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Friday, March 27, 2015

Absinthe Art

The Absinthe Drinker, 1901, Victor Oliva
Victor Oliva Self-portrait, 1898 
Every once in a while it happens that I start out intending to write upon one aspect of art and then stumble on some other, related, item that's far more interesting. Today, I began intending to write about the Czech artist and illustrator, Victor Oliva (right). Born in Austria-Hungary around 1861, but living and working much of his life in Paris. I came upon the fact he had two "loves" in his life, the sport of ballooning, and absinthe. In fact, his most famous painting, The Absinthe Drinker (above) from 1901, would seem to indicate he was on a first name basis with "the green fairy." As turn of the century artist go, Oliva was far from alone, and perhaps something of a rank amateur as compared to the artists, writers, and musicians, like Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, Erik Satie, Alfred Jarry, and others. All were known absinthe drinkers.

This painting by Toulouse-Lautrec is so different in style as compared to his
other works some critics contend it was painted under the influence of absinthe.
Vincent van Gogh Drinking Absinthe,
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Some artists didn't imbibe to any great degree, but introduