Immortalisation of the Irish author, poet, and playwright in Merrion Square – across the street from Wilde’s birthplace and childhood home
The Oscar Wilde Memorial Sculpture is a collection of three statues situated in Merrion Square in Dublin, celebrating the Irish poet and playwright. The sculptures were unveiled in 1997 and were designed and sculpted by Danny Osborne.
The sprawling area of Merrion Square is not far from Trinity College and is well known for being one of Dublin’s finest Georgian areas, which used to be the stomping ground for many talented and influential Irishmen, including poet W.B Yeats at No.82 and Oscar Wilde at No.1. Not much seems to have changed for the bon viveur, as he still lounges in the Square positioned straight across from his childhood home where he rests on a boulder of white quartz, sculpted from a powerful and colourful array of polished granite and precious stones. This sculpture of Wilde was commissioned in 1997 by the Guinness Ireland Group and Merrion Square Park was chosen as the sculpture site where he is immortalised in his flamboyant repose.
Sculptor Danny Osborne chose to execute the face and hands of Wilde in unglazed porcelain, as it does not age as quickly as marble. This decision seems fitting for the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray and for a man as risqué as Wilde in tackling questions of absolute beauty and agelessness.
In his youth, Oscar would have been playing at the very spot where his sculpture rests now, and it is here he is depicted, aged about forty, sporting his famous green smoking jacket carved in solid jade, which according to traditional Chinese beliefs, prolongs life and confers immortality. The impeccable vibrancy of his jacket is a result of carved deep green nephrite jade, collared in bright pink Norwegian thulite and the trousers are made from sparkling blue pearl granite alongside the shiny shoes from polished black granite, indicating the extravagant use of precious stones for an equally extravagant man.
For many, the duality of his facial expression might seem puzzling, however when one observes the triangular installation of the sculptures, both of Wilde’s emotions- joyous and somber are thereafter successfully realised. Throughout Oscar’s lifetime, his nature remained deeply divided, and it’s somewhat ironic that his face here is both life-like and mask-like, both tragic and comedic. Dazzling in semi precious stones, Wilde sits on a large 35 ton quartz boulder which was taken from the famous Wicklow Mountains. Osborne chose to make the sculpture from exotic materials, such as green nephrite jade from the Yukon for his smoking jacket, white jade from Guatemala for Wilde’s hands and head, as well as a rare pink stone known as thulite from Norway for his collar and cuffs. The smartly-fitted trousers have been carved out of blue pearl granite, his shoes and socks from black Indian granite. Wilde can also be observed wearing his Trinity Old Boys tie, which was also made in coloured glazed porcelain and two scarab rings that Wilde wore on his left and right hands for good luck.
In its final glorious form, Wilde’s sculpture is a polarising three-piece sculptural project that expands across Merrion Square. Situated in front of Wilde are two smaller bronze sculptures positioned on black granite plinths, presented neatly with Wilde observing them. The first bronze is Osborne’s representation of Wilde’s pregnant wife, Constance, and the second is his interpretation, based on a Hellenistic fragment, of a figure of Dionysus, the Greek god of the wine, fertility, and theatre, represented by a simple elegant male torso. Dionysus and Constance are made in bronze, perhaps a reference to Oscar’s admiration for Greek culture and history.
On the “pillar of life”, Constance kneels while cradling the child and gazes over her shoulder at Oscar. Contrastingly, he looks beyond her, perhaps alluding to his eventual neglect and dishonesty in their marriage.
The bronze torso of the Greek Dionysus stands on the “pillar of art”. While in London, Oscar had a plaster cast of Dionysus, which is here associated not only with wine and youth, but also with drama. The sculpture represents not any particular body, but the unattainable, lost ideal that is art. Beneath Dionysus and Constance are stone plinths of Indian granite and Azul Bahia.
On these stone plinths are etched famous quotes from Wilde. Osborne decided to integrate Wilde’s words with his art, and to achieve this he sought the assistance of a variety of people associated with Irish art as well as people who helped in the project: Osborne asked them to write out their favourite quote in their own handwriting which further enabled the sculptures to interact with the public.
Therefore, Art and Life appear before Wilde as exquisite bronze figurines. He sits almost puzzled, staring at the reality of life, the earthiness of which is depicted in the image of his pregnant wife; and the spiritual and visual beauty of art, as witnessed in the godly perfection of Dionysus.
Wilde’s De Profundis provides some insight into his beliefs about Dionysus, who in his wild, irrational, and sensual behaviour ultimately symbolises creativity and passion. On the subject of Greek gods, Oscar considers Demeter and Dionysus to be the most suggestive figures. Wilde states
“for religion, Demeter … and, for art, Dionysus, the son of a mortal woman to whom the moment of his birth had proved the moment of her death also.”
Consequently, the bronze figurines represent the triumph of art over life. Wilde resolves the dilemma of the interrelationship between art and life by pointing to art’s power to inform, to correct, and to extirpate life.
“Life by its realism is always spoiling the subject matter of art. The supreme pleasure in literature is to realise the non-existent.”
Wilde in a sense, had no actual desire for art to mirror life, his pursuit seemed to see life mirroring art. Nonetheless, what would be Oscar’s perception of the memorial sculpture? It is fair to say that the limitations of many public sculptures are more or less evident in their lack of expression, or as Wilde once described it, “atmosphere”. For example, he gave a speech in Stratford-upon-Avon at the unveiling of a Shakespearean monument in 1888 and was highly critical of the way in which English sculptors confined themselves when it came to expressionism and intimate emotions. Wilde considered sculpture to be largely incapable of representing the complex nature of contemporary life. This seems true when considering many portraits and period dresses are sometimes unable to provide a constructive insight into the life and status of the sitter.
