Vol.  IV                                                                                                                                       No. 4-9 

issue no 35-41:

April - September 2007



The Critic as Critic

A Monthly Page of Reviews

All authors whose books are reviewed are invited to respond. 

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Table of Contents
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1.      Marie-Noelle Zeender on Oscar Wilde in Paris

2.      Lucia Krämer on Oscar Wilde from first to last

3.      Angela Kingston on Oscar Wilde in Dieppe

4.       Chiara Briganti on Decadence and Masculinity

5.    Paula Murphy on Augustus Saint Gaudens





Herbert R. Lottman: Oscar Wilde à Paris.   Paris: Fayard 2007.  ISBN 978-2-213-62892-9.  19 €.

Review by Marie-Noelle Zeender


Herbert Lottman’s Oscar Wilde à Paris (‘Oscar Wilde in Paris’) is another biography of Wilde, devoted more especially to the various stays of the author in the French capital, from his honeymoon to his death at the hôtel d’Alsace. The book is composed of XXV chapters and an envoy. To the Wilde scholar and English specialist, it is unreadable in many respects. First of all, the translation from the original typescript is awful, clumsy and rough, riddled with anglicisms and mistakes. Some passages are even comic sometimes, with such barbarisms as ‘efféminement’, p. 27 (for effeminacy probably), mistranslations like ‘crucifix’ instead of ‘calvaire’ , p. 40, the noun ‘convicts’ is not translated at all, probably because the translator could not afford a basic English dictionary. As for French grammar, it is more than once misused (the tenses, notably on p. 40, are often wrong). Yet, this does not mean that the original text is necessarily good.


Indeed, if from the start, the average reader may feel that the language sounds rather strange, the well-informed reader is soon exasperated by a number of errors ranging from Walter Peter (p. 8), Rupert Hardt-Davis (p. 18), the inevitable misquoted title in English: The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Harris Frank for Frank Harris, de Régnier (the nobiliary particle is not used in French except when you use the first name) instead of Régnier, the Old Bailey, just to quote a few examples.


However, the translator can in no way be blamed for all the defects of the book. Indeed, the narrative is on the whole a botched job, padded out with all sorts of digressions. In this respect, the very first chapter entitled ‘La Manche facile’ – which by the way is meaningless in French – offers a good example of this insofar as the author expatiates on the schedules and fares of ferries and trains between England and France at the time of Oscar Wilde. Further, the description of Dieppe at the end of the nineteenth century (pp. 149- 150) directly inspired from guidebooks is not particularly exciting. As a result, the style is disjointed, at once pretentious and familiar, even gossipy sometimes.


Too often, the biography relies on petty anecdotes, clichés and contradictions. As for the quotations, they are not always accurate or relevant, and anyway do not really highlight Wilde’s genius. Moreover, the author proves to be capable of making silly remarks on occasions. I have taken the liberty of translating two of them into English:  ‘a curious play which could have been born only from his brain’ (p.77); or ‘It was not necessary to be looking for sexual affairs to visit North Africa at the time of the French colonisation’ (p. 89). At last, the ‘envoy’ that concludes the book (‘Oscaria’) is purely gratuitous. Indeed, the pages devoted to Oscar Wilde’s niece Dorothy – in short a lesbian doppelgänger of her uncle – do not bring any light on the personality of the writer. Are such considerations meant to convey the notion that she was Oscar Wilde’s female reincarnation? 


Although he borrowed much from most of Wilde’s biographers, the author of Oscar Wilde à Paris does not bring anything new and seems to choose deliberately to focus his attention on some more or less sensational details. Innumerable references to Wilde’s cigarettes, his excessive drinking, his unattractive looks, his passion for young male prostitutes, his pecuniary problems contribute to giving the impression that he was a weak and grotesque character. In the same way, the artistic and intellectual French circles represented in the book are sketched so roughly that they cannot be taken seriously.


As Flaubert put it in a letter to Ernest Feydeau in 1872: ‘When you write the biography of a friend, you must do it as if you were taking revenge for him’.  Apparently, Mr. Herbert Lottman is no friend of Oscar Wilde, because his representation of the character is reduced to a mere caricature. In fact, his book is a reader’s digest somehow, a clumsy collage of passages borrowed from Ellmann, Pearson, Sherard, Ross and Harris among others, with quite a few references to the correspondence of Wilde. However, the mix is all wrong despite the footnotes that aim at giving the impression that the author dominates his subject.


