The Insidious Picture of Dorian Gray

Constance Teng plays Basil to her Dorian in this ekphrastic piece The Insidious Picture of Dorian Gray. Complete with her own original artwork drawing upon (missed) connections of desire, beauty and absence, Constance layers the world of Basil and Dorian Gray onto a personal coming-of-age story of loss and belonging, but unlike Wilde’s painter and protagonist, Constance hides away her painting only to open the closet with Unseen to come face to face with it once more.

When Henry Wotton makes himself at home, reclining on a couch, in a house not of his own, basking in the scents and colour tones which only the author remembers, the appeal of places, not of one’s own, recalls a persistent desire to leave home and search for that comfort shelter with different airs and sceneries. The grass seems greener on the other side, with the moon more radiant and the city lights at night more colourful. Henry could express himself here freely, without driving away a friend opposed to his morals. When one enjoys a space in the manner of escapism, without the need for social masks, over-grooming, and toil, the accompanying beauty of such places rarely fail the senses, contrasting against a mundane self-owned space of plain colours with woeful cares and noises too familiar. Closer people, inhabiting one’s home and seeking to dominate, make the home confining and repulsive. A better space out there is therefore preferred, where one can truly be.

There is a place overseas where I was born, but never lived in for long. I’m like a foreigner there, a traveller marvelling at ordinary things only new and extraordinary to a tourist, strolling and sitting around, on trains and buses, camera in hand, carefreely spending and easily delighted at sights perhaps mundane and ordinary to locals. Indeed, the grass seems greener there, high up the mountains with crystal clear streams in cooler air. I stepped onto more terrains there than some locals, through the urban nostalgia with a new otherness, something unspeakably absent in Singapore. When a grownup travels on holiday without cares, one doesn’t want to return, and sensually appreciates the new places more.

It is unclear if Basil Hallward, owning the space where Henry indulged in, could ever attain Henry’s level of affluence. Dissatisfaction could have driven him to paint, not just for a living but to picture an unfulfilled desire. For he revealed to Henry, though not explicitly, a motive behind painting that beautiful face, of someone onto whom he projected a weakness for, that led to his eventual death unknowingly. The biblical saying of beauty’s deception was not for nothing. Emotions drive one toward gratification rather than virtue, self-control and guardedness. Henry seemed to prefer gratification, or he could be lying, putting on an entertaining front with sweet-talking about sensual pleasures.

That emotional drive leading Basil to paint reminds of the zest behind my painting of a beautiful face, an object of superficial, insidious liking. The way Henry described Dorian’s beauty in the painting – suggesting indulgence in it – awakened an idolising of that face once more, recalling a past of homesickness, the want of belonging, and admiring beautiful faces from the “homeland”, bringing with them an air of uniqueness from “home”. For Dorian Gray had been the “type of everything that is wonderful and fascinating” to many, despite his hurtful ways. Some faces bore what I used to think I lacked – friends and belonging from home. Some people in real life, probably comparable with him in beauty, were adored this way, and all the more liked, for their similar birthplace like me.

Pains were taken to overcome the urge of vengeance at rejection, though not committed as grimly as Dorian’s. The want of those faces and fair skin, however, lingered, and secretly wanted as closely as possible, for an ally, for confrontation, or for the unspeakable bad. The one painted was once reachable, face to face, and then reduced to something to behold in pictures but not touched. I wonder how many have been hurt by that face in my painting, just like how Dorian hurt others.   

Unlike Basil’s painting of Dorian, my painting was exhibited, hoping viewers would not see anything unsightly of it. Unlike Basil having the privilege of a model he befriended and took a fancy to, I painted secretly without the model knowing, collecting photographs of her at ease after being given her cold shoulder. Unlike the young and impressionable Dorian Gray, my “model” was my contemporary. Commodifying her image on a canvas and finishing it brought pleasure, imagining the same end on it as Dorian and his picture. But since it remains unsold, I concealed it from sight, not with reasons like those of Basil or Dorian, rather of the recurring fear and loathsomeness of seeing the cold and unchanging face.

