Philadelphia artist Virgil Marti created For Oscar Wilde (1995) as a site-specific installation in and around a prison cell in the city’s now-abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary (Prison Sentences: The Prison as site/The Prison as Subject, organized by Julie Courtney and Todd Gilens). Taking Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment in 19th century England as his cue, Marti borrowed from the William Morris-inspired design of Wilde’s day and fashioned an aesthetically pleasing cell: one that the playwright himself might have found bearable during his own confinement.
This piece progresses from the natural to the artificial, with beauty as one of its central themes—an idea with heightened poignancy considering the decay and desolation of the once-formidable stone prison. For Oscar Wilde is an homage to Wilde, but it also offers commentary on the terrible irony of his life as champion of art and beauty over conventional morality.
An outdoor garden bed of radiant sunflowers marks the entry into the prison itself, while a meandering path made from a border of silk lilies in full bloom leads to the doorway of the cell. Once inside, the cell itself contains a single bed– a ribbed iron frame made slightly more enticing by its pure white velveteen slipcover—and the walls are covered with silkscreen printed wallpapers of the artist’s design, sunflowers above, lilies below. A band of scripted text of Wilde’s writings divided the Arts and Crafts floral patterns. The lily motif print was transformed into the yardage used to make these pillows.