In fact, if one wants to read a real biography of Oscar Wilde, one can read Ellmann of course, or Peter Ackroyd’s remarkable The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde. Although his book is a work of fiction, Ackroyd manages to reconstruct brilliantly the atmosphere of Paris at the turn of the century and to translate Oscar Wilde’s most subtle emotions at the end of his life.


As a brief conclusion, if you should invest in the purchase of Oscar Wilde à Paris, you might do it just for the cover illustration. The beautiful picture taken by Napoleon Sarony in 1882 when Wilde was in America is the only real Oscar Wilde that you will find in this book.


·         Marie-Noëlle Zeender, University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis.  Professor Zeender is the author (inter alia) of Le Triptyque de Dorian Gray: essai sur l’art dans le recit d’Oscar Wilde. Paris : L’Harmattan 2000.

·         For another, and somewhat less favourable, view of the book, see the critique by Lou Ferreira in rue des beaux-arts no.10. 

·         Join in the debate ?





2.     Oscar Wilde Explored


Hans-Christian Oeser, Oscar-Wilde-ABC, with the collaboration of Jörg W. Rademacher. Leipzig: Reclam, 2004. 175 pp.

Review by Lucia Krämer


Hans-Christian Oeser’s Oscar-Wilde-ABC pulls off the rare feat of providing a very well-informed introduction to Oscar Wilde’s life, works and thoughts for the Wilde newcomer, while at the same time engaging with various aspects of the academic debate on Wilde. The Oscar-Wilde-ABC is thus one of the few books which will appeal to specialists and amateurs alike – which is an admirable achievement in itself. In the relatively short span of 175 pages (compare here, for example, the 450 pages of Karl Beckson’s Oscar Wilde Encyclopedia of 1998), Oeser and his collaborator Jörg W. Rademacher, who provides 26 of the 108 entries in the book, manage to fulfil their acknowledged aims of creating curiosity for Wilde’s life and oeuvre and of doing justice to his many facets as a writer, thinker and talker. Taking into account the context in which the book is published, Oeser has put special emphasis on two aspects of Wilde’s works of which there is relatively little awareness in Germany: Wilde as a thinker (in particular his relation to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche) as well as the influence of his Irish background on his life and works. A timeline of Wilde’s life and a useful selected bibliography complete the book.


Although Oeser’s Oscar-Wilde-ABC comes in the shape of a dictionary, it is not a reference work in the usual sense, and it does not pretend to be: it is obviously no coincidence that the book is not called “Oscar-Wilde-Lexikon” [Oscar Wilde Dictionary]. There is no index, for example, which would be necessary to make the book really usable as a reference work, and links to other entries are sometimes misleading or missing. Thus the text on The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example, does not mention decadence or provide a link to the corresponding entry (where, however, The Picture of Dorian Gray is mentioned). The Oscar-Wilde-ABC therefore appears like a book that should be read from start to finish, possibly with some detours on the way, rather than be used as a reference work.