Consequently to his credit, Osborne is successful in exploring beyond portraiture and has bravely attempted to construct internal complexities, raw passion, and the bon viveur destructiveness of Wilde’s life through this sculpture.
- 5 books by contemporary Irish authors to read amid Lockdown
- Supporting local businesses: 7 great independent Irish bookshops to choose from
- Re-opening of the National Gallery of Ireland
It is indeed worth exploring the extraordinary materials and the primary research conducted by Osborne the completion of this project. For example, the smartly-fitted trousers are made out of Larvikite, a coarse-grained igneous rock often known as Blue Pearl Granite. The larvikite seems to mimic the tweed fabric and its natural creases, which had to be shipped from Norway and therefore, required a certain amount of effort which makes one appreciative of the process as well as the final product.
One of the most striking features of the sculpture is probably Wilde’s smoking jacket which is a combination of green nephrite jade from British Columbia and pink thulite from Western Norway that makes up the bright collar and cuffs.. The Canadian jade was extracted from a zone of “contact metamorphism” where ultramafic rocks presented themselves in the local country rock whereas the Norwegian thulite (a manganese-bearing variety of zoisite) was mined from metamorphosed calcareous shales and sandstones.
To some, Wilde’s black shoes and socks may reflect a more simple and somber material, but they are no less exotic, as the black Indian granite is a charnockite which was extracted from the southern region of India and contains a distinctive pyroxene mineral known as hypersthene. Finally, the massive stone on which Wilde rests is a 35 tonne boulder of quartz that was taken from the Wicklow Mountains and was Osbourne who found the boulder himself
The Sculptor and contemporary renovation
Danny Osborne (born 1949), studied at Bournemouth & Poole College of Art and resided in Ireland from 1971 until 2001, when he moved to Nunavut, Canada, before finally returning back to Ireland. Osborne has been critically acclaimed throughout the world and is recipient of many major commissions. His artworks have been exhibited in many prominent public and private collections including those of the Arts Council of Ireland; the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA); the Office of Public Works (OPW); and the Canada Council.
Since it was unveiled, this delicate sculpture series has seen considerable deterioration as various cracks started to appear in the porcelain head of Wilde. The porcelain head proved to be too fragile for frigid and wet Dublin weather and had to be remodelled in a more robust material; white jadeite.
Osborne put most of the original £20,000 budget into acquiring beautiful precious stones, like the green nephrite jade from the Yukon and pink thulite from central Norway. He further believed that marble would have been useless as it would have lost its vibrancy very quickly, so it was important to choose materials that would be able to retain their colours for decades to come.
Additionally, Osborne took advice from leading geologists, and chose white Jadeite for the new head, not just for its longevity but also for its symbolism. Many cultures around the world associate jade with immortality, good luck and well-being, therefore the white jadeite along with green jade jacket exudes a sense of immortality. Wilde’s work and words are in no sense mortal, but the monument is a constant reminder to the public of his genius. The monument further serves as an inspiration for many through its aesthetic beauty as well as for geologists, who are fascinated by the use and execution of rare stones to create a fabulous three-piece artwork.
Impact and Significance
In the Irish edition of The Sunday Times May 2001 article, Mark Keenan commented on the shockingly long wait for the celebration and commemoration of Wilde and discussed the delay:
“a decade ago, more conservative elements amongst the Dublin public may not have dared allow his city to commemorate his name.”
Similarly, art historian Paula Murphy suggested that the fact that it took almost 100 years for the Irish public to come to terms with Oscar Wildes’ flamboyant lifestyle is a testament to the amount of time it took for the Dublin public to spiritually awaken, and accept Wilde as he was.
In the 2012 article “Sculpting Irishness: a discussion of Dublin’s commemorative statues of Oscar Wilde and Phil Lynott” for Sculpture Journal, Sarah Smith wrote about the distinct facial expressions, and how it was Osborne’s intention to represent “antithetical” sides of Wilde wherein one half of his face is smiling while the other bears a vivid but sombre expression. This divide is echoed in his posture on either side. Smith also emphasises a very important point that is often overlooked while evaluating this piece of art: the positioning of Wilde is at the corner of the park on the turn of the outer pathway, so the visitor to the monument sees one side of Wilde when approaching and another when walking away.
Smith argues “we cannot help but read this work according to today’s conventions of dress and gesture,”explaining that the choice of the pose for Wilde invokes popular notions of “feminised masculinity,” Meanwhile, the use of vivid colours brings out his “colourful character,” whilst his gaze is directed at the nude torso of Dionysus, which all culminates with our knowledge and interpretation of his homosexuality. She further states “We consequently see an overemphasis on his sexuality in this work, augmented by the nicknames given to it by Dubliners.”
In general, public perceptions of monuments change over time. Commemorations, styles, or even colour schemes may become outdated, until ultimately a monument finds peace simply as a visitor’s curiosity or even more significantly, as a landmark. Long after monuments cease to fire the imagination, they continue to be part of and further document a developing culture, which eventually reveals over time who, what, or why it was important to commemorate the person, the event, or the idea in the first place.
Oscar Wilde has successfully joined the monumental statuary in the public spaces in Dublin and may be one of the most notable figures in Irish history. His commemoration serves as an indication of a changing culture and changing attitudes within Irish society. Osborne’s Oscar Wilde represents a more thought provoking approach and serves as an indication to future generations of the changing attitudes observed in Ireland at the close of the 20th century.
Visit the memorial sculpture in Merrion Square
Photos courtesy of Atlas Obscura