Reflecting on two portraits of Oscar Wilde
De profundis means “from the depths”. The expression comes from the Latin translation of one of the Penitential psalms, Psalm 130, that begins with the words “De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine”, “From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord”. “De Profundis” is also the title of a rather long letter by Oscar Wilde, addressed to Lord Alfred Douglas and written between January and March 1897 whilst Wilde was imprisoned in Reading Gaol. In the letter Oscar Wilde writes about his spiritual conversion, about faith, and about his admiration for Jesus Christ with whom he had come to identify:
“I bore up against everything with some stubbornness of will and much rebellion of nature, till I had absolutely nothing left in the world but one thing. I had lost my name, my position, my happiness, my freedom, my wealth. I was a prisoner and a pauper. But I still had my children left. Suddenly they were taken away from me by the law. It was a blow so appalling that I did not know what to do, so I flung myself on my knees, and bowed my head, and wept, and said, ‘The body of a child is as the body of the Lord: I am not worthy of either’. That moment seemed to save me. I saw then that the only thing for me was to accept everything. Since then curious as it will no doubt sound I have been happier. It was of course my soul in its ultimate essence that I had reached. In many ways I had been its enemy, but I found it waiting for me as a friend. When one comes in contact with the soul it makes one simple as a child, as Christ said one should be.”
Looking at Fionn Wilson’s portraits of Oscar Wilde I find it difficult not just to see an Oscar Wilde longing to be freed from actual, physical confinement during his time in prison, or the Wilde of “De Profundis” about to make a spiritual u-turn. Due to the style of the paintings, the colours and what we might call their ‘air’, they also seem to me to be about history and how history itself calls for a kind of redemption. For what are “the depths” we call from if not history, our individual as well as our collected and what is history but that which can no longer be changed? The past is a shadowy world in which everything stands petrified, and from where only ghosts come to haunt us. As long as we can act and we have options, we can convince ourselves that we have the power to redeem ourselves through our actions. When this is no longer the case, as happened to Oscar Wilde, the present and the future turn into nothing more than extensions of the past. It all becomes history, and we can no longer save ourselves from it. When we quoting Wilde “have absolutely nothing left in the world”.
Art cannot redeem the past, I do not believe that but it can do something else. It can revitalise it and bring it forth to the present in a way that creates awareness. And this for me is exactly what Fionn Wilson’s beautiful portraits are about. They are about not forgetting. Also, they are about interpretation. Wilson’s portraits were created inspired by photos, of course. Two arguments can be made in favour of painting from live subjects rather than photos, namely 1) that by painting from a flat photo the painter cheats her way out of the technical problem of turning a 3D vision into a 2D painting, and 2) the photo lacks the ‘vitality’ of a real life situation. But both of these are false. Solving technical problems has nothing to do with art, and vitality is just a question of sensitivity and empathy. Of which Fionn Wilson has plenty. For obvious reasons it would have been quite difficult to get Oscar Wilde to sit for a portrait, and by choosing to paint from photos Wilson has created works that not only show how art can give new life to the past, but which also and at the same time, emphasise how art itself is historical. They are paintings that deal with history like Oscar Wilde dealt with history. I think there’s a great poetry in that.
Bo Gorzelak Pedersen,
Art critic for the Danish art paper Kunstavisen