Sunday, 27 November 2011

Oscar's Tomb (A Case of Misguided Conservation)

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.  


  1. That's a funny subject. Though I don't think I'll have an urge to kiss any tomb, I couldn't agree more with you. A drooled and kissed over tomb is as much history as the man who's resting there.

  2. I read about this yesterday,
    I agree with what you wrote,
    I am sure that Oscar loves lipstick on his tomb,
    wherever he is now...

  3. Oh no! How boring. It's a weird statue, actually. The lipstick gives it interest, intrigue, history. Very francaise! This is a sad story. Are they thinking about whose grave it is? I've been to that grave - didn't kiss it though. Wasn't wearing lipstick either!

  4. I read somewhere that it is the decendents of Wilde who wants the lipstick marks removed. When I visisted years ago there was a sign where the family asked people to please, not make more lipstick marks on the stone, something that was clearly not heeded to.

    Personally I agree with you, though.

  5. I always thought that the lipstick on Oscar Wilde's tomb was so beautiful, and some of the messages people wrote on it is one of my most moving memories of the time I lived in Paris, so I find this quite sad. It's an interesting subject though.
    From Carys of La Ville Inconnue

  6. Thanks for your comments, ladies. Nice to hear that you agree with my objections!

    Isis - the Guardian article does mention it being his descendants too, which I thought was interesting. Perhaps they're much more conservative than he was! I wonder how I would feel about lots of people kissing my ancestors graves... I think I'd be chuffed, actually!

  7. Oh I agree it should of been left as it was I am glad I got the chance to see it with all the notes and kisses. x

  8. Oh my, this is madness ! Oscar, the wonderful passionate lad, would be so upset that some dick of of an ancestor would make such a decision. I visited this, amoungst many other graves when in Paris, and it is a wonderous honor to be able to walk amoungst, feel and embrace such amazing people of our past. What is wrong with humanity now, that we would even consider to do such a thing. If the head piece desintigrates replace it. It is the person it represents that people are connecting with, not the object itself.

  9. it's defacing, not devotion, that drives you to my grave.

  10. The lipstick marks enhanced Epstein's memorial? I beg to differ. The lipstick became a barrier that was missing the point too in my opinion. There are more productive ways to demonstrate continued devotion. That Wilde stills elicits (and deserves) such devotion, on this we agree. Although I don't agree—or understand, don't clean dirt-ridden stones??—with some of your arguments, it is interesting to read a different perspective.