Oscar Wilde’s Grave

You are a sculptor and Oscar Wilde’s friend Robert Ross asks you to make a monument for his grave. You remember Oscar’s wit as you heard it in his play The Importance of Being Ernest, and a story you read in school about Dorian Grey, whose portrait in the attic mysteriously recorded all the evil of his life. Maybe you know his fairy tales, too. The footnotes to a poem called the “Ballad of Reading Gaol” told you that Oscar had actually gone to prison for “corrupting” a youth, and had died in Paris shortly after his release, a broken man.

(public domain photo)

What sort of monument could you make to such a man—one of the most colorful men of letters of the nineteenth century, a dandy who lived among exquisite things?

Here is what the American-born sculptor Jacob Epstein came up with:

Tomb of Oscar Wilde by Jacob Epstein, in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris  (GNU Free Documentation License photo by JHvW (talk)

What the devil?
“I had in mind Oscar’s poem ‘the Sphinx’”, explained Epstein.
A little Egyptian, a little Aztec inspiration. Something as exotic as the sphinx Oscar talks about in that long poem (which almost no one has read).

Few people have ever been pleased with the big stone, though women love to give it a kiss and leave a print of lipstick there (see a page of photos at Google). The sphinx used to be complete with genitals and those were at first covered (even in famously prude-free France) and finally removed. Oscar’s poem did have a heavy erotic air and the work of Epstein mostly did too.

Was Epstein himself satisfied?
Probably not. He experimented all his life with styles—sometimes of the sort that whole cultures produce. “It looks as though this were made by a people rather than a single man,” said one of Epstein’s friends in admiration of Oscar’s monolith. And in fact some of Epstein’s big projects are so derivative or eclectic that his own personality went under. He has no single masterpiece—as happened to so many of the artists of the twentieth century, nor a readily identifiable style.

Except in his wonderful portraits—some of the best that have ever been sculpted. Have a look at his bronze busts of Joseph Conrad, of Churchill, of the singer Paul Robeson, of the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and others. Here is a model named Kathlene:

Kathlene by Jacob Epstein (public domain photo)




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19 Responses to Oscar Wilde’s Grave

  1. kimiam says:

    What an honor to be asked to create a monument like that. There are some interesting things happening in this piece. -Particularly the melding of bird and man anotomically in the torso area and fascinating, clever use of the geometric shape of the overall monument outline in the wing design. I wish I could see the entire thing.

  2. rich says:

    Reminds me of a figure-head, from whatever ship. Perhaps it might even adorn the bow of some vintage airliner.

    What you write about a little Egyptian or Aztec inspiration seems quite apt to me. This Deirdre Lady is a wonderful piece. How eyes can be sculptured…

    Anyway: Shame on Victorian England. How could they treat Oscar Wilde like that and put him into a dungeon! Luckily these times are over!

  3. ion danu says:

    I won’t comment on wilde’s portrait… but I find remarcable the way he sculpted the eyes of Deidre (I imagine her as an Irish girl with light green eyes and red hair; wilde wa Irish, too?) to suggest – in sculpture – that she had light colored eyes!

  4. erikatakacs says:

    I’m sorry to say I don’t find the sculpture on the monument appealing at all. And it looks ridiculous with the mutilated genitals. The stupidity regarding the covering of genitals of nude sculptures makes my blood boil every time. I’m wondering, maybe it looks better from a distance.

  5. 100swallows says:

    Rich, I knew that sphinx remined me of something else–of course: a ship’s figurehead! But what does that have to do with Oscar?
    I’m not so sure those persecuting times are really over: maybe the prosecuting is down.

  6. 100swallows says:

    kimiam: Epstein must have considered it a great honor to do that monument. And he certainly tried hard to come up with something original. But I think he flubbed. Probably what you point out is indeed clever but I just can’t feel much for such a borrowed, obsolete style. I bet you would have made a better memorial.

