Professor of English
The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of my favorite books to teach, and Oscar Wilde enjoys a prominent place in my pantheon of literary greats, so I was thrilled to learn that the Tang had acquired Yinka Shonibare’s Dorian Gray. Wilde’s 1890 Gothic masterpiece is a wily book that challenges all who read it; it was certainly a dangerous book for him to write. Such risk is evident in the preface that Wilde added to the 1891 version of his notorious novel, a key component in his strategy to defend The Picture of Dorian Gray against the harsh reviews it had already received. Here he admonishes readers who look for one simple meaning to the novel, and he also confronts directly the controversy over art and morality that his novel—condemned as “unmanly” and “indecent” by its earliest reviewers—raised. In 1895, Dorian Gray would factor in Wilde’s trials; being deemed a “sodomitical book,” it was used as evidence to prove that Wilde was (to use the parlance of the day) a practicing homosexual. As a consequence of its public condemnation, the novel was removed from the shelves of W. H. Smith, the nation’s largest book- seller. Dorian Gray would be Wilde’s only novel; however, his single attempt at a long work of fiction produced a legendary Gothic tale that has terrified and mystified generations of readers.
We are likely to know the basic plot of The Picture of Dorian Gray even if we haven’t read the novel. Two longtime school friends, the painter Basil Hallward and the dandy and wit Lord Henry Wotton, are society men drawn to the ephebe—beautiful young boy—Dorian. An innocent, Dorian becomes the “creation” of these two older men: first, as the model for Basil’s portrait; then, as a hedonist-in-training under the tutelage of Henry. A triangle of desire, if not of love, emerges; and a tale of influence unfolds. Dorian Gray is Wilde’s rewriting of the German Faust legend, with Lord Henry playing the role of Mephistopheles, a tempter whose sly words and exquisite promises seduce the Faust figure, Dorian. The exact terms of Dorian’s pact with the devil can be variously construed: Dorian requests never to age, to pursue pleasures without consequence, to seek sensation for sensation’s sake, to live a life beyond good and evil. Imbedded in his wishes are certain cultural and aesthetic debates about art for art’s sake and decadence that roiled Wilde’s own era. Readers might hear in Dorian’s desires echoes of English art writer Walter Pater’s suppressed conclusion to The Renaissance, a book that Wilde deeply admired: “Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end.” (1) Dorian spends much of the novel cruising London’s nighttime streets, committing, we are invited to assume, a multitude of crimes. As the novel progresses and as Dorian remains immune to conscience, the casualties of his desires mount: his spurned lover, the actress Sibyl Vane, commits suicide; Dorian’s friends Alan Campbell and Adrian Singleton either die or vanish; Sibyl’s brother, James Vane, is vanquished attempting to avenge his sister’s death; Dorian murders Basil and later stabs himself— or his portrait—to death with the same knife.
A simple way to understand the novel is that Dorian switches identities with his portrait: he remains young while the painting registers his vices and ages in his stead, a kind of proxy for the self. In effect, Dorian is a man who looks perfect on the outside but is evil within. It is likely that Wilde was inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a sensation since its 1886 publication. Like Jekyll, Dorian lives a double life. Dorian Gray may also owe a debt to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), with an evil portrait substituting for a mad wife locked away in a house’s top floor. In all three texts, readers enter the territory of the Gothic novel and its signature preoccupations: a house with a secret, a crime that must be punished, misleading appearances, a suspicion about what lies beneath. Yet here a reader’s certainty ends; Wilde knew that Dorian Gray was a text of indeterminacy, and his provocation to his readers is tantalizing: “Each man sees his own sin in Dorian Gray. What Dorian Gray’s sins are no one knows. He who finds them has brought them.“(2) It is almost as if Wilde anticipated, and even invited, the many interpretations and adaptations that would build the rich afterlife of his novel. Nigerian-English artist Yinka Shonibare is one of those artists to revisit this magnificent but cagey novel.
