|Oscar Wilde's tomb, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris (Image source: Wikipedia)|
As an architectural historian, a Romantic, and a lover of Oscar Wilde, I'm not quite sure how to react to reading an article that reports that Oscar's tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery has been cleaned and restored, and is now going to be protected from devoted fans by a glass barrier. I understand the desire to protect a memorial to a great writer (which also happens to be the work of a great sculptor, Jacob Epstein) but I am rather skeptical about the chosen approach.
The tomb is (or was, until the cleaning) famously covered in the lipstick of thousands of fans, who have been showing their devotion through kisses for years. Although this is an absolutely fabulous tradition, it has apparently been causing damage to the stone, further exacerbated every time the stone is cleaned. Now, any good conservation architect will tell you that, in many instances, dirt-ridden stones shouldn't be cleaned as the dirt may have formed a protective coat for the stone and exposing the surface again by cleaning will often make it more vulnerable to erosion. Countless monuments and buildings have been irreversibly damaged due to this lack of understanding and the implementation of insensitive cleaning approaches. Of course, the situation varies from stone to stone, and I can't say I know much about the effects of lipstick on whatever stone this tomb is made from. Perhaps cleaning has been a strong necessity and was carefully and expertly carried out... To me, however, it sounds as though they should never have attempted to clean off the kisses in the first place because that's where the problem really started.
|The wonderful Oscar Wilde himself (Image source: Wikipedia)|
I guess some may see the lipstick as being a vandalism of the work of Epstein, or a sign of disrespect to Oscar, as it has ultimately degraded his memorial. But I have to disagree. I'm a fan of Epstein's work generally, and therefore keen that any of his sculptures is treated appropriately and cared for. But in this instance, in my view, the continued devotion of Oscar Wilde's fans more than 100 years after his death, represented by those lipstick marks, enhanced the impact of Epstein's bold, modern memorial, making it an even more fitting monument to a great decadent and aesthete. Cleaning them off, and putting the tomb behind a barrier seems to be missing the point.
The visceral, impassioned, rebellious tradition created by Oscar's fans was beautiful and appropriate for the man. My gut reaction is that an untouchable, pristine tomb which can be only politely viewed from behind a screen - I don't care how transparent or discreet it is - risks rendering the tomb clinical and cold.