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Oscar Wilde: An homage on the 100th anniversary of his death

1. December 2000 – 26. February 2001

“People like Oscar Wilde” was long a euphemism for “gay.” No scandal has impressed itself so indelibly on the unconscious of entire generations of the marginalized as Wilde’s sentence of two years in jail with hard labor. Wilde’s fall from the heights of literary and social fame was one of the reasons Magnus Hirschfeld dedicated his life to the struggle against paragraph 175, which criminalized consensual gay sex in Germany. Two years later he and a handful of fellow protesters founded the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäre Komitee WhK (“Scientific-Humanitarian Committee”), the first gay organization in the world. The Wilde trial shocked Europe in 1895 and shook the taboo of homosexuality, which held that silently ignoring the problem of same-sex love would be enough to make it go away. The shock was violent. Unlike the Eulenberg trial twelve years later, there were hardly any mocking caricatures in the press. The taboo was still too omnipresent. Wilde’s ostracision from English society launched the process of gay integration, which has continued over generations, and which, despite all the setbacks that have cost many their lives, cannot be overturned.

Wilde, the dandy and aesthete, was also always suspect to his contemporaries because of his Irish heritage. His novel The Picture of Dorian Gray was seen as a contaminating book that would corrupt youth and undermine the British empire. Many who had not read it understood it as an appeal to sodomy. His biblical drama Salome, which he wrote in antiquated French and dedicated to Sarah Bernhardt, also encountered considerable resistance and was banned in England. Salome stands completely within the tradition of French literature. Wilde was not an unknown in Paris, the tolerant cultural metropolis where he spent time again and again. He was a prized guest in the literary salons, where they marveled at his wit. Influenced strongly by French culture, Wilde in turn influenced a new generation of French writers as had no English author before. He bewildered the young Gide with his aesthetic theories so thoroughly that Gide freed himself from his strict adherence to morality, religion, and mother. Gide thus learned how to live with his homosexuality not only through literary production, and he is believed by some to have been in love with the playboy Wilde.

Salome and The Picture of Dorian Gray are at the center of our exhibition. In the Wilhelmine empire the staging of Salome was forbidden due to the feared insult to religious sensibilities. Max Reinhardt showed his production at an event closed to the general public. The guest list was submitted in advance to the police and encompassed the entire enlightened bourgeoisie of Berlin. Gertrud Eysold was the first Salome in Berlin and inspired Richard Strauss to set the piece to music. Hosts of matrons with powerful voices came onstage scantily clad and dripping with pearls. Woman dancers and female impersonators followed. Salome was popular even in POW theaters. The daringly erotic dance of the seven veils was long the epitome of drag; traces of this are visible well into the 1950s. Film seized the topic as well. The advance of the seductive woman began in 1908 and reached its first high point in 1922 in Alla Nazimova’s independent production. This film, through which Nazimova lost all of her savings, was allegedly a purely homosexual production. Rudi Valentino was unfortunately busy with other projects, or he would have otherwise surely been involved as well, as his wife Natasha Rambova was responsible for set decoration and costumes. Ken Russell and Werner Schroeter have also worked away at the myth of guilty innocence with their very different Salome films.

Our exhibition not only examines Wilde’s posthumous fame through the lens of authors who came after him, but also follows the highs and lows of Wilde’s reception, most of all in Germany. During the “Olympic Season” between 1934 and 1937, Oscar Wilde was the most-performed foreign author on the stages of the Third Reich. His comedies were played in almost all larger cities. There were special performances for the Nazi cultural authorities, a stronghold of “true Germanness”. Karl Lerbs, who had newly translated and edited all of Wilde’s comedies, attempted to establish Wilde as an Irish resistance fighter against British society and its rigid class distinctions. These versions of Wilde vanished from German stages, however, upon the beginning of the war. German directors also attempted film versions of Wilde’s elegant comedies.

Wilde’s facade was already crumbling considerably under constant attacks from friends and foes alike when he met his destiny in the form of the spoiled Bosie. He could have avoided the scandal. His friends advised him to flee the country. He defied society, and society hated him for it. The good-natured Wilde, so eloquent as a writer, seems to have been almost naïve or possessed by a sense of his own sin. He did not want to submit, to hide himself, but rather took responsibility for his pleasures. He looked with amusement at the world and at the excitement of his opponents. They did not give him absolution-they broke him. While still in prison he wrote a long letter to his beloved Lord Alfred Douglas. This letter, later published by Robert Ross under the title De Profundis, was his last great work.

The love story and its fatal consequences form the core of our exhibit. Like so many times before in our homage series, Kurt Stark has once again designed a wonderfully intimate space and additional installations. Small incidents from Wilde’s years in exile, like his actual visit to Taormina and his meeting with Wilhelm von Gloeden, are used for an excursus on nude photography; this section is completed informally by a watercolor painting from the Gloeden-series by Salome, one of the founders of “passionate painting” who took his name from Wilde’s drama. Even as far away as St. Petersburg, the artist Timur Novikov engaged with Wilde’s works, and we show here a few of his pieces. Rinaldo Hopf is represented by a number of works on Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. His large-format watercolor, painted on pages from the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, welcomes visitors to the exhibition.

We also show first editions of Wilde’s literary works. The translations of Wilde’s theatrical works by Hirschfeld’s longtime collaborator Herman von Teschenburg (who shared Hirschfeld’s preference for cross-dressing), were published in Leipzig by Max Spohr, the publisher of the early gay liberation movement. Rare editions illustrated by artists document Wilde’s popularity in Germany.

Rounding out the exhibit is a small cabinet that we have dedicated to the dandy, the true heir of the Wildean aesthetic. Here we find Wilde’s niece Dorothy, who was famous as “Oscaria” in lesbian circles in Paris in the 1920s. Representative film clips, many film stills, and posters document the persistent interest in Wilde’s work. In January, the Arsenal theater in the Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz will show a small retrospective on the exhibit.

Curator: Wolfgang Theis