Tag Archives: Oscar Wilde


21 Apr

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After Oscar Wilde published The Picture of Dorian Gray, with its preface in which he quipped that “all art is quite useless”, a young admirer wrote to ask for some explanation of what Wilde meant. Wilde’s reply:

“Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.

A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.”

Of course we’d expect no less from such a master of language and of aesthetics-over-function dandyism as Wilde, but even with the disclaimer of the subject being a long one he nails the problem with the commercial art market– then and now– in two paragraphs.


8 Apr

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In the centre of the room, clamped to an upright easel, stood the full-length portrait of a young man of extraordinary personal beauty, and in front of it, some little distance away, was sitting the artist himself, Basil Hallward, whose sudden disappearance some years ago caused, at the time, such public excitement and gave rise to so many strange conjectures.

As the painter looked at the gracious and comely form he had so skilfully mirrored in his art, a smile of pleasure passed across his face, and seemed about to linger there. But he suddenly started up, and closing his eyes, placed his fingers upon the lids, as though he sought to imprison within his brain some curious dream from which he feared he might awake.

“It is your best work, Basil, the best thing you have ever done,” said Lord Henry languidly. “You must certainly send it next year to the Grosvenor. The Academy is too large and too vulgar. Whenever I have gone there, there have been either so many people that I have not been able to see the pictures, which was dreadful, or so many pictures that I have not been able to see the people, which was worse. The Grosvenor is really the only place.”

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891.

“All art is quite useless.”

Oscar Wilde, in the introduction to the same novel.

Amazingly, the Royal Academy is still too large and too vulgar. Lord Henry also gives a perfect description of the art private view that’s still valid today. Published in a magazine in 1890, then in revised and expanded form as a novel in 1891, Wilde’s book managed to be perfectly scandalous without ever spelling anything out. It was clear to most people, however, that the painter Basil Hallward’s passion for the beautiful young Dorian Gray was a long way from being platonic. Hallward fears that he’s put too much of himself into the eponymous painting, in both an artistic sense and by way of outing himself, but it’s Dorian’s soul that’s laid bare in it after he is mysteriously granted the vain wish that his perfect portrait would age and suffer while Dorian himself remains unblemished.

Wilde is seriously fuzzy when it comes to Basil and Dorian’s timelines, but at some point presumably circa 1875– after Hallward handed the portrait over to Dorian and after it had begun to manifest signs of Dorian’s moral decay, but before there was a large discrepancy between Dorian’s age/appearance and the painting– Dorian stabbed Hallward to death in an act of displaced guilt and anger. Of course only a few years on from 1891 Wilde was embroiled in his own homosexual melodrama, one that led to his own all too real social and physical ruin.

The picture(s) at the top are from the 1945 film version of the book, the only adaptation I’ve seen that’s not absolutely bloody disastrous. They were painted by a real working artist, the American Ivan Albright. There have been a number of other adaptations featuring Basil Hallward and/or his muse Dorian Gray, but discussing them would probably involve talking about the abominable film version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and nobody wants that.

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