. Through this we discover that Oscar was treated as a media creation, and as such had a duty to his public; a duty to perform.

While these and other exhibits explore Wilde’s success and ensuing slander, in the section devoted to his lecture tour, we see his remarkable feat of self-promotion in America. On view are thirteen portrait photographs from a series made by Napoleon Sarony, several of the caricatures that appeared in the American press, and a set of advertisements that used Wilde’s portraits for publicity. This room is an altogether detailed take on Wilde’s short-lived triumph across the Atlantic. If the press hung on his every word than it certainly pounced on every thread of his attire. The prints portray the writer in a great heavy coat that hangs down almost to his feet and an ivory-headed cane, inspired by French novelist Honoré de Balzac. Here we see Wilde transformed into an icon of chic eccentricity and a devotee of pomposity. What is unsettling is that it doesn’t take long for the articles to revert to the cartoons that characterised his treatment by the English press. Placed in close proximity to his portraits is the rather vicious cartoon, “The Modern Messiah” illustrating the American media’s mounting hostility towards Wilde.

Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Backlash

As well as poems and prose, Insolence Incarnate also devotes a section to Wilde’s erotic play, Salomé, the script of which is placed in the centre of the room. In the text, Wilde brings alive the lustful image of Salomé, bold and symbolic in his suggestions of erotica and sexual desire. By focusing on the original French edition, the exhibition looks to explore how modern attitudes towards the play have evolved and changed. As Victorian society erupts in fits and jibes, the modern day viewer appreciates the powerful protagonist, and allows their eyes to drift over the visual and literary spectacle created by Wilde and illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. The sinister, sensual images of Beardsley conveys Salome’s lust as starkly in his illustrations as Wilde had done so throughout the play. The artists complement each other perfectly. Although Wilde said that Beardsley’s drawings were “quite wonderful”, there was still a tone of jealously in Wilde’s dismissal of the style of French sophistication in Beardsley’s work by quipping, “Yes, dear Aubrey is almost too Parisian.”

Disgrace, Redemption & a New Lease of Life

Although the exhibits on display in Insolence Incarnate vary greatly in style, medium and message, and are from different points in his life, all seem to share his devotion to art and life. However, they all underline a contradiction between the Victorian public’s appreciation and wilful disdain of the writer. An attitude that has prevailed since ancient Greece, right through to the present day.

Where the exhibition truly succeeds is in its ability to put you right into the shoes of an unfairly disgraced man and allow you to experience the vulnerability and genius in tandem. This is Paris’ first glimpse at the real Oscar Wilde… it was certainly worth the wait.

Insolence Incarnate continues at the Petit Palace until January 15 2017. Entry is 10 euros, 7 euros with concessions and Free for -18 yrs. See the Petit Palace website for more information about the exhibition and the wider programme of public engagement events for Incarnate.

Oscar Wilde picture sourced from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.

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