The comfort of home, a mere shelter with possessions and “loved” ones, seems deceiving. When two letters from the universities came to me, revealing my failure to secure a place to study there, I was almost beaten. I wished I was orphaned like Dorian. Orphaned, and inheriting the material riches to myself, with no one around and restraining my undertakings. My Grandpa treated me better than his grandfather treated him. But I don’t live with mine. Had he been here, my parents would have restrained themselves. And they thought they treated Singapore like their home and fought for it. Before winning this “fight”, my mother resented me singing National Day songs and calling Singapore my home.

Patriotic euphemism, calling Singapore a home and praising Singaporean achievements were repeated in school. I believed in them and followed their footsteps, till people made snide remarks on other places, one of which remarked upon was where I came from. Being one of the less popular in class, and hating them, I desired and wished for a new friend sharing the same “homeland” as me. Being “away” and alone at this time was painful, with a mother who wanted nothing but results. That wish for a new friend came true in school, or so I thought. I fancied having her as an intimate friend, like Alan Campbell and Dorian’s past intimacy, sparked by a common interest. Theirs was music, and mine with this girl was our birthplace. She was tall, fair-complexioned, had nice facial features, and brought with her an air of authentic background from home, strangely foreign but delightful to me, lonely and delusional then. When I left Singapore for “home”, away from her, I missed her badly.

There was no reciprocation of my friendly gestures. And she broke promises. Back when social media just began blooming, I searched and found her. Befriended. Expressed my adoration. Found out I wasn’t invited to her party. And our friendship ended. I thought Oscar Wilde could have added a left-out, stalking friend to Dorian for more colours.

I made more friends from “home”, but losing this friend left a deep void in me. I found another new friend from “home” to replace her. She was shorter, and had a sweet face and physique. We met a few times and she began appearing “offline”. She lied to me about it, and displayed an all too obvious cold shoulder, bad-mouthing me at plain sight to others I knew, sending chills down my spine and hands. I “unfriended” her.

I became a Singaporean. I grew up here and had friends. I went back to my birthplace and made friends there. But logic and passion hardly blend, and things unobtained seem more attractive and desired than those already in possession. The pleasure of drawing and painting faces came not from picturing those loving and already loved, but those “unobtainable”, with their pretty faces and bodies. And I learned a lesson – people from “home” aren’t always welcoming, regardless of their beauty.  

An old wise friend composed for me a letter to my school ex-friend, one of clearing doubts and making peace. She said I should give it with her picture that I sketched, as a goodwill gesture. I faced the sketch once again, at its fine lines and soft details. I kept the letter and the sketch to myself. Then there was a painting competition coming up. That second ex-friend, befriended to replace the first, and still remembered insidiously, came to my mind. Those photograph-like matching colours, the colourful mess of my palette, the space-taking easel, and the triumph of finishing that face, came not out of admiration anymore, depicting no purity and innocence like Dorian’s. Those perfect facial features had a paleness from the flash. I call it a plastic smile. I dedicated days for it, finishing that permanent smile, colder than the original photograph.

Basil and I idolised beauty. Whatever that was written to Dorian idolatrously, I did a little for my schoolmate, the first beauty from home I ever met. I wrote poems while waiting for her letters, even after she broke her final promise of response. She “unfriended” me. Basil died in his living idol’s hand, while I lived on, manipulating those faces on paper, canvas, and “photoshop”, contemplating and repressing the id of wanting another pretty face and body from “home” to tangibly replace them. My complacency with being alive in reality while repressing the restless id of vengeance and desiring, contrasts with the more moral Basil’s tragic end, led on by his sincere care for Dorian.

I wonder what Wilde meant when he wrote “All art is quite useless”.

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CONSTANCE TENG is a working adult studying part-time for a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She enjoys writing poetry, plays, novels, music composition, drawing and painting amongst others. She participated in a playwriting competition and three art exhibitions, and has a personal story published in the book Mind This Voice – From Hurtful to Helpful. She attempted literature during her first three months at junior college in 2002 and did poorly. She revived her interest in literature at her current university in 2014, where she came across The Picture of Dorian Gray and compensated herself by scoring a “B”, though she would have preferred an “A”.

Photo and art credit: Constance Teng

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