Shonibare’s 2001 series of twelve photographic prints presents a narrative sequence that formally replicates both the novel and the 1945 Albert Lewin–directed film of the same title. Though sequential, these moments are nevertheless fragments, in line with Wilde’s own departure from conventional nineteenth-century realism in this “novel without a plot.” Shonibare’s choice of form aligns with the mandate of decadence, drawn as it was to the intensity of the fragment, both in art as well as in life—by way of moments for those moments’ sake. Shonibare’s Dorian Gray is a series of tableaux vivant, a popular Victorian art form that further establishes an affinity between the twenty- first-century Shonibare and the Victorian Wilde. Shonibare’s decision not to glaze his Dorian Gray prints achieves a Paterian gem-like intensity— a striking immediacy that draws the viewer in. In the sequence, Shonibare plays the role of Dorian, the dandy; and it is the dandy who forms the centerpiece of another Shonibare series, Diary of a Victorian Dandy (1998). For both Shonibare and Wilde, the dandy is a charged figure. A man of leisure whose sole focus is his stylish clothing and appearance, the dandy is a subversive re-inventor who radicalizes conceptions of masculine identity. Non-normative, non-bourgeois, the dandy can alter his appearance at will; he is a figure of mobility whose very identity is performative, whose focus on appearance is both self-protection as well as self-advertisement. In his magnificence as well as his difference, the dandy raises questions about bodies, culture, and history—central questions for both Shonibare and Wilde. While it is Shonibare’s blackness that underscores the exceptionality of his Dorian, it was both Wilde’s Irishness and his sexuality that drew him to the dandy. Indeed, he became Victorian England’s most celebrated dandy; in this way, Dorian is very much Wilde’s “son,” a gorgeous progeny that society can see only as deviant. As Wilde himself explained, Dorian’s story concerns a “desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.”(3) Basil explains the tragic truth of the novel: “It is better not to be different from one’s fellows.” (4)
In fall 2017, I am teaching Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in the class “Secrets, Shame, and Privacy in the Nineteenth Century,” and my students will work with Shonibare’s Dorian Gray, which is on view in the exhibition Other Side: Art, Object, Self. Certain elements of the work particularly interest me. First, I am struck by the sequencing effect of Shonibare’s move from two tableaux featuring Sibyl Vane to the crowded scene of Dorian in society, which is followed by two images blanketed with fog. Here a viewer senses the growing isolation of Dorian as a result of his illicit desires, a narrowing of the perspective that leaves just two men standing: creator and creation, and—possibly—two same-sex lovers wrapped in the obscurity of a metropolitan haze. Shonibare appears to understand that Wilde’s novel at its heart is concerned with artistic as well as sexual freedoms; it is a novel that had no other choice than to be a novel written in code, where a high-stakes pact is made by Dorian, a man who loves other men in the age of the Labouchere Amendment, the British law that criminalized homosexuality. Perhaps the secret truth of this Gothic novel is that it cannot sustain the world of artistic freedom and sexual expression that it first summons—that there is no other way to imagine Dorian but as “a beast without a heart,”(5) the criminal that must be punished at the end. Wilde himself admitted that the “terrible moral” at the end of his novel was the only artistic “error” in the book.(6) For Wilde deeply loved, I believe, the three protagonists who formed for him a single entity: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.”(7) That phrase, in other ages, is heart-achingly expressive of Wilde’s own utopian impulse that cannot be satisfied in the current social context. Wilde can only hope for an imagined future when a man may express openly to desire, to be, Dorian.
Given these ambiguities that swirl about Dorian (and more broadly, the dandy), Shonibare’s single most inspired decision is the use of a mirror rather than a portrait in the second print. Here he depicts the novel’s inciting scene: when Dorian first sees his portrait and experiences a kind of erotic and artistic awakening. It is only by means of Basil’s art, and the artist’s love for his muse and subject, that Dorian comes to know himself; he is Basil’s most magnificent creation, and the portrait and self are one. In another brilliant move (and a nod to the film adaptation), Shonibare’s tenth print features the mirror again, and is the only color print in the series. This anomaly draws the viewer’s eye to the climax of the novel when Dorian kills the portrait, and thus himself, his monstrousness made visible in the novel for the first and only time on his face. In this emotionally intense scene, Dorian’s body is “framed” in more ways than one, revealing what is Shonibare’s and Wilde’s most powerful shared theme: the politics of representation.
One of Wilde’s harshest reviewers condemned The Picture of Dorian Gray as a “medico-legal” fiction: this libelous charge accuses the novel of taking up the matter of homosexuality, a topic, it was said, only lawyers and doctors should discuss (for it was believed to be a crime and/or a disease). A reader attuned to the opacities of Dorian Gray comes to appreciate how dangerous and subversive a work it is, particularly in light of its debut only a year after the Cleveland Street Scandal in which numerous men of “respectable” society were caught patronizing a gay brothel, exposing London’s active gay subculture. I relish the opportunity to teach The Picture of Dorian Gray because it is a beautiful and brave book for Wilde to have written, and I find the work of Shonibare equally courageous. The third epigram of the novel’s preface perfectly expresses my admiration for both artists: “The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.”(8)