This week sees a most unusual ceremony taking place at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. A grave is being reopened. But it’s a case of restoration rather than exhumation. Oscar Wilde’s massive memorial – a flying naked angel, designed by the young Jacob Epstein and inspired by Assyrian figures in the British Museum – has been scrubbed clean of decades of red lipstick kisses and graffiti tributes (“Wilde child we remember you,” “keep looking at the stars”) left by besotted admirers.
A notional €9,000 fine for those caught at the tomb in flagrante delicto had proved no deterrent, and the grease from all the cosmetic love-bombing was seriously eroding the stone. Now the Office of Public Works in Dublin has paid for cleaning and the erection of a glass barrier around the tomb in an attempt to prevent further indelible expressions of devotion.
But it seems that the authorities at Père Lachaise could be seriously out of socio-cultural step with the times. The recent discovery of graffiti scrawled by a juvenile Johnny Rotten on the wall of a house rented by the Sex Pistols in London’s Soho in the 1970s – schematic renderings of the band’s manager Malcolm McLaren clutching wads of cash, plus those star-crossed lovers Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen – have been hailed by researchers as not only worthy of being preserved as heritage pieces, but also as archaeologically significant as the drawings of deer and bulls made by the earliest humans in the caves of Lascaux in southern France. According to Dr John Schofield, of the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, Rotten’s caricatures are “a direct and powerful representation of a radical and dramatic movement of rebellion.”
Should Wilde’s embellished tomb likewise have been conserved as a kind of mood board for the inchoate yearnings of successive generations of neurotic boy and girl outsiders – a lipstick Lascaux site of cult pilgrimage with claims to enigmatic eloquence as great as Stonehenge, Santiago de Compostela, or what we might call “the Rotten reliefs”?
The question, now that the high-pressure hoses have done their work, is moot. But those with an undiminished hankering to ally themselves with a deceased anti-establishment demigod can still make their mark. Jim Morrison’s final resting-pace is just a few yards down Père Lachaise’s overcrowded aisles from Wilde’s. You can always plant a smacker on him.