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World Perspective | BRITAIN

100 Years Later, London Celebrates the Importance of Being Wilde

November 18, 2000|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about," Oscar Wilde wrote more than a century ago, "and that is not being talked about."

Wilde would be pleased to know what a topic of conversation he is today in the city that simultaneously celebrated his genius and committed him to ruin. There is a rash of exhibitions in London paying homage to Wilde on the 100th anniversary of his death at the age of 46, as well as a tribute to him at the former Reading Gaol, where he was condemned to two years of hard labor for homosexual "gross indecency."

Wilde was a Victorian poet, dramatist, aesthete and fancy dresser, as famous for what he said and did as for what he wrote, and the centenary shows seem to affirm one of his aphorisms: "It is personalities, not principles, that move the age."

The centerpiece exhibition, the British Library's "Oscar Wilde: A Life in Six Acts," looks at the man and his development as a literary figure. Its theatrical opening, with a red velvet stage curtain leading to an elegant hearth, suggests that Wilde might have been the original performance artist. A champion of the aesthetic movement, he believed in art for art's sake and his controversial life was itself a work of art.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 23, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Oscar Wilde--A Nov. 18 story about writer and poet Oscar Wilde wrongly reported his final resting place. Initially buried in a pauper's grave, Wilde's body was later moved to Paris' famous Pere-Lachaise cemetery.

But does such a grand opening into the life of a man once so reviled by Britain hint at a collective sense of guilt?

"People do feel strongly now that he was very badly treated by society," curator Sally Brown said. "But I don't think it is just guilt. He was an extraordinary writer--an extraordinary figure worth celebrating."

The exhibition chronicles Wilde's flamboyant life with original letters and manuscripts, caricatures, photographs and a rediscovered portrait painted on the eve of his trial by French artist Toulouse-Lautrec.

Born in Dublin in 1854, Wilde studied classics at Oxford University's Magdalen College, where he gained a reputation as a dapper dresser with fashionably furnished rooms. He was denied a postgraduate fellowship and set off for London, telling a friend that he would rather be a writer than a "dried-up old don."

Wilde won over London society with his wit, opinions on art and knack for self-promotion, and embarked on a speaking tour of the United States in 1882--"I have nothing to declare but my genius," he told a U.S. Customs official in New York--that made him a superstar well before he wrote any of his pivotal works.

He married Constance Lloyd after his return to Britain and the couple had two sons before he began the relationship that would lead to his downfall. After the publication of his 1891 novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray," Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie, and conducted a public affair with him at a time when homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment.

Bosie's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, accused Wilde of being a sodomite. Wilde retaliated by suing the marquess for criminal libel--a reckless move, given his high-profile sexual activities with Bosie and other men.

Presented with an abundance of evidence against him, Wilde dropped the case after two days in court, but the government then charged him with homosexual offenses. With two of his plays, "The Importance of Being Earnest" and "An Ideal Husband," enjoying West End runs, Wilde stood trial at Old Bailey and was convicted.

Wilde emerged from prison in 1897 a broken and bankrupt man, and lived out the rest of his life in exile in France. He died in a cheap hotel room in Paris on Nov. 30, 1900, telling the wallpaper, "One of us has got to go." He is buried there in a pauper's grave.

His work remains popular today, although his opinions on art are as controversial as they were during his lifetime. That is evident in the response to two other exhibitions, "The Wilde Years: Oscar Wilde and the Art of His Time" at the Barbican Art Gallery and "The House Beautiful: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Interior" at the Geffrye Museum.

"His taste in art was conventional and deplorable," wrote critic Julian Mitchell in the Guardian newspaper.

The man who made an art of notoriety probably would have scoffed at this talk; after all, a hundred years after his death, at least people are still talking.

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