Pictures of Dorian Gray, Images of Oscar Wilde; Part Eight: The Tribute Mediocrity Pays to Genius

Posted by on May 26th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven.

There is, so far as I could discover, no published collection of Wilde caricatures — which is too bad, since such a book would surely be of interest to Wilde scholars and would also provide a revealing cross-sectional look at the state of fin de siècle cartooning.

“Caricature is the tribute which mediocrity pays to genius,” Oscar Wilde said.  But in fact, Wilde had the distinction of being ridiculed by the best, sometimes appearing in Vanity Fair, and more regularly in Punch.  A famous item from Punch depicted Wilde, looking a little like Tweedle-Dee, showing a frightened old lady a book labeled “Dorian Gray”  and saying, “I want to make your flesh creep.”

Numerous cartoonists took aim at Wilde’s immorality — or what was thought to be the same thing, his sexuality.  Alfred Bryan drew Oscar in a dress.  The New Rattle mocked his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, showing them lounging together in a boat, which Oscar’s corpulent mass is in danger of submerging.  Wilde’s friends, or former friends, often joined in as well.  Beardsley’s frontispiece for Salomé featured a caricature of Wilde: The (female) moon has his features, and his trademark carnation.

The Woman in the Moon

Inside Salomé, Wilde appears again, once as Herod, and twice as the court jester.  None of the images are flattering, and several were altered or suppressed at the insistence of the publisher.

Enter Herodias

Beardsley also caricatured Wilde — a fat, androgynous figure in classical dress, wearing grape vines in his hair — in the frontispiece to a collection of John Davidson’s plays.  He appears there alongside caricatures of the actor Sir Augustus Harris and Yellow Book editor Henry Harland.   Elsewhere Beardsley drew Wilde hunched over his desk, surrounded by stacks of books — a comment on his belabored French, his (secret) work ethic, or perhaps his plagiarism?

More subtle, Beardsley produced a portrait of Wilde, posing in the foreground with one hand on his hip and the other raised to his head.

Aubrey Beardsley — Oscar Wilde by Robin Camille.

At first glance, the picture is oddly plain.  Wilde himself is conservatively dressed and realistically depicted — though with a minimum of detail.  He leans against a nondescript piece of furniture, and stands upon an empty white square of carpeting.  The background, however, is richly adorned and carefully detailed.  Behind him, we can see one corner of a book case; the rest is covered with a thick black curtain.  The books are present but concealed, like the image of Dorian Gray.  Beside the bookcase, hanging on the wall, is a picture within the picture.  It is an image much more typical of Beardsley:  It shows a voluptuous woman, naked and masturbating, while a masked harlequin spies from behind her couch.  The composition — the two figures, their positioning, the woman’s autoeroticism and the clown’s voyeurism — mimics the original, suppressed Toilette of Salomé.

The Toilette of Salome

In both versions, the woman’s robe has fallen carelessly open, her body is exposed.  In the portrait of Wilde, the robe, which does not cover the woman, invites comparison with the curtain that does not conceal the books.  The black contours of the curtain, in turn, echo the black of Wilde’s clothes.  The whole portrait asks, in effect, what Oscar is (not quite) hiding.

Later, Max Beerbohm and James Whistler each drew sketches mocking Wilde’s effete mannerisms.  Beerbohm also sketched a rather complex composition showing some of the main events of Wilde’s life — including images of Wilde “disappointed with the Atlantic,” as editor of The Woman’s World, dueling with Whistler, and corrupting the youth with Dorian Gray. Beerbohm was horrified when he learned that the police saw his drawings as a kind of corroborative evidence in the criminal case.

Beardsley and Beerbohm were better than most, but jokes about Wilde’s sexuality had been the subject of cartoons since his American tour of 1882.  That year, Charles Kendrick illustrated a small book parodying Wilde’s biography, titled:  Ye Soul Agonies in Ye Life of Oscar Wilde.

Many of the book’s gags were already-trite spoofs of the poet’s aestheticism:  a baby Oscar picking a sunflower; Wilde as a boy reading his poetry to a terrified cat.  But it quickly moved on to issues of gender and sexuality.  A representation of Wilde beside the Prince of Wales depicted the poet as distinctly effeminate, with big eyes, long hair, a light step, a limp wrist — and of course, a sunflower.  Another imagined Wilde’s school days:  An old man has Oscar bent over, between his legs, flogging his rear with a bundle switch.  The punning caption identified the scene:  “Ye work of an Ancient Master fills him with exquisite pain.”  Other illustrations of the book — more shocking by today’s standards — attacked Wilde with racist stereotypes.  One, titled “A Symphony in Colour,” showed Wilde in his signature aesthetic outfit, with knee breeches, furs and a top hat.  He is surrounded by black maids, who gaze at him fawningly.  The next page depicted Wilde as a caricatured Native American, with fringed sleeves, feathers and a tomahawk.  In Kendrick’s caricatured figure of Wilde, aestheticism, effeminacy, homosexuality, and white supremacist notions of savagery and racial inferiority, were all identified.

