Oscar and the aesthetes meet rock legends in gallery showdown

The Wilde Years | Barbican Gallery, London Rock Style | Barbican Gallery, London
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The Independent Online

It isn't often that gallery curators come up with ideas for parlour games, but the masterminds behind the Barbican's latest pair of shows have done themselves proud. So here are the rules for Barbican!, a game for as many players as you can persuade to play.

It isn't often that gallery curators come up with ideas for parlour games, but the masterminds behind the Barbican's latest pair of shows have done themselves proud. So here are the rules for Barbican!, a game for as many players as you can persuade to play.

First, you should ask your dinner guests to picture themselves as directors of a publicly-funded showing space. Then they must imagine that their brief is to fill that space with as many punters as they can; and then (here's the tricky bit) then they must do so by putting on the two most mis-matched exhibitions they can think of showing there together at any one time.

The bad news is that no mere novice is likely to beat the Barbican Centre at its own game, thanks to the building's in-built topographical advantages. The genius who designed the centre's twin galleries made them not merely modishly open-plan but voguishly split-level. Thus visitors to shows in the upper gallery can - indeed, must - look down on shows in the lower gallery, and vice versa.

The temptation, to which the Barbican's curators occasionally succumb, is to get around the museological difficulties of this by suggesting some kind of synergy between whichever two shows happen to be on in the gallery's twin spaces. This has resulted in some ludicrous mismatches in the past, but none of quite such bravura silliness as the current pairing: namely, a show on rock-music design in the lower gallery, and another - accessible only via the first - about Oscar Wilde's influence on the art of his time in the upper.

The noise, my dear, and the sequins. How Oscar would have shuddered, and not just at the woeful tailoring of the costumes worn by the American rock band, Kiss, at the bottom of the stairs to his show. Rather more annoying to the fastidious Wilde would have been the half-hearted attempts by the curators of "The Wilde Years" to suggest some kind of aesthetic parallel between the belle époque and our own fiercely demotic age of rock.

The link, in case you are wondering, is media celebrity. Wilde had some carefully-honed aperçus on the subject, and, as this exhibition demonstrates, his own fame was extraordinary. So, too, was the range of media in which his image was reproduced during his lifetime. To take these in no particular order, Wilde's wilting bulk was used on American advertising flyers, included in this show, to peddle everything from Clark's Spool Cotton to Messrs J & H Phillips's Oil Cloths and Rubber Goods; he was lampooned in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operetta, Patience. In 1881, he was painted by William Powell ( Derby Day) Frith attending a private view at the Royal Academy - Frith anecdotally refused to scrub Wilde out of the picture after his little spot of trouble 14 years later - in a crowd portrait borrowed for this show from a private collection; and last, but by no means least, he was sketched, week after long week during his trial in 1895, in the illustrated Police Gazette.

There's also no questioning Wilde's connections to the late Victorian art world. His first piece of published prose was a review of the opening show at the Grosvenor Gallery, in which the 22-year-old art critic leapt to the defence of such iconoclastic (and overtly homoerotic) things as GF Watts' Love and Death. This is included in the Barbican show, as is a copy of the work that, predictably enough, turned Wilde into an aesthete: namely, Guido Reni's St Sebastian, a kind of Bosie with arrows. Wilde's friendship with the artists and lovers, Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon - known to the carnation-minded Oscar as Orchid and Marigold - is also given its own room in the show, together with a curious portrait which depicts the pair, in tempera on linen, as medieval saints.

The trouble with all of this, as with the Barbican's upper gallery itself, is that there is a great big hole in the middle of it. The more foolish of the exhibition's sign-boards invite the visitor to draw parallels with the rock show visible - and audible - on the floor below. One particularly ill-considered sign hints at some kind of connection between Colonel Morse, Wilde's agent on his 10-month US lecture tour, and Colonel Parker, Elvis Presley's private Svengali, presumably on the grounds that they were both Americans and both called "Colonel". (The signage does at least stop short of noting that one represented a king and the other a queen.)

The overall effect of this is to induce a sense of curatorial desperation in "The Wilde Years", of a confusion between celebrity and influence. If you and your dinner guests tire of playing Barbican!, then you can always use the show's catalogue to make up a Wildean version of Where's Wally? Where's Oscar? In Gilbert and Sullivan, Ricketts and Shannon, oil cloths and rubber goods; in Colonels Morse and Parker, on both floors of the Barbican Gallery. Which leads you to feel that he was really nowhere at all: that, despite the claims of this show, he was a bit of of a flake.

'The Wilde Years: Oscar Wilde and the Art of his Time': Barbican Gallery, London EC2 (020 7638 8891), to 14 January; 'Rock Style'; Barbican Gallery, London EC2 (020 7638 8891), to 14 January

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