Alberto Giacometti famously said,
“The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity”.
And indeed Oscar Wilde has created art of such intensity in his 19th century novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), that it blurs the boundaries between art and life, not only by breathing life into a piece of art, but also conversely by breathing art into life. In this novel, the realities of life disappear from the realm of the real and life in turn becomes a charade. Film adaptations of the novel blur these lines even further as one form of art finds expression in another form and strives to alter the reality of the world of the novel. Each medium, whether it be the text or the film, is saturated with expressions of art and life that are sometimes trying to enforce reality, or take the reader far away from it, or just leave them suspended between the two.
Enmeshed with symbolism, Wilde creates a character who is trying to achieve “harmony of soul and body” through a painting. It is true that art does serve as a medium of expression but at times one also needs to question the necessity of finding expression in art.
When The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in 1890, it was a time when the idea of homosexuality was considered immoral and the thought of expressing homoerotic feelings inconceivable. How then would the aforementioned character, Basil, express his growing interest in another man; an interest he himself describes as “different”? Very subtly, the “soul” assumes symbolism of sexual desire in conflict with “the body”, trapped under a defined biological sex.
A resolution has to be achieved and it is achieved through art. Art becomes a medium of expression for Basil and the love that he could not openly demonstrate for Dorian was shown as love for his art. The physical touch he could not bestow upon Dorian, was bestowed as brush and paint strokes on Dorian’s portrait. While Wilde had to bow down before society’s ideas of morality and make multiple revisions to the story to remove all direct references to homosexuality (Mighall), he left clear imprints of this reality in his art for eyes that wished to see.
However, there were those who carried on the baton of accepted morality. Albert Lewin’s film adaptation, released in 1945, completely erases any indication of an attraction between Basil and Dorian. Rather, Basil’s feels a mystical power guiding him (05:09). This confession gives Basil’s art a divine and supernatural quality making it sacred, censuring any reference to homosexuality. Where Wilde was trying to subvert society’s censure through his novel, the 1945 adaptation reinforces this censure.
Interestingly, in Oliver Parker’s film adaptation from 2009, Basil’s obsession for Dorian becomes apparent as the camera focuses on a sketch of Dorian’s face and then slowly pans from left to right depicting numerous sketches of Dorian’s face, finally to focus on Dorian himself posing for Basil (06:42). The camera shot showing the brush dipping into the oil, taking up a crimson colour –the colour of love and blood– from the palette and depositing it on to the canvas, accompanied by the sharp and high note of music, not only directs intense attention on the process of creation of art but also hints that there is a greater meaning behind its creation. It is trying to express Basil’s strong attraction for Dorian.
Even in 2009, acceptance was a precious quality. Though the 2009 adaptation does not completely censure Basil’s feelings, it creates an illusion that either he did not have any feelings for Dorian or perhaps he was unaware of them, or perhaps too terrified to even acknowledge to himself that he had any.
Nevertheless, in spite of all attempts at censure over the last two centuries, Oscar Wilde has managed to seductively bare his soul by breathing his life, his love and emotions, into The Picture of Dorian Gray.
- Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Edited by Robert Mighall, Penguin Books, 2000.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray, Directed by Albert Lewin, performances by Hurd Hatfield, George Sanders, Lowell Gilmore, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1945.
- Dorian Gray, Directed by Oliver Parker, performances by Ben Barnes, Colin Firth, Ben Chaplin, Alliance Films, UK Film Council Ealing Studios, 2009.