Pop Portraits and Oscar Wilde | A. A. Sieunarine

The girl never really lived, and so she has never really died, a quote by Oscar Wilde, frames Katherine’s self-portrait, one of the many Pop Portraits that line the hallway on the fifth floor at the High School of Fashion Industries in New York City.  In The Picture of Katherine Punteil she writes,

“Sylvia Plath, an American poet, once said, “I know pretty much what I like and dislike; but please don’t ask me who I am.” My self-portrait creates this illusion and mystical feel of the unknown. Its different patterns and bold contrasting colors appear messy, something one may see in a dream or hallucination. My self-portrait is simply not real; my portrait has an unreal emotion, similar to Dorian’s which was the objective of the project in Dr. Sieunarine’s studio class.”

I read the preface to the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray in class where one of Wilde’s most famous lines “All art is quite useless,” is written. From Wilde’s perspective, art’s only decided feature should be beauty; never should art strive to make a moral, spiritual, or political statement, and so Wilde believed that art is entirely ‘useless’ if its sole purpose is not to project beauty, like Dorian’s portrait. Thus, I wanted the students to represent youthful beauty in their portraits by looking through the mirror of their souls rather than through the mirrors in the closet. As we discussed beauty and uselessness of art, I continued to read the preface of the book in class.

“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”  The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde; Preface.

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I have always been bewitched and fascinated with Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The astuteness of the parody of life attracted me to the book, coupled with the innate radicalism with reference to beauty and youth, life and the purpose of art. I thought it would be a great idea to make connections with Dorian’s portrait since we are currently studying Portraiture in my 10th grade painting class. The objective of the project was painting self-portraits, and since one of the novel’s themes glorifies art, beauty and eternal youth as personified through Dorian’s painted portrait, what better way to charm the students to paint youthful portraits of themselves? And, at the same time give them something new to think about within the frames of portraiture. I wanted the students to be both the painter and the sitter – to expose the secrets of their souls.

“…every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself. The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.”
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde; Page 7.

At this stage, I wanted to challenge the students’ conventional perception of beauty and portrait painting; they often overtly complain of the mundane method of looking into a mirror and drawing themselves or having to sit for a partner, and then critically defame their drawings as being ‘ugly’. We brainstormed as a class to find alternative ways of replacing realistic portraits and came up with Pop portraits based on Roy Lichtenstein. Their assignment was to capture a glimpse into their youthful beauty like Dorian Gray’s portrait but using Lichtenstein style of brightly beckoning colored Pop portraits with inserted messages. In conjunction with the portraits the students had to write an essay titled: The Picture of (insert their name) and write a quote to represent their portraits (not necessarily from Oscar Wilde).

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The finished portraits with their captions reflect Wilde’s statement that art should serve no purpose but beauty. While Criselle agreed with Wilde in the caption of her Pop Portrait: The Creation of Beauty is Art, Katherine however, disagreed with her, Wilde and society (in her essay), which she believes propels the saying, “All art is quite useless.” She vehemently believes that:

Art is life, which indicates art is everything. There are many forms of art such as: religion, or the way someone solves a mathematic equation, or yet simply the way someone breathes. So why can’t painting or sculpting be considered a useful art? Society puts this mental, robotic mindset into our generation and we are forced to do things in order to survive. You must be an accountant, you must be a lawyer, and you must go to school. It shouldn’t be that way for any human in this universe filled with unknowns.

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Talking of the unknown, Karla’s pop portrait asks the passerby “Hey, Do you even know where you are going? Because I don’t.” This speaks again of Katherine’s unknown. Keya’s, Art is Life also seems connected to Katherine’s opening statement, but Keya believes that life is what we do by living pieces of it everyday like a puzzle, and then we put those pieces together, so art is life.  Francesca’s portrait reflects that puzzle neatly fitted together.  Alexander’s political statement,  “Freedom is what we believe in” deflects Wilde’s projection of art and beauty, but his work becomes useful for his message, since he believes that we should be free to express ourselves through art. The innocent beauty in Jennifer’s portrait takes me back to the beauty of Dorian Gray’s portrait.

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The Pop Portraits that line the fifth floor of The High School of Fashion elicit raving compliments of beauty from the passersby. While some of the students and Wilde believed that beauty is the deciding feature in art, some still assert that the usefulness or uselessness of art lies in the eye of the beholder.

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Androneth A. Sieunarine attended Brooklyn College where she graduated with a Bachelors degree in Studio Art /Art History, a Masters in Art Education and a Doctorate in Art Education from Columbia University. She is the curator and arts coordinator for New York City Art Teachers Association and a delegate for New York State Art Teachers Association.  As painter and a cultural researcher Androneth teachers visual arts at The High School of Fashion Industries in New York City.

Also by Androneth Anu Sieunarine in ALT/space:
Bicycles in Studio 529
The Children of Abentenim
From Ghana to New York: Forming Art Communities

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