While the book is not an “Oscar-Wilde-Lexikon”, however, it provides much more than just an ABC, which in German implies the basics of a specific field. The entries cover a wide range of topics that certainly do more than only introduce Wilde. Texts on various persons and places from Wilde’s life are combined with texts on individual works, important themes (e.g. “Christus” [Christ], “Dandy”, “Kunst und Kriminalität” [Art and Crime], “Zitat und Plagiat” [Quotation and Plagiarism]) and, more importantly, entries on the practical aspects of Wilde’s writing (e.g. “Arbeitsweise” [Working Process], “Aufführungspraxis” [Staging], “Korrespondenz” [Letters], “Verlage” [Publishing Houses]). It is in the entries on the reception and the political contextualisation of Wilde, however, where Oeser’s work is most convincing. In these texts he goes beyond mere biographical fact and quotations from Wilde’s works and letters, to establish a Wilde inspired by his Anglo-Irish background and the ideas of republicanism and socialism, as well as to discuss Wilde’s status as a homosexual icon. The entry “Märtyrer” [Martyr], for example, provides an excellent introduction to the theme of martyrdom in Wilde and in Wilde’s reception. Oeser is very good, moreover, in his balanced treatment of contested aspects of Wilde’s life. His well-informed entry on “Krankheit, Sterben, Tod” [Illness, Dying, Death] for example, contains an admirable summing-up of the arguments for and against the syphilis hypothesis, and his entry on Lord Alfred Douglas, while underlining Douglas’ later denunciation of Wilde, does not simply aim to demonise Douglas but points out his double role as Wilde’s muse and evil spirit. The only problematic passages where Oeser deviates from his otherwise exemplary fashion of acknowledging the grey areas of Wilde’s biography is when he makes the unverifiable claims that Douglas’ brother Drumlanrig had sexual relations with his employer Rosebery (162) and that after the second trial Wilde’s fate was decided in a secret meeting of three government officials who wanted to save Rosebery and the Liberal Party (118).


Some readers will be surprised by the fact that individual entries have been given to “Torquay, Devon”, “Worthing, Sussex”, and “Goring-on-Thames, Oxfordshire” while women like Ellen Terry or Lillie Langtry, who are usually granted much more space in books on Wilde, have been relegated to the entry “Schauspielerinnen” along with several other actresses. Others will be surprised that Robert Yelverton Tyrrell, Wilde’s teacher at Trinity College, has an entry of his own, while some more obvious candidates like Ada Leverson or Max Beerbohm have not been granted such a privilege. This deviation from the trampled paths of Wilde’s biographies fits in with Oeser’s aim, however, of giving due weight to some of the lesser-known aspects of Wilde’s life and works. Other examples of this strategy would be the entry on freemasonry and the surprising length of the entry on “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”.


Despite all the positive things to be said about the Oscar-Wilde-ABC, there are some problematic aspects, which, however, do not impair the overall pleasure the book provides. Among the less grave of these are occasional slips in the otherwise concise and readable style, and the fact that Wilde’s works have been listed according to their first words. Since most titles in German start with the definite article der/die/das or the indefinite article ein/eine this leads to an unfortunate clustering of entries on Wilde’s works under D and E. Moreover, the translations of Wilde quotations do not always do justice to the original and are not always precise or idiomatic. More serious criticism concerns the lengths to which the authors have taken the biographical approach to Wilde’s works, for example by presenting Sibyl Vane in Dorian Gray as a portrait of Florence Balcombe or by equating the gardens in the fairy tales with the park on Merrion Square. While there is no denying the biographical inspiration of many of Wilde’s works, such one-to-one relations seem to me problematic. Possibly even graver is the essentialist concept of national characters that surfaces in some entries when Oeser writes of typically Irish, English or German qualities (72/3; 83, 94); such an attitude is particularly problematic in a book that specifically tries to posit Wilde in an Irish context. Moreover, the book contains occasional factual mistakes, which seem mostly due to oversight (the number of aphorisms in the Preface of Dorian Gray, for example, has unwittingly been reduced from twenty-four to four); however, Rademacher’s claim that Wilde pleaded guilty during the Queensberry trial (76) must be considered a grave mis-representation of the historical facts.


Such mistakes occasionally cause the Wilde scholar to raise an eyebrow, and will send a reviewer to the bookshelf to check facts. In the context of this otherwise remarkable book, however, which is entertaining and informative and which evokes a surprisingly vivid image of Wilde’s person and works, they must be considered minor weaknesses.


v      Lucia Krämer is the author of Oscar Wilde in Roman, Drama und Film: Eine medienkomparatistische Analyse fiktionaler Biographien. Frankfurt/M: Lang, 2003.  Dr Krämer is an Associate Editor of THE OSCHOLARS.




3.     Dieppe Explored


Nigel Woodhead:  Kill or Curare (FishesEye Publishing eBook, 2006)

Review by Angela Kingston

Woodhead’s novel opens in the French seaside town of Dieppe in May 1897, at the height of the summer social season. Captain Drake Hastings, formerly posted to India with the British army, arrives at the Dieppe dock on the same boat as Oscar Wilde, just released from prison and now going by the name Sebastian Melmoth. Hastings has been sent by British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury to protect the national interest by assisting Lady Middenware, ostensibly the proprietor of a finishing school for English girls, but in fact the drug-addicted madam of an English brothel frequented by members of Wilde’s circle.

