Pictures of Dorian Gray, Images of Oscar Wilde; Part Five: Revealing Corruption

Posted by on May 21st, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four.

Internal illustrations for The Picture of Dorian Gray face challenges similar to those of the cover designs, plus the added need to portray gradual corruption in the painted image.

When they can, the artists tend to take a simple approach, depicting a single image of Dorian, whether it is the man or his icon.  Henry Keen’s illustrations from the 1925 John Lane/Dodd Mead edition take this to extremes:  Keen never shows the picture.  It is hinted at, once:  Dorian, a dapper young man in a proper tuxedo, stands before a highly decorated curtain; he is pulling back one edge of it, and we can just barely see the corner of a picture frame.

keen1.jpg

Later, we see Dorian—still young—climbing a darkened staircase; his shadow, cast on the wall behind him, is large and sinister.

keen3.jpg

The first illustrated edition of Dorian Gray was published by Charles Carrington in 1910 (though it is dated 1908, the year the type was set).  The frontispiece is a heavy line drawing, densely shaded.  It shows Basil and Henry looking at the painting.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Dublin City Public Libraries.

Dorian’s image is rather indistinct.  His face is small, lacking detail, and his body is barely distinguishable from the background.  One-hundred-and-sixty pages into the book we see Dorian more clearly.  He is a thin young man with a plain face and a large chin.  He has curly, unruly hair.  He appears with the painting, but the image is obscured.  When he kills Basil, we see him differently.  His face is contorted — mouth tight, eyes bulging.  And when he dies, Dorian is shown clutching at the knife in his heart.  His expression is one of shock.  He does not look particularly old — or evil.  The painting remains vague.

Nick Harris’ illustrations for the abridged Oxford Bookworms edition (1998) (adapted by Jill Nevile), use basic ink drawings, with fine lines and plenty of crosshatching, to depict Dorian as an unusually handsome, and slightly boyish, man with fine clothes and blond curls.  Until the very end, when Dorian and his picture appear together, one or the other is always somewhat obscured.  In two of the drawings, Dorian is turned away from the viewer; his face is not visible.  In two others, the picture is darkened by shadows.  One sees, somewhat dimly, an old, stern man with a cruel, unhappy face.  The sense of evil in the picture, however, is largely conveyed by the literal darkness of it.  The background is an impenetrable black, and the subject of the portrait is streaked with heavy lines.  It is not what we see, but what we cannot see that inspires fear.  The visual strategy thus follows Wilde’s narrative approach:  The picture ages, unseen, hidden in the attic; it is revealed only in stages, so that each new glimpse of it can produce fresh horror.  In the final scene, Dorian’s corpse lies in a pool of blood.  It is hideous and troll-like.  His head is bald and spotted; his face coarse and lumpy.

Shirley Soar’s cover illustration for the same volume, however, differs remarkably.  Drawn in a style owing much to Beardsley, Dorian is composed of elegantly curving lines, his face surrounded with impossible curls.  His body is pure white, like marble; his cloak is black with red flourishes.  He stands before his picture; in one hand he holds a mirror; but we can see his image in neither one.  They, too, are blankly white.  The mirror obscures the picture, and both are interrupted by the frame of Soar’s composition.

In Abdo’s Great Illustrated Classics adaptation (2002), written by Fern Siegel and illustrated by Pablo Marcos, the illustrations are black and white, with bold lines and little extraneous detail.  Alas, the human figures are all oddly stiff; their expressions, postures and movements are disappointingly flat and lifeless.  Marcos differentiates the painting from the man chiefly by depicting the man in mid-speech.  The painting is silent and aloof; Dorian himself holds his mouth agape.  When the painting begins to change the effect is, unfortunately, comic.  When Dorian abandons his fiancée, Sybil Vane, Wilde describes the painting as having “the touch of cruelty in the mouth.”  Marcos merely has it pout.  Worse still, a caption at the bottom explains, “The face had changed.”  When Dorian looks at it again, the pout has become a scowl.  Then the painting shows a stern old man with a mane of white hair, looking like the portrait of a U.S. Senator.  It later takes on a fiery-eyed madness, like an angry Ludwig van Beethoven.  Only at the very end does Marcos manage to make the painted image look truly hideous, and the effect is short-lived.  In the final image, the painting is restored and Dorian is a withered corpse.  But he only looks old and dead, not wicked.  These are illustrations in the most literal sense.  They are so plainly accurate that they manage to make a vice of what should be their greatest virtue — simplicity.  For one feels, looking at them, not that the image evokes so much more than can be seen, but that the artist has obediently followed the writer’s instructions, without inspiration or imagination.  The image does not suggest anything, it merely depicts.  It adds nothing to the writing and may, through sheer obviousness, actually take something away.  (Unfortunately, the writing, too, has been simplified — presumably for younger readers — and Siegel’s prose, I need hardly say, is no improvement on Wilde’s.)  Joseph Miralles’ cover for this edition is similarly unsuccessful.  It shows a youngish man, really in early middle age, who is merely handsome, pulling back a curtain to reveal a painting of an older man, of perhaps 65, who looks a little tired and perplexed.

Luckily other adaptations are far better:  Viking’s 2000 edition for its “Whole Story” series is among the best I’ve seen.  More than just an illustrated version of the novel, the book also provides background information intended to elucidate the story for a young reader.  Reprinted here are Punch cartoons, well-known works of art, and historical and sociological information on Victorian England.  Tony Ross uses cartoon drawings and water colors to illustrate the narrative.  In his version, Dorian is frankly handsome and the picture changes in stages; after the initial change, it is obscured by a screen.  Not until page 160 do we again see the painting and Dorian together.  The distortion in the image is subtle.  The picture is somehow sharper, but the color is wrong.  Six pages later, the contrast is more apparent.  Dorian’s hands are long, thin, and white — a little feminine.  The picture’s hands are fat, swollen, hairy, splotchy and discolored.  When Dorian shows Basil the picture on page 191, it is monstrously ugly, looking more than a little like the television version of the Crypt Keeper.  Its hair is thin and stringy.  The face is pinched — its mouth twisted, its eyes narrow and evil.  The nose is long and pointed, but awkward and uneven.  By the time Dorian stabs the painting (page 267) it looks like Nosferatu.  The man it shows is withered, greenish and almost bald.  It is unrecognizable.  The hand, which drips with blood, seems to reach beyond the frame.  Two pages later, the painting is restored.  It shows a young man, blond and elfin.  Sprawled below the portrait is a corpse, a knife in its heart.  The dead face is jaundiced and its eyes are sunken.  One claw-like hand is dark with liver spots.  The other, still reaching upward, is twisted and bloody.  There remains a resemblance between the two images, but it is a distant one.

Next:  Stage and Screen

all images ©2010 their respective copyright holders

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