MAY 2019

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MAY 2019 Issue
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Oscar Wilde's Basil Hallward

An artist that I think a lot about is Basil Hallward. His fame is attached to his painted portrait of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. The fact that he doesn’t exist in the world outside the book doesn’t matter to me. What I find of interest is an artist who finally reached a point in his work where he makes a masterpiece. He has painted numerous portraits of Dorian, but only once did he put himself—his passion, sensuality, and thoughts on his subject—into the painting. In other words, he was a mediocre artist until one moment, when he made a commitment to his feelings and art. The power struggle between the subject matter (Dorian) and the artist Basil is also of great interest. Hallward’s portrait is his masterpiece because of the model who becomes a muse. Without the emotional and intellectual investment in Dorian, there would be no painting worth its artistic value. Dorian is not an intellectual. He’s simply flattered that there exists a beautiful image made of his appearance. He doesn’t reflect on the painting so much as he reflects on himself. He doesn’t wish for the artwork to be preserved but rather, more importantly, for his appearance to stay young and pure as the portrait.

This is interesting enough, but is it really a portrait of Dorian, or more of a self-portrait of Basil? Wilde’s fictional artist is more concerned with his thoughts on Dorian, who, to be honest, is probably not worth the bother. Often one looks at someone’s infatuation or obsession as the entire act of selfishness from the observer, or voyeur. Once you capture a figure, whether by photography or painting, the point-of-view of the artist is what’s interesting. Rarely the subject matter itself. The Picture of Dorian Gray is less about Dorian than about the artist Basil Hallward and the other side of the coin, or his Mr. Hyde, Lord Henry Wotton. Basil strongly wants to see the good in Dorian, whatever there is or isn’t, and Wotton wants to see the world dubiously, or, in his mind, Dorian as a decadent figure. It’s a tug of war between Hallward and Wotton over the soul of Dorian.

As time goes on, Dorian looks the same, but his character is becoming more evil. Only Hallward’s painting shows the ugliness that is the “real” Dorian, which brings to mind the concept that art is the truth. Humans don’t tell the truth, but the artwork is always on the side of fact. Perhaps Wilde feels that way; still, artifice and style of the surface can expose a certain amount of honesty, but really, it’s in the eye of the beholder. All three characters have removable beliefs in the concept of good and evil. The thought of duality that one being can be both evil/good is not acceptable in British culture of the turn-of-the-century. Re-reading the annotated version of The Picture of Dorian Gray brings to mind that it is very much a book for youth. My reaction now is that of a 64-year-old man. When I first read Wilde’s book as a teenager, I was totally captivated by its somewhat artificial debate regarding aesthetics and morals. Reading it now, I find it quaint, but still, with great lines running throughout the book. It is often said that the novel is sort of the bookend piece to Huysmans’s decadent novel Against Nature, which to my mind is the superior book among the two.

I think most of us, when we think of the painting in the book, immediately have in mind Ivan Albright’s painted version of the portrait that is in the film directed by Albert Lewin. It’s ironic that the novel doesn’t have a definite description of the painting itself. As readers, we project what this painting looks like. So before seeing the film, each person has their own projection or illustration of Basil’s portrait. The art is only considered fake because it doesn’t exist in “real” life (aside from the work by Albright), but for readers, it is a real work of art.


Tosh Berman

Tosh Berman is a poet and writer. His memoir TOSH: Growing Up in Wallace Berman's World was recently published by City Lights.


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