It soon becomes clear that Hastings himself is in the dark about why he has been sent to Dieppe. The resort town has recently been plagued by a series of ‘Jack the Ripper’ style murders of English prostitutes. The authorities appear to be trying to keep the murders quiet, so Hastings embarks his own investigation of the killings. With the assistance of his fellow agent, the English artist Walter Sickert, and the French doctor Dinan, Hastings infiltrates Melmoth’s decadent circle, their dissolute indolent life of drink, drugs and, gambling and ‘perversions’ having provoked his suspicions.

Indeed, Hastings’s inquiries lead him to stumble upon all manner of suspicious circumstances and people; white slave traders, anarchists, Freemasons, student devotees of ancient mysticism, Freemasons, Symbolists, Theosophists, Irish Republicans, French Royalists; not to mention even two illegitimate girls apparently fathered by the Prince of Wales. Hastings is faced with an ever-growing list of potential motives and suspects and motives.

It must be said that, while Woodhead occasionally strikes the right note with evocative descriptions and well-turned phrases, the reviewer found little to recommend in the book. The fact that the text simply wasn’t ready for review did not help matters; the frequent poor punctuation, spelling and grammatical errors are irritating and Woodhead’s expression is often muddled. The text does not appear to have been proof-read at all. Unfortunately, the narrative is also seriously flawed. The reader is given little insight into the character or motivation of the protagonist Hastings, and his reasoning and conclusions often leave the reader mystified. The plot is convoluted – there are too many characters and outlandish conspiracy theories to mention – as a result the story drags, plot developments are unclear and there is little suspense in this supposed thriller. Moreover, drama often lapses into melodrama and hackneyed clichés abound (‘The man in the shadows gripped the cold steel in his pocket. Weep your tears, my pretty, he thought.’)

The narrative is also inconsistent: details are left out and then raised as if they have already been mentioned; other details are repeated as if being mentioned for the first time. Again, this appears to be a proof-reading issue. At one point Hastings discovers his arsenic supply, brought from London to treat his malaria, is inexplicably low, and he resolves to procure more from Dr Dinan, when in fact just seven pages before he has already procured more arsenic from Dinan when his London supply mysteriously goes missing. In several places sentences simply don’t make sense:

Both sat up abruptly as heavy shoes mounted the steps brought them both

“We’re surrounded,” gasped Alice, peering through a knot-hole in one of the planks.

Woodhead does appear to have a good general knowledge of the 1890s, but for the academic reader familiar with Wilde and his circle there is little that resonates. We are given general physical and biographical and descriptions of Charles Conder, Aubrey Beardsley, Leonard Smithers, André Gide, Robert Ross (who Woodhead refers to as Wilde’s ‘secretary’), Ernest Dowson and Arthur Symons. All of these historical persons feature significantly in the book but none of their characters are adequately explored or developed. They are depicted as a bunch of indulgent lay-abouts who pass their days in a perpetually inebriated haze, only pausing in their extravagant consumption of absinthe, laudanum and cocaine to make crass jokes or smutty innuendoes. Their dialogue, like that of other characters in the novel, is often curiously unintelligible.

Wilde himself is barely recognizable. His distinctive style, intelligence and wit are remarkably absent. While this may be intentional on Woodhouse’s part, in an attempt to portray the deleterious effects of Reading Gaol, this picture of Wilde is hardly consistent with contemporary reports. Indeed, nothing about this Oscar Wilde (or Sebastian Melmoth) is familiar; he ‘blusters’ and ‘splutters’, has a ‘shrill laugh’, an Irish lilt and sings bawdy songs. And while Reading Gaol may have taken the edge off Wilde’s impeccable table manners, it is difficult to imagine him dunking his cake into his teacup or ‘noisily slurp[ing] his soup’! Other passages in the book suggest that Woodhead does not have a detailed knowledge of his subjects: when Hastings publicly addresses the writer Henrietta Stannard by name she objects, saying ‘As I told you before, I am known as John Strange Winter in London… I would prefer to keep it that way’. Woodhead appears ignorant of the fact that ‘John Strange Winter’ was Stannard’s secret pen name until 1889. (Incidentally, Stannard’s fictional rendering of Wilde in 1897’s A Seaside Flirt is a far more illuminating one than that offered in Kill or Curare.)

