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

The cause itself was right and good and overdue. There should certainly be a monument to Oscar Wilde in London, the scene of his triumphs and trials and fall. It should be a major monument. We're not talking about some half-cocked tourist-trapping nonsense, like the statue of Charlie Chaplin in Leicester Square. This would be a monument with serious business to do - for us, for London.

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London