You are a sculptor and Oscar Wilde’s friend Robert Ross asks you to make a monument for his grave. You remember Oscar’s wit as you heard it in his play The Importance of Being Ernest, and a story you read in school about Dorian Grey, whose portrait in the attic mysteriously recorded all the evil of his life. Maybe you know his fairy tales, too. The footnotes to a poem called the “Ballad of Reading Gaol” told you that Oscar had actually gone to prison for “corrupting” a youth, and had died in Paris shortly after his release, a broken man.
(public domain photo)
What sort of monument could you make to such a man—one of the most colorful men of letters of the nineteenth century, a dandy who lived among exquisite things?
Here is what the American-born sculptor Jacob Epstein came up with:
Tomb of Oscar Wilde by Jacob Epstein, in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris (GNU Free Documentation License photo by JHvW (talk)
What the devil?
“I had in mind Oscar’s poem ‘the Sphinx’”, explained Epstein.
A little Egyptian, a little Aztec inspiration. Something as exotic as the sphinx Oscar talks about in that long poem (which almost no one has read).
Few people have ever been pleased with the big stone, though women love to give it a kiss and leave a print of lipstick there (see a page of photos at Google). The sphinx used to be complete with genitals and those were at first covered (even in famously prude-free France) and finally removed. Oscar’s poem did have a heavy erotic air and the work of Epstein mostly did too.
Was Epstein himself satisfied?
Probably not. He experimented all his life with styles—sometimes of the sort that whole cultures produce. “It looks as though this were made by a people rather than a single man,” said one of Epstein’s friends in admiration of Oscar’s monolith. And in fact some of Epstein’s big projects are so derivative or eclectic that his own personality went under. He has no single masterpiece—as happened to so many of the artists of the twentieth century, nor a readily identifiable style.
Except in his wonderful portraits—some of the best that have ever been sculpted. Have a look at his bronze busts of Joseph Conrad, of Churchill, of the singer Paul Robeson, of the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and others. Here is a model named Kathlene:
Kathlene by Jacob Epstein (public domain photo)