The novel’s ending and final revelations, when they do come, are at once far-fetched, clichéd and anti-climactic. Loose ends remain untied; too many plot lines have been introduced and forgotten and the effect is jarring. The conclusion is further marred by the half-hearted suggestion that perhaps, after all (and contradictory to the evidence supplied throughout the story), the entire series of events has been orchestrated by Wilde and/or other influential players as a sinister summer amusement, a real-life play complete with ‘ritual qualities, magic resonances [and] layers within layers’. Woodhead’s book may have included all these elements, but this reviewer is sorry to report that she found the combined effect far from entertaining. Perhaps her patience would not have been so sorely tested had the author spent a little longer researching and refining his work.

·         Angela Kingston’s Oscar Wilde as a Character in Victorian Fiction will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in November.  Dr Kingston is an Associate Editor of THE OSCHOLARS.





4.  Masculinities explored


Marco Pustianaz and Luisa Villa (eds.) : Maschilità decadenti: la lunga fin de siècle, Bergamo: Bergamo University Press, 2004, 368 pp.

Review by Chiara Briganti



Any syllabus of Victorian Literature taught in universities about fifteen years or so ago was bound to cover the obligatory terrain of ‘constructions of femininity’. Masculinity (the plural was not even a possibility) was accepted as a natural given, exempt from the untethering of gender from sex that has been one of the main goals of Women’s and Gender Studies. A glance at the hefty footnotes in this volume is an abundant reminder of how far this paradigm has shifted.  Thus the achievement of Maschilità decadenti appears the more remarkable in that despite the wealth of studies that has emerged in the last few years all the essays make a significant and in many cases, brilliant contribution to a well trodden ground. 


To return to Charcot and to hysteria is always, I feel, a risky business. One wishes for some fallow time.  However, Alessandra Violi’s painstaking examination of the connections between the nerves of the hysteric and the curved lines of the Art Nouveau style (particularly Aubrey Beardsley’s version of it) and of the coming together of medicine and art in a new ‘nevrosic imaginary’ not only makes for a fascinating reading, but is also an invaluable reminder of the material roots of the often repeated argument that the turn of the century was distinctly marked by a blurring of boundaries.


Marco Pustianaz’s sophisticated exploration of the vicissitudes of the concept of sexual inversion gives due emphasis to the uniqueness of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’s contribution to the development of theories of homosexuality.  Reminding us that Ulrichs was first of all a jurist, whose purpose was to insure that legal discourse would accommodate scientific knowledge (specifically embryological findings that supported the view of homosexuality as congenital), Pustianaz reinvests Ulrichs’s work of its political content and carefully distinguishes it from that of John Aldington Symonds and Havelock Ellis.


The question of why the figure of Sherlock Holmes has proved such a consumable commodity, infinitely rewritable, and in fact, given to continuous self-regeneration, provides Alessandra Calanchi with the opportunity for a useful review of the work of critics who, almost engaged in tug-of-war with London tourist industry, have claimed Conan Doyle’s creation as a central figure of modernity, a tad more complex than the Baker Street dweller with a fancy for funny hats. Calanchi concludes her survey with an intriguing reading of Mark Twain’s appropriation of Holmes in ‘A Double-Barreled Detective Story’—a story which demonstrates how not even a humorist like Twain was immune to the profound pessimism that characterised the American fin de siècle. 


If Sherlock Holmes’s appeal is undoubtedly connected to a desperate desire to affirm the ability of reason to fend off chaos, the threat of folly is key to the power to haunt of President Schreber. Paola Di Cori provides a sophisticated and useful survey of ‘Schreberiana’.  Her elegant and sensitive journey through the continuous ‘metaphorical re-appearance’ of Schreber’s tormented ghost tries to make sense of the ‘unstoppable fortune’ of this figure, which, disturbingly, has become  powerfully emblematic of the human condition.