Many of the period’s cartoons were not funny at all: The cover of the May 4, 1895 Illustrated Police News featured a courtroom scene, with Wilde in the dock.  Alongside the main image, near the top of the page, ran two smaller pictures contrasting “Oscar Wilde as a Lecturer, 1882, America” with “Oscar Wilde as a Prisoner, 1895, Bow Street.”  At the bottom of the page, other pictures showed the sale of his effects, and his home on Tite Street.

Wilde Trial  'The Illustrated Police News 1895  , Wikimedia Commons

Other issues of this paper, and of the Illustrated Police Budget, showed him being arrested, standing in the dock, in the witness box and in prison.  The art is competent but uninspired, rather workmanlike; it is surely of more historical than aesthetic interest.

A few cartoons demonstrate an unnerving, if accidental, prescience — that odd sort of foreshadowing that was to be so common throughout Wilde’s life.  For instance, courtroom sketches from the Parnell hearings show Wilde in the audience.  More startling, the July 21, 1882 edition of Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News ran four caricatures of Wilde, in series:  “Our Oscar as he was when we loaned him to America” shows a swishy Oscar with long hair and a lily.  “Our Oscar as he appears on being returned to us!”  shows him with short hair — jaunty, masculine.  “Frightful foreshadowing of Our Oscar’s future if he had not cut his hair” shows him very fat, with a giant beer stein.  The last displays “Frightful foreshadowing of our Oscar’s future should he continue to cut his hair….”  It shows Wilde from behind, his head shorn.  He is dressed as a prisoner.

Wilde appeared as a convict again — or didn’t — in Frans Masereel’s beautiful woodcut illustrations for a 1924 edition of The Ballad of Reading Gaol.  The frontispiece shows a prisoner in chains, standing before a locked door.  His face is missing, replaced by a number — C33.

Op deze houtsnede uit 1925 van Frans Masereel is het hoofd van de gevangene vervangen door C.3.3, Oscar Wilde’s nummer in Reading, dat hij tevens gebruikte als pseudoniem voor de uitgave van 1898 van de Ballad

The poem was intended as a kind of political pamphlet, a protest against the Victorian system of justice, especially against prison conditions and capital punishment.  But it could not at first appear under Wilde’s name, so it ran instead under his convict number, C33.

Here, again, Alan Moore has followed in Wilde’s steps, using the poet’s imprisonment for political ends — and turning the law’s offenses into an opportunity for artistic triumph.  In the Aargh! (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia) collection, Moore’s Mirror of Love offers a concise history of homosexuality, its repression, and the struggle for liberation.  (The Mirror of Love borrows its title, and elements of its imagery, from a Beardsley drawing depicting an androgynous angel.)  The story Moore recounts parallels, and at times alludes to, the one Wilde constructed in his story-essay The Portrait of Mr. W.H. And Moore also evokes Wilde’s own persecution, as an important moment in this history.  He writes:

The Molly-houses rattled in the wind.  The climate changed…as Oscar Wilde learned to his cost, too fond of working-class lads; of dining with the panthers.

His beloved’s father, a marquis, denounced him as a sodomite.  Pressing for slander, recklessly, Wilde was exposed, condemned to Reading Gaol then exiled in disgrace.

Wilde is shown in court, looking tired and worried.  His face is gaunt and his eyes wide with fear.  Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch’s image of the poet captures the moment of his defeat.  In Moore’s later book, 25,000 Years of Erotic Freedom, Wilde’s trial marks the end-point of a timeline that began with the Venus of Willendorf.

But in Mirror of Love, the trial is also a beginning.  Moore continues:  “The era closed with Wilde’s mauve nineties fading into grey, and yet contained the seeds of something proud, humane:  From Germany, before the century’s end, came the first protests against laws on sodomy.  Emancipation had begun.”

The 2004 Top Shelf edition of Mirror of Love is a different production altogether.  Moore’s text is presented as poetry, illustrated not by comics but by José Villarrubia’s elegant photographs.  Wilde himself does not appear, except as a name on a gravestone, a gravestone covered with lipstick kisses.

We see this grave again in Peter Hay’s rubber-stamp illustrations for The Ballad of Reading Gaol (Two Rivers Press, 1995).  The image, though unlabeled, clearly copies Jacob Epstein’s design for Wilde’s monument — a sphinx, massive and Egyptian, frozen in flight.

The sculpture stands in, in the book, for the grave of the unnamed executed prisoner.  Completing the identification of author with protagonist, the illustration appears under the lines of the poem that also adorn Wilde’s tomb:

And alien tears will fill for him

Pity’s long-broken urn,

For his mourners will be outcast men,

And outcasts always mourn.

Next:  Martyr, Saint, and Superhero

all images ©2010 their respective copypright holders

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