  7. 100swallows says:

    I agree erika–it isn’t pretty and it seems a particularly inappropriate monument to Oscar Wilde. Epstein was caught up in the confusion at the beginning of the twentieth century when artists were dropping “academic” art and groping around for some new inspiration. He sculpted the works himself and liked to give them a primitive look and allow prominence to the stone itself, unlike the carvers of the time who cut it up like plaster or wax.
    Read his autobiography–it is well-written and very instructive. He was born in New York City, then went to Paris to study sculpture, got to know Modigliani and other artists in Paris.

  8. 100swallows says:

    danu: I noticed those eyes too. Deirdre’s face is very smooth but notice the rough surface of her shoulders. Epstein was able to make nice, clear shapes without smoothing the surface of his clay. That broken-up surface was often imitated. Sculptors would model smooth and then attach little pieces or dig into the clay to make the surface look pieced together. Epstein said: “That rugged surface is simply the way the clay looked when I had finished. It wasn’t any special effect.”

  9. rich says:

    2 100swallows – thanks for the English lesson. It’s not my native language, so I had to find out the difference between a persecution and a prosecution.

    May be you are right.
    What would have happened to Oscar if he lived today? Perhaps he would not have written “De Profundis”, who knows….

  10. 100swallows says:

    Now you got me curious, rich. What is your native language?

  11. rich says:

    Swiss German, “Schwyzerduetsch”

  12. 100swallows says:

    Gruetzi, Rich! Ich war ein paar Jahren in der Schweiz, weisch? Leider aber habe ich wenig Deutsch (und keine Schwyzerduetsch) gelernt, weil meine Schwyzer Freunde immer Englisch sprachen. Ich studierte in der Universität Basels. Aus welcher Gegend kommst du? Ich glaube, die letzte Mal, dass ich mit einer echte Schwyzer gesprochen habe, war in Rom und er war ein Papal Guard aus Uri.

  13. rich says:

    Gruetzi mitenand! I was born in Bern. Aber aufgewachsen bin ich in Zurich und spreche somit den Zuricher Dialekt.
    Nice to hear you met a Papal Guard from the Uri canton.
    Me I’ve never met one live, but met some of them in a book I read two years ago. They play a somewhat dramatic part in “Illuminati” by Dan Browne.

    Nice work you’re doing – exploring and raising all those art treasures and sharing your discoveries with us.

  14. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, rich. I spent some time in Zurich and I made an excursion to beautiful Bern. Of course, speak whatever dialect you will, it is all lost on my donkey ears. I read Brown’s Code but not that other one, though I heard about it. I hope he wasn’t too hard on the Guards. I’m glad to have you along on these “discoveries”. Bis bald.

  15. cantueso says:

    To rich

    Ludoo! Züridütsch im Ussland! Säg de Möve e Gruess und auch de härzige Änteli am See.
    To 100Swallows

    I only came over to see whether I can find that picture you had in your post “The Moment of Love”. I thought that maybe it could be used to equilibrate Plato’s presentation of ….. Xanthippe. Why not? After all, she could have been a beauty and a real angel.

  16. cantueso says:

    Do you think that picture of Wilde is a photo or a painting? I mean, is this a joke or for real? He does sound retro, but not that much.

  17. 100swallows says:

    cantueso: thanks for telling me that my link at “The Moment of Love” didn’t work. I wonder how long it’s been dead.
    Oh, yes, that’s Oscar flirting with the photographer.

  18. rich says:

    Grüezi, nomal, to Cantueso!
    Ich gib’s wiiter a d’Möve und Änteli.
    Die Schwalben, diese behenden Flieger (die Deutsche Sprachreform möchte, dass ich behände schreibe, so wie man träg schreibt, oder wie man ääääh sagt, wen man stutzig ist – aber das geht mir gegen den Strich und gegen das Sprachgefühl) – sorry I’m diverting, but I’m looking forward for the forthcoming swallows here in springtime.
    Man kann sie hier aus nächster Nähe bewundern in den Kuhställen.

    Watch and read was die Hundert Schwalben have to say on Laocoon up here – it’s so interesting….

  19. Rich says:

    Hundreds of swallows and more….

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