The difficulty of reviewing a volume of this size is that it is simply impossible to do justice to all the essays.  One, however, must make room for Luisa Villa’s discussion of Kipling, especially of The Light that Failed, a novel which, flawed as it is, offers an intriguing glimpse of an unusual Kipling—urban, Bohemian, confronting failure and making of failure a theme and a project. Villa’s informed and engaging discussion adds gravity to Elaine Showalter’s fortunate definition of the fin de siècle  as ‘sexual anarchy.’


Pustianaz and Villa’s volume succeeds on two fronts: on the one hand it demonstrates that despite the traditional resistance of Italian academia to any serious exploration of gender, Italian scholars are more than ready to enter in a genuinely interdisciplinary way into a transnational conversation; secondly, by judiciously adding translations of English seminal studies (and by providing translations of quoted passages) to the essays originally presented at a conference in 2001 the editors have expanded their audience from students of Anglo-American literature to anyone interested in complicating the field of gender studies in fruitful ways. Implicitly, elegantly, and lucidly, they have made a point that the study of masculinities is not the exclusive province of Anglo-American scholars.


v      Chiara Briganti has been Professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies at Carleton College, and is now Research Fellow at King's College London where she also lectures in the MA program in English Literature. Her special fields are Victorian and Modern British Literatures, Gender Studies, and Postcolonial Literatures. Her most recent book, Domestic Modernism, the Interwar Novel and E.H. Young (Ashgate 2006) was co-authored with Kathy Mezei of Simon Fraser University, Canada, with whom she is also preparing a reader on domestic space.




5.  Sculpture explored


Gianna A. Mina, Henry J. Duffy, John H. Dryfhout: Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1949-1907) scultore americano dell’Eta d’Oro.  Museo Vela, Ufficio federale della cultura e autori, 2006

Review by Paula Murphy


‘The most famous sculptor to spring from Irish soil’.


The one hundredth anniversary of the death of the eminent nineteenth-century American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) was commemorated three weeks early on 13 July 2007 in New Hampshire.  The celebration took the form of a symposium accompanied by the premiere of a new film documentary on the sculptor held at the Hood Museum of Art in Hanover.  The Hood is the campus gallery of Dartmouth College and is currently under the directorship of Dr. Brian Kennedy, formerly assistant director of the National Gallery of Ireland and more recently Director of the National Gallery of Australia.  It is utterly appropriate that the College should be the location of such an event, as the Rauner Library on the campus houses Saint-Gaudens’ papers, and his former home and studio, now a National Historic Site, is less than 20 miles away in Cornish.  Saint-Gaudens initially used the Cornish house as a summer home before moving to live there permanently in, what turned out to be, the final years of his life.  The site is located close to the border with Vermont, adjacent to the Connecticut River with its famous covered bridges and in a setting as richly green as any similar location in Ireland, where the sculptor was born, but on a considerably more expansive scale.


That the event might initiate new thinking on Saint-Gaudens is to be welcomed.  The most recent publication on the sculptor resulted from an exhibition of his work held at the Museo Vela in Ligornetto from June to October last year, 2006.   Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) sculptore americano dell’Eta d’Oro was curated by Gianna Mina and essays by Henry Duffy and John Dryfhout, both associated with the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, are included in the catalogue.  This is an elegant publication, informative, exquisitely illustrated and, thankfully, a slim volume rather than the more usual colossal tome that has become the norm for exhibition catalogues today.  However, somewhat surprisingly, the catalogue has only been published in Italian.  While it might be expected that most art historians have a working knowledge of Italian, this does rather depend on individual research interests, and, nevertheless, no exhibition catalogue should be published exclusively for an academic audience.  In the case of this publication, if you are not fluent in the language, but are familiar with the life and work of Saint-Gaudens, it is relatively easy to follow the discussion.  And yet I found it reassuring to discover that an English translation of at least one of the essays - Duffy on Saint-Gaudens training and the renewal of American sculpture - was inserted into the catalogue.


