"The Picture of Dorian Gray"

August 10, 2011 — It's a door-sized oil painting that depicts ultimate depravity, and I would love to hang it prominently on my living room wall. Does that make me a bad person? Does it help if that ultimate depravity is only ultimate depravity as deemed appropriate for a 1940s movie audience?

The portrait is called The Picture of Dorian Gray, and it hangs, more like looms, in the Art Institute of Chicago at 111 South Michigan Avenue. However, its story begins in Hollywood, about 65 years ago. I feel like I should have Robert Osborne guest-write the next few paragraphs, but here goes.

MGM was producing a film version of Oscar Wilde’s book, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the story of a man consumed by debauchery, yet who never shows any physical effect of his sin or age because it’s all been transferred to a portrait of himself that he keeps hidden. The studio had in place all of what are usually the most important elements of a film. They had a director, Albert Lewin. They had a screenplay, written by the director. They had a cast, including George Sanders, Donna Reed, Angela Lansbury, and Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray himself. But in the unique case of this particular story, the most important piece of the production was the titular painting.


The painting had to be an extraordinary one. After all, the entire film hangs on the notion that the corruptions that this painting undergoes will shock the audience…a feat that had to be accomplished in a pre-Night of the Living Dead world. In other words, in an era where you couldn’t just be literal with the depravity.

They commissioned a Chicago-based artist by the name of Ivan Albright (1897-1983), who was known for his macabre style. Ivan Albright was everything I want anybody to be…talented and kooky. His paintings were detailed to the point of texture due to the fact that they often took him years to finish, as well as the fact that he regularly used a brush with only a single bristle, spending hours and hours on just postage stamp-sized areas of his paintings. He also carved his own frames, mixed his own paints, built his own reference models, and he was obsessed by the face in the Shroud of Turin. It is said (by Wikipedia) that he painted his studio black and wore black while he painted to reduce glare.

Albright’s main themes were the synonyms death and time and, had he not been paid to paint The Picture of Dorian Gray, his muse would probably have forced him to do so at some other point in his career. He once said that everything had one thing in common: decay, and his works show that. Some attribute his obsession with the grim to his time in WWI when he was charged with sketching war wounds for purposes of documentation, but I think there are more compelling, less easily summarized avenues to darkness. Besides, his subjects are rarely maimed. More like moldering.


Regardless of how it happened, it’s at least certain that his style is so unique that to see just one of his works is to be able to recognize his style anywhere else from 20 paces and facing the wrong direction.

Back to The Picture of Dorian Gray: The Movie, the 1945 flick is an able enough effort for its time, if a bit too slow and reserved. Of course, any movie that includes even one line of Oscar Wilde’s exquisite dialogue will be worth its celluloid. However, at the same time, hearing Wilde’s dialogue spoken is almost always an inferior experience to reading it, like watching somebody else drink a glass of wine instead of drinking it yourself, at your own pace of enjoyment. Just too many nuances to butterfly net in situ, too many points where you need to crack up laughing before you can allow it to resume.

Still, the star of the movie is without a doubt Albright’s massive piece. In the movie, which is filmed in black and white, the painting is shown rarely and almost always in livid, lurid color, from when it’s the mere image of a handsome young man with his pet Egyptian cat god (actually painted by Henrique Medina) to the final decrepit piece, the transmographied subject matter of which oozes more than the wet paint of its composition. Incidentally, Albright might have had some help from his twin brother, who was also a painter, if the LIFE photo here is any indication, which is also a great pic for showing the model that helped him paint the astonishing image.


Of course, once the movie was done filming, the painting was no mere prop to get trashed in a dumpster or warehoused like some mere costume or piece of furniture. Eventually, the Albright painting became a part of the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, near Albright’s home turf, where it glowers down at visitors to this day with the immortality of Dorian Gray himself, facing Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942) and just a room over from Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930).

And it’s been on my list to see for 10 years, since the first time I saw the film and jumped on the Internet for the instant gratification of learning that it was a real work on public display in a real museum. Finally, a few weeks ago I was able to gratify the instant gratification itself.

And, man, it’s worth it. I mean, the Internet’s great for seeing things, but it’s horrible at scale, as well as for physically wrapping your arms around something while the security guard tries to pry you off with a velvet rope stanchion. Dorian Gray is glorious in its grisliness and hung so that most of it towers over your simple, cowardly morality.

Most fascinating, not an actual bit of depravity can be found upon its considerable 85x42-inch surface, yet it suggests so much more than if the artist had incarnated every horrible thing imaginable onto the canvas. I mean, if you asked me why I thought it was disturbing, there’s not a single square inch that I can point to. No severed body parts. No children in peril. No slathering monster multi-headed with the visages of all the Cusack siblings. Just a twisted old man with a bleeding hand, clothed in, and backdropped by, tatters and rags, standing beside a cat statue.

In the film, the painting is stabbed at the end in the heart, but I didn’t see any rents or repairs. After rewatching the film, it’s probably just a trick of editing. Which is too bad. A knife wound would have made it so much more an artifact of the film and contributed to the overall miasma of the piece.

If there’s an ocular state more narrow than tunnel vision, I had it as I rushed through the museum to its American Art wing, past works of fine art and culture thousands of year old, to experience the culmination of ten years of, well, random and casual thought over whether I’d ever get to see it. However, once my paintlust was satiated, I settled down, shook hands and apologized to the aforementioned security guard, and took in more of Albright’s work. Apparently, the museum has quite a large collection of it, but only two other paintings besides Dorian Gray were on view when I visited.

The second piece was called That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door), which was painted over the entire course of the 1930s. It was slightly taller and thinner than Dorian Gray and, according to the placard beside it, was considered by Albright to be his paramount work. The large painting depicts a door, a wreath, and a female hand.

Again, recounting the subject matter does exactly nothing to convey the decrepit feel and subtle terror of the feel of this painting, which has so much of the unknown about it. If Dorian Gray made me want to stand under a waterfall of razorblades, The Door made me want to stick my eyeballs in one of those golf ball washer contraptions (I loved it that much).

The other painting, the fantastic Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida, predated Dorian Gray by more than a decade, is large and square, and depicts a seated woman with a hand mirror, time-ravaged, haggard, sad and more frightening than any nightmare I’ve had in recent memory. I finally understand the Zeppelin lyric about big-legged women not having souls.

And, now that I’ve seen The Picture of Dorian Gray, I can also finally lay that long-held fascination to rest. Now, if the Royal London Hospital will only let me into its inner recesses to see the Elephant Man’s bones.