It's got to go
Oscar Wilde deserved a monument fit for a hero of art, love and politics. Instead Maggi Hambling has sculpted a wilfully tacky, silly, Tussaudian tragedy
Tuesday 01 December 1998
It's a kind of test case. Many people doubt whether public sculpture is nowadays capable of doing serious business at all. It's quite hard to imagine what that would even feel like. But consider Wilde's story: it's a big one with big themes. Don't just think of the irresistible personality or the slave of beauty or the glittering dramatist or the sexual dissident and martyr. Think of the destructive amour fou, the reckless double life, the noble but evasive court defence, the determination to face disgrace, the broken prisoner.
It's not just a life that's involved. Wilde's story is iconic: he's a hero of art, love, politics, comedy, individualism, conscience. It's on our conscience too. It's a piece of grand, emblematic, messy, unfinished history - heroic, tragic, bathetic, shameful - that needs public remembering and honour and reparation. That's a job a public sculpture, just imaginably, might do, and not for Wilde's sake only, but for ours.
Public sculpture, ideally, doesn't merely stand there as outdoor decor or eye-catching curio. It stands for us. It's a form of collective speech and collective action. True, Wilde has his tomb in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, one of Epstein's finest, and he now has a memorial in Poets' Corner. But a Wilde monument, permanently visible on London's streets, might have been and done something great. Perhaps something like that was what was originally envisaged.The idea was the late Derek Jarman's. The campaign was taken up by various prominent cultural figures, including Sir Jeremy Isaacs, Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney. Design-proposals were invited from artists. Funds were raised by public subscription, and from various charitable bodies. The project showed a real and proper Victorian public spirit. And if the eminent persons behind it had any sense of the serious work their monument might do... Well, how could they conceivably have entrusted the job to Maggi Hambling?
But that's what they did. And A Conversation with Oscar Wilde was unveiled yesterday in Adelaide Street, the pedestrianised area behind St-Martin- in-the- Fields, with the state's blessing too. The Culture Secretary was among the notables in attendance. It is a figurative work. It is a plain distaster. As a piece of any-old-street-sculpture, dead silly. In view of the monument it might have been, a tragedy. There are many reasons: whimsy and triviality, to start with.
A polished stone sarcophagus is set on the pavement. Its top surface slopes up at one end, like a sun-lounger. To this slope, a bronze bust of Wilde, plus right hand, are attached - as if the figure was surfacing through the stone, as if Wilde were sitting up out of the tomb. Sitting up, and still talking away. Wilde is caught mid-mot, mouth gabbing, hand gesturing with cigarette. And he's talking to us - for the tomb works as a street bench too, where we can sit and enjoy A Conversation.
A "playful" piece then: already a very bad conception for a public work. And note that the Wilde memorialised here is only the irrepressible talker, the repartee-animal (plus a touch of the aesthete look - there's the carnation, patinated light green). We have nothing of the nerve, the folly, the ruin, the glory. We have nothing for history - only the whimsical notion of us chatting cheerfully with this anodyne figment.
It's a Tussauds Wilde. Or you might say, it preserves an image of Wilde just as a playgoer of a hundred years ago might have liked it preserved. Fantastic wit and charmer, magnificent character - terribly sad about, best not to think about the scandal, the trials, the gaol. And don't tell me it shows Wilde "rising above" his misfortunes. Those misfortunes are the story.
As for that wit, the foot of the tomb is inscribed with a well-known line from Lady Windermere's Fan: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." And I seem to remember someone brightly suggesting that the thought might particularly appeal to London's homeless, who are often found in this area.
It may well do. Anyone who's read the poetry pages of The Big Issue will know that homelessness is no cure for sentimentality. But it remains one of Wilde's stupider remarks. It's stupid because (a) some people really are in the gutter, but we aren't all, and to pretend we are is sheer self- dramatisation, (b) if we were in the gutter, looking at the stars wouldn't much help - the metaphor is wilfully unimaginative about life in the gutter. What's more, its citation here, as emblematic or quintessential Wilde, is very untrue to Wilde's own experience. When he came to write De Profundis from prison he was fully alive to the falsity of this kind of air-headed high-mindedness.
All this is bad enough. But the decisive problem is not the message but the making of the piece. It's wilful tack. The bust and hand aren't solid metal. They materialise from a sort of macaroni tangle of undulating tubey strands. It's a likeness - but why done like this? The head looks silly. The technique does too.
Hambling is mainly a painter, and I guess she may be going here for a sculptural version of one of her painting styles, where the figure is rendered in paint strands and loops, light on a dark ground. On canvas it can create a brisk, evanescent vivacity. But breezy brushstrokes can't be translated into three dimensions so literally. I mean, what does it look like? I'll tell you what.
In medieval tomb sculpture there's something called a transi. You have a two-tier tomb, in which the deceased person is represented twice. On the top tier they lie, dressed, praying or whatever, more or less alive. Underneath they appear again - as a rotting cadaver, the flesh decomposing, riddled with worms. That's the transi. I think A Conversation with Oscar Wilde may be one too. Its construction looks distinctly vermiform.
But it can't be. We can't be meant to be chatting away with a wriggling corpse. It can't want to call Wilde worm-eaten. But in the circumstances, the association can't be avoided. The figure is clearly emerging from a tomb - and you don't even have to think of a transi, just of any rising-from-grave horror film.
Or, if it's really not wormlike, it's meaningless tricksy texturing, which points in only one direction - not to Wilde, or to us, but to the hand of the maker. So the piece becomes, not a public monument, not a social act, but a personal tribute by the artist. Absolutely, in every way, it's not what was wanted.
Now it would be quite wrong for me to suggest that anyone should think of breaking the law. Let me be clearer: do not break the law. Besides, it's a feature of recumbent statues that they do not easily tempt a volatile citizenry into an act of toppling. No doubt casual vandalism will be as resourceful as it ever is, but that won't be enough. And imagining the appropriate accident scenario takes one into the further reaches of extraordinary coincidence.
But why this fuss, anyway? London is just busting with ludicrous and lamentable public sculpture. Do you happen to know The Cellist on the South Bank? Or Physical Energy in Kensington Gardens? And there are some absolute stunners out in Docklands. This piece is only one more, and by no means the worst or the largest example. Good heavens, look at that unspeakable Paolozzi - I know, a tautology - they put up in front of the new British Library. That really should be on the sappers' hit list.
OK. But I come back to the original point. It's a point about meaning. The Paolozzi giant means nothing, it's just something they stick outside a library because they think they have to stick something there. But the Wilde monument might have meant something great, might have performed a serious social and historical deed. The one we've got now doesn't. It doesn't begin to try. It's tourist tat. Don't say it insults Wilde. It disgraces us.
What a true Wilde monument would be like, who could make it, I can't immediately imagine. It wouldn't need to be bigger. It probably couldn't be directly figurative. Its impact would be complex. But we'll never get a true one while this one's still there. It took a big campaign to get it up, but that's nothing to what it'll take to get it down. An empty space would be better. At any event, it's got to go. It's got to go.
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