Three significant exhibitions of Saint-Gaudens work in recent years have instigated some new writing on the sculptor.  The first of these, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1848-1907, A Master of American Sculpture, was held for four months at the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse in 1999.  This was a particularly appropriate location given that the sculptor’s father hailed from the south of France.  The exhibition moved further north later in the year to a second French venue, at the Chateau de Blérancourt, which is just outside Paris and houses the Musée National de la Coopération franco-américaine.  The catalogue - of which an English version exists - does not focus entirely on Saint-Gaudens’ relationship with France, as one might have expected, given the location of the exhibition and the fact that he spent a considerable amount of time there at different periods in the course of his career.  However his father’s background, his own training years in Paris and his relationship with French sculpture are all given considered attention. 


Saint-Gaudens was subsequently the subject of a touring exhibition in the U.S.  Augustus Saint-Gaudens, American Sculptor of the Gilded Age started in the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina in February 2003 and travelled via venues in Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, among others, to finish its run in the Munson-Williams-Proctor Museum of Art in Utica, New York in 2005.  The exhibition was seen in 12 different locations in America over a period of nearly three years, which is wonderfully appropriate for an exercise of this nature.  Why?  Because sculpture exhibitions are more rarely mounted, as a result of the fragility, vulnerability and weight of the work and the sheer difficulty involved in moving the objects around, and, therefore, it is worth getting maximum value out of such a show once it has been formed. 


This, unfortunately, was not the case with the most recent exhibition in Switzerland, which did not travel beyond the host institution.  Information about the exhibition, when it was actually taking place, only reached a limited public, and the catalogue, which would normally be the means of dispersing the exhibition findings more widely, is only ensured a relatively small readership as a result of its Italian text.  It is also the case, that as Saint-Gaudens is largely unknown outside America, these catalogue texts tend to incorporate a certain amount of repeat information.  The life and career of the sculptor must necessarily be revisited for each new audience, leaving less scope for the development of new theoretical interpretation of the work. 


Inevitably catalogue discussion is also based on the work that is available for exhibition.  In this instance, plaster models and bronze studies of details of large scale public work and relief portrait images in bronze formed the bulk of the 60 works by Saint-Gaudens that were on display and it is these, therefore, that shape to some extent the content of the different essays.  In spite of the location of the exhibition in a museum dedicated to the work of Swiss sculptor Vincenzo Vela (1820-91), who worked contemporaneously with Saint-Gaudens, it was not possible to ascertain whether the two sculptors had ever met.   Nonetheless the catalogue illustrates a riveting comparison between Saint-Gaudens Shaw memorial in Boston, 1897, and Vela’s Victims of Labour, 1882, the plaster version of which is in the museum in Ligornetto.  Both are colossal high relief sculptures that serve as public commemorative works.  While they differ in style and detail, somewhat unexpectedly they also have much in common.  A surface reading of both images reveals similar depiction of a number of figures engaged in energized but slow movement, making their way towards the right edge of the composition, and establishing the sense of a stage being exited.  But even more to the point the two images are marked by both death and determination.  These are at once solemn, moving and dignified sculptures.


Several bronze heads of the soldiers on the Shaw memorial were included in the exhibition and formed the basis of a brief factual discussion in the catalogue.  The Boston monument, depicting Colonel Shaw leading his black regiment, is probably the most discussed work in the oeuvre of Saint-Gaudens.  It appears in general publications that aim to contextualize turn-of-the-century American sculpture and, more specifically, 1997 saw the publication of a monograph on the memorial.  Yet, in spite of the unique position of this monument at the time of its execution, no seriously considered study of the politics of this work appears to have been published in book form to date. 


Taking a circuitous but what might ultimately be considered a strategic route into sculpture by way of cameo making, Saint-Gaudens was to become one of the major American sculptors of the nineteenth century, receiving prestigious public commissions and producing seriously heroic monumental sculptures.  Commemorative statuary by Saint-Gaudens can be seen in several major cities on the east coast of America.   Notable civil war memorials are the Farragut and Sherman statues in New York and the colossal Shaw relief in Boston, with Lincoln and Logan represented by statues in Chicago.


