Beauty – a filter for reality.
The subject under analysis is the vision of beauty in Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The fin-de-siècle aesthetic sees in art a spiritual dimension that opposes the banality of daily existence: in “The picture of Dorian Gray” (1891), Wilde gives full expression to his conception of art, according to which it is natural to imitate art and not vice versa, claiming the ability of art to shape the conventions and intellectual schemes with the world is perceived. It is the only novel produced by the author, which tells the Faustian story of a man who sells his soul for eternal youth.
‘Beauty is the splendour of truth’, says Plato. What is beauty? What is true? Man has always asked these questions himself.
The relationship between life and art is central to Oscar Wilde: writer and real character, brilliant, ironic, irreverent, more than the last exponent of the Victorian era, he is the first representative of modernity. The public image of the dandy, the scandals, and the trial for homosexuality is accompanied by intense intellectual activity on several fronts, in the field of poetry and novel, non-fiction and theatre, in the name of a sensitivity based on the autonomy of artistic creation.
What is beauty in fact? Does it happen to us often? Where and how to meet beauty? Are we no longer able to grasp it? Perhaps, to meet “beauty” one must know how to see, and be capable of that ‘look’.
A ‘look’ that is outside of us, outside of our usual criteria of judgment, outside of our daily feeling, outside of our rational nature. Only then, is it possible to meet Beauty. A meeting that can be aesthetically pleasing, but sometimes dramatically painful. An artist for whom beauty can win over time, making the sense of eternity grasp. Who could dare to say so much and dare to act so much? Oscar Wilde.
Nevertheless, what is beauty for Oscar Wilde? Was his just a purely aesthetic beauty? No, his idea of beauty was thirsty for truth.
Moreover, it is in the name of this truth that sustained the need for the artist to enjoy absolute freedom, in order to be able to express his art in authentic masterpieces. The artist must be free from any bond with society, free from feelings, from any belief, since all these obligations limit his ability to search for beauty and therefore for truth.
Oscar Wilde gives us a clear answer through his most important work, which will become eternal: “The portrait of Dorian Gray”. A real celebration of the cult of beauty.
The protagonist of the novel is the beautiful young Dorian Gray, obsessed with the idea of growing old and losing his attractiveness. The painter Basil Hallward makes a portrait of him, and Dorian obtains, due to a spell, that every sign of time spoils not him but the portrait.
The portrait reproduced in a painting is the metaphor of the relationships between art and life, contradictory and irreconcilable. Even the theme of the mask on the face expresses the discomfort of experiencing the fin-de-siècle. The beautiful Dorian Gray has a morbid and turbid conception of beauty; his painter friend Basil gives him a portrait at the height of his charm and youth. Dorian feels the pain for the beauty that will fade and formulates the vow that the traces of time mark the portrait and not his face. Concentrated only on himself, Dorian is incapable of loving, lives a dissolute life, while the portrait is covered with a cloth and closed in a room. Having reached scandalous levels of abjection, Dorian kills Basil, who is his conscience; then he destroys the portrait, and his servants find him dead, aged suddenly, next to the portrait itself.
Dorian therefore wants to annihilate the portrait in the painting, but kills himself. The artifice of the ageing picture and the subject that remains young is the reinterpretation of the Faustian aspiration not to grow old. Dorian is a fragile character; he lives the experience through the filter of art, as evidenced by his love for the actress Sybil Vane: the love charm dissolves after a mediocre acting of the young woman, and love dies too.
The novel captures the intertwining of the different personalities of the three main characters: Dorian Gray, dissolute and amoral, a hedonist who lives on appearances and who will reach the tragic epilogue in the desperate attempt to make art coincide with life; Lord Henry Wotton, the friend, a charming dandy whose cynical and decadent spirit recalls that of Wilde and Basil Hallward himself, the painter, the artist who shapes the Beauty, in love with Dorian, whose moral conscience he tries to bring to light . Dorian Gray can be seen as a fragile personality, but without a shadow of malice in the soul until he became acquainted with Lord Wotton. The latter can be considered the true devil of the novel, an unscrupulous man ready to perform the worst iniquities in order to derive personal pleasure from them.
The author describes an aristocratic world, where everything is empty and superficial.
In the novel, the moralistic condemnation of vice and its punishment appears in the foreground, but it represents with satisfaction the charm and the attractive force of evil, to be understood as real life, with its pleasures and its seductions. The relationship between Dorian Gray and the picture that represents him, is thus the ambiguous relationship, unsolvable for the decadent hero, between good and evil, between the immutable perfection of art and the precariousness of existence.
In ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray”, it is clear that for Wilde the function of the artist is to invent, not to report. The realism of life continually spoils art; the supreme pleasure in literature and in art is to achieve what does not exist, where art reacts and wins against the stark brutality of pure and simple realism.
Oscar Wilde does not seek happiness in life. Indeed, he does nothing but escape from life and the consequent search for happiness in it, to take refuge in inertia and total disengagement from the world.
After the conviction for homosexuality, discounted to forced labour, Oscar Wilde sank into the darkest and most unbearable of suffering. The writer went gradually but inexorably towards death.
The secret of life is suffering. It is what hides behind everything. Words of a soul. Suffering and beauty. Hell and heaven. Can one exist without the other? Yes, but only in an empty existence. His life was a comedy, a drama, like that of Dorian Gray.
Oscar Wilde was a nightingale: he loved beauty, he loved love, and he continued to offer a passion of his, even to those who could not understand or reject it. Then he coloured his life with blood.
Oscar Wilde has never had doubts. Beauty is the only true sense of life.
In the rejection of an aesthetic of realism, “The picture of Dorian Gray” recognizes the power of art to penetrate the mystery of human nature, where the term art means both the literary masterpiece and the perfection of a perfect, elegant and impeccable life. The portrait that is at the centre of the novel reveals the moral corruption of the protagonist, becoming the vehicle of that truth that life manages to conceal. Art contributes to perpetuating the deception of eternal youth, but it cannot replace life.
Wilde therefore establishes that the function of the artist consists in creating beautiful things and that his life is realized in the completeness of the work of art. The critic, therefore, the writer adds, as an interpreter of artistic creation, enhances its vitality and therefore does not differ from the aesthete: his search for meanings is nothing more than an autobiographical operation.
Wilde then establishes that the appreciation of beauty is an innate talent of the spirit: not everyone, but only a select few can understand it. He reiterates that art is foreign to traditional ethics: its only moral is formal perfection; vices and virtues are a simple ‘matter of art’, but have nothing to do with the aesthetic meaning of the work. The author concludes that it is a combination of form (‘surface’) and meaning (‘symbol’), but this second aspect could expose the artist to the risk that his work is ‘useful’.
Dorian is the perfect aesthete, who lives beauty as an absolute value and who makes his triumph with his own death. Art and life mix in its history until the death of the dissolute protagonist shows that only the first is truly eternal and imperishable.
In conclusion, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” recognizes in art and beauty the power to penetrate the mystery of human nature. The portrait, which is at the centre of the novel, reveals the moral corruption of the protagonist, becoming the vehicle of that truth that life tries to camouflage. Art contributes to perpetuating the deception of eternal youth, even if it cannot completely replace life. Beauty does not donate true immortality, but remains a sublime means through which man can transcend himself.