PARIS — “Moderation is a fatal thing,” Oscar Wilde famously quipped. “Nothing succeeds like excess.”
Wilde’s legendary nod to decadence graces the entrance to an exhibition at Paris’s Petit Palais dedicated to the larger-than-life Irish author and wit who was as known for his sartorial grandeur (velvet jackets and satin breeches were wardrobe staples) and refined tastes, as for his plays, novels, and verse.
His affinity for the finer things in life coupled with a meteoric rise to fame that was followed by an equally swift downfall make his legendary bon mot an apt opener for the French capital’s first major exhibition dedicated to the celebrity wordsmith and Francophile, who was born 162 years ago this month.
Titled “Insolence Incarnate,” (L'impertinent absolu, in French) the show features some 200 items from private and public collections, including photographs, manuscripts, and paintings (Wilde was also an amateur art critic).
On display is his original Salomé manuscript, as well as a signed copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray dedicated to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. One display case even contains the calling card from Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, on which the (misspelled) word “sodomite” is ominously scrawled.
Those familiar with Wilde’s turbulent life will know that it was Queensberry who was the driving force behind his ruin. Angered by the relationship between Wilde and his son, Queensberry left the card that read, “For Oscar Wilde, posing as Somdomite” at Wilde’s gentlemen’s club.
Wilde sued for criminal libel, resulting in Queensberry’s arrest. In retaliation, Queensberry dispatched private detectives to gather proof of Wilde’s gay trysts in London.
The result was a financially and socially devastating trial, which led to Wilde’s two-year imprisonment for “gross indecency” in 1895. Following his release, Wilde returned to France, where he would die three years later at the age of 46 from cerebral meningitis.
David Charles Rose, an Oscar Wilde scholar and the author of Oscar Wilde’s Elegant Republic: Transformation, Dislocation and Fantasy in fin-de-siècle Paris, told The Daily Beast that Wilde’s final years in Paris were bleak ones. Between his stint in prison and the bankruptcy resulting from his trial, the onetime elegant man of letters had become a virtual pariah.
“A number of his former friends no longer wanted to know him,” said Rose. “He was, in fact, in disgrace. He was a jailbird.”
Wilde’s sad last days are only part of the story of his lifelong relationship with the City of Light, however. He made his first trip here as a boy and, following his marriage to Constance Lloyd, spent his honeymoon here.
He wrote his biblically-inspired play Salomé in French, and it was at Paris’s Théâtre de l’Oeuvre theater that Salomé was first performed in 1896, having been banned in London for being too risqué for Victorian audiences.
“France and French culture was deeply impregnated in him from an early age,” Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland, who acted as the exhibition’s historical advisor, told The Daily Beast. “France represented to him something exotic and daring, and was entirely different (from Victorian mores) and much freer regarding expressions on culture.”
Before he conquered the French capital, Wilde embarked on a year-long lecture tour of the United States during which the cash-strapped 27-year-old visited 150 American cities.
A significant portion of the exhibition is devoted to Wilde’s American travels, including 13 original publicity portraits shot by photographer Napoleon Sarony.
In the photos, Wilde embodies the classic Victorian dandy, sporting a three-piece velvet suit or a fur-trimmed coat in some images, or a long cape and a fedora in others. There are also various press articles from his American visit on display, including an amusing Harper’s Bazaar piece that snidely comments on his “stout appearance,” and “black velvet suit.”
While the pretext of Wilde’s American tour was to earn money promoting Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Patience by embodying its satirical British aesthete, writer David M. Friedman asserts that a quest for fame was Wilde’s true plan.
In his book, Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity, Friedman writes that when he stepped onto the shores of New York in 1882, Wilde’s literary works comprised just a self-published book of poems and an unproduced play. Indeed back in London, his limited repertoire had the celebrated Polish stage actress Helena Modjeska musing, “What has he done, this young man that we are seeing everywhere? He hasn’t written anything, he doesn’t sing, he doesn’t paint, he doesn’t play—all he does is talk.”
Wilde’s plan, according to Friedman, was to use fame to launch his nascent literary career.
It worked. His relentless stateside networking—he drank wine with Walt Whitman, spent a day tooling around Confederate president Jefferson Davis’s Mississippi retirement home, and rubbed shoulders with the mayor of New York—helped him assume the carefully crafted embodiment of the Victorian aesthete. Aided by some 100 press interviews, Wilde seized the spotlight.
Even his legendary one-liners such as “I can resist everything except temptation,” were carefully contrived.
“To ensure he kept getting invited to parties,” Friedman writes, “he perfected a verbal trick: replacing a word in a sentence with its unexpected opposite.”
Wilde, according to Friedman, became the first celebrity “famous for being famous” long before the likes of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian started snapping selfies. By the time he left New York, he was the toast of the town.
Holland said that Wilde also refined his artistic philosophy overseas.
“He went over there with a head full of second-hand ideas,” he said, pointing out that in his early days as an art critic, Wilde took cues from luminaries like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and leading Victorian art critics such as John Ruskin. “But he came back with beliefs of his own that were constructed that year from lecturing in America.”
“The other thing America gave him,” added Holland, “was a lifelong supply of gentle jibes at American life.”
Pick up a copy of A Woman of No Importance, and one such jibe appears in Act One when Lord Illingworth tells Kelvil: “The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for three hundred years.”
Wilde may have taken America by storm, but it was in Paris where he worked—he wrote Salomé during a stay in the city—and flourished in the city’s literary and artistic community.
He got to know Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine, and became friends with André Gide. He even met Victor Hugo, but the literary lion is said to have fallen asleep during the encounter.
A lesser-known influence came in the form of a maverick cross-dressing salon hostess and writer who went by the name of Rachilde. Dubbed “Mademoiselle Baudelaire,” Marguerite Eymery-Vallette hosted avant-garde salons and co-edited the Mercure de France literary magazine with her husband.
She also published racy novels, including Monsieur Venus, which was banned in Belgium over its erotic and sadomasochistic themes.
Petra Dierkes-Thrun, a scholar and lecturer in Comparative Literature at Stanford University told The Daily Beast that Wilde read the controversial tome on his honeymoon before he had even met its infamous author.
Rachilde is absent from the exhibition, but Dierkes-Thrun believes that the provocative writer and her friends significantly influenced Wilde’s life and career in Paris by introducing him to influential literary figures and by going to bat for him during his incarceration and even after his death.
“Research is ongoing,” Dierkes Thrun told The Daily Beast. “But there was a circle of people (in Paris), with Rachilde at the center, who basically helped Oscar Wilde carry his reputation into the 20th century.”
For instance, Rachilde sat on the board of the theater that selected Salomé for its Paris premier while Wilde was in prison. She kept writing about him after his death, and the Mercure de France continued to publish articles devoted to Wilde.
Rachilde was also an associate of Henry Davray, who translated Oscar Wilde’s pieces into French, and was one of the few people to attend his funeral. Wilde himself appears to have thought highly of the literary provocateur.
At the Clark Library at the University of California, Los Angeles, Dierkes-Thrun came upon a presentation copy of Wilde’s 1898 work The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which he wrote while in prison.
Dead broke at the time of its publication, Wilde had only a handful of copies to distribute to close friends and supporters. The book Dierkes-Thrun found was inscribed to none other than Rachilde.
Wilde spent his last days at Paris’s then-seedy Hôtel d’Alsace where he famously joked about “fighting a duel to the death” with his room’s presumably hideous wallpaper.
His final resting place is just a few miles from the Petit Palais in the city’s storied Père Lachaise cemetery.
Admirers still congregate at the sphinxlike tomb, where a glass barrier was installed a few years ago to “kiss proof” the monument after lipstick marks left by smitten tourists started eroding the stone.
Wilde fans have also been flocking to the exhibition, which Holland hopes offers a more in-depth view of an artist who is too-often eclipsed by myth and celebrity.
“There was more to him than a first-rate funny man who wrote some society comedies and went to prison for being gay,” Holland said. “People tend to forget his extraordinarily rich cultural background.”
He continued: “The sad thing is that the superficial dandified side overtook his reputation for many years after his death. I think this (exhibition) sets the balance right.”
Oscar Wilde: L’impertinent absolu is at the Petit Palais, Paris until January 15, 2017.