We have a particular interest in Saint Gaudens in Ireland in the context of such heroic commemorative sculpture, as the final work produced by this Irish born sculptor was the Parnell statue for Dublin.  Born in Dublin in March 1848 to a French cobbler and Irish mother, Saint-Gaudens spent no more than the first six months of his life in Ireland.  It was, nonetheless, sufficient time to permit an American newspaper to describe him, in the aftermath of his death, as ‘the most famous sculptor to spring from Irish soil’.  Saint-Gaudens was in fact brought up in New York and remained very much a New Yorker, although Boston society would also claim him as he became increasingly involved in cultural developments there.


Saint-Gaudens spent a great deal of his time in Europe in the course of his career, and Italy was a particular attraction.  Duffy, in his catalogue essay, quotes the sculptor on his first experience of Vatican City: ‘It was as if a door had been thrown wide open to the eternal beauty of the classical”.  London, Paris and Rome were important centres of art for Saint-Gaudens.   On the occasion of one particular visit to France, in 1899, he took the opportunity to visit his father’s home town in the Pyrenees, but never visited that of his mother, nor indeed set foot in Ireland in the course of his adult life.  After receiving the commission for the Parnell Monument for Dublin, he had hoped to experience the location for the monument on O’Connell Street at first hand.  However, illness intervened and he was not able to travel, at that stage.  He planned, subsequently, to cross the Atlantic for the unveiling of the monument.   He was not to know that this particular event would not take place until 1911, four years after his death, and that, in fact, he would be dead within two months of dispatching the completed statue from the US in 1907.  Saint-Gaudens was an interesting choice for the Parnell commission, because he had never played the Irish card in the course of his career.  In fact, it is difficult to find any reference to Ireland among his papers, outside of his dealings with the Parnell Monument. 


If Saint-Gaudens appears to have been little concerned with his Irish roots before receiving the Parnell Monument commission, there is nothing particularly unusual about this given the period in which he was working.  Driven out of Ireland as an infant by famine, in his subsequent life his French blood was significantly more important in his career as an artist.  In spite of this the newspapers very particularly sought to comment on his Irish background in the aftermath of his death.  Described as ‘noticeably Irish’, the many obituaries, tried to identify ways in which the sculptor manifested Irishness.  An acknowledged imagination and fairness were deemed Celtic, while his sense of humour and his social charm, not to mention his reddish hair, were thought to have derived from his mother.  One writer, who deemed him to be modest to the point of shyness, could not have known that this was a trait that he shared with many of his peers in sculpture in Ireland in the nineteenth century.  In the context of this particular approach to Saint-Gaudens at the time of his death, it is of interest that contemporary writing has shown no such concern and makes no attempt to uncover evidence of Irishness in the course of his life and career, beyond identifying his Irish mother and making reference to his engagement with the Parnell commission.  This suggests the need for a Saint-Gaudens exhibition in Ireland, which is, in fact, long overdue, and which would prompt the publication of a catalogue, affording the opportunity to explore these issues.


Saint-Gaudens was a fine sculptor, working ultimately in a period of stylistic transition, as is particularly manifest in his seemingly conflicting response to Rodin and his work.   His expertise and varied engagement with the practice of sculpture is clearly indicated in the catalogue of the Swiss exhibition.  Dazzling images of the gilded Sherman Monument at the entrance to Central Park in New York enliven the publication, which is further visually augmented by images of the bronzes, cameos and coinage that were included in the exhibition.   For real insight into Saint-Gaudens the man and the artist, it is hard to better his own Reminiscences, which were edited after his death by his son Homer and published in 1913.  Saint-Gaudens was a prolific and absorbing letter writer and lengthy fragments of exchanges with his different correspondents are incorporated into the text.   However the various exhibition catalogues that have been published on the sculptor go a long way towards informing generally on the work and its context.  With regard to the catalogue of this most recent exhibition in Ligornetto - don’t be put off by the Italian text as you will be surprised by just how much you can decipher, and, in any case, the illustrations more than compensate.   In addition to which, this could be a rare opportunity for some to focus on the works rather than on the words that are used to illuminate them.



v      Paula Murphy teaches in the School of Art History and Cultural Policy, University College Dublin, and has a particular interest in sculpture.





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