The Picture of Oscar Wilde?

We began our class with a look at Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” in which we were asked or perhaps challenged to look at a piece of literature or work of art without allowing our reading of that piece of art to be influenced by what we know of the person who created it.  In the preface of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde states, “To reveal art and conceal the artist is arts aim”.  It seems as if Wilde in fact agrees with Barthes, or at least is hoping that his work is examined and read as a freestanding piece and not alongside his reputation.  Yet, like many of Wilde’s statements it is easy to find contradictions in his work.  We see these contradictions arise first with Basil and the portrait he has painted of Dorian.  Basil tells Lord Henry, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist not the sitter.  The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion.  It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself.” It is easy to make Oscar Wilde or any writer Basil Hallward.  When a writer creates a piece of literature in which there is feeling, than the writer is freely revealing himself to the reader.  It is then clear that Wilde is in fact revealing part of himself to the reader when he allowed The Picture of Dorian Gray to be published.

Even so Wilde does not do a great job at concealing himself as the artist.  In the introduction, Gary Schmidgall points out that Wilde seems to infuse the novel with parts of himself, making it almost impossible to separate the two.  Wilde uses “several of his well-known and luxurious tastes in fashion: capes with satin-lined wings, elaborate floral buttonholes, gold-tipped cigarettes, and exotic jewellery.  Even the suspiciously frequent appearances of the word wild- over twenty-five times serve to stamp the novel with the author’s character”.   So has Wilde in fact tried to conceal himself?  It would appear that if he did it was not a full-hearted effort on his behalf.  Yet the fact that he did such a poor job makes one wonder about whether or not he wanted to reveal himself.  Lord Henry seems to look down upon the fact that works of art cannot be separated from their artist when he states, “we live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography”.  This phrase alone however, has a double meaning.  Lord Henry might in fact be looking down upon the artists who choose to make the works of art about themselves, or he might be criticizing the readers who cannot separate the art from the artist.

Just as is his style Wilde leaves us questioning how he felt about infusing the book with so much of himself.  Of course he must have known people were going to read it with the author in mind, yet he states that art must not be about the artist.  He contradicts himself in only a way Oscar Wilde could, leaving us confused about his motives.  If he tried to conceal himself it was to no avail yet if he did not try to conceal himself why would he state that to be the aim of art?


Basil Hallward


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Filed under Week 2: The Picture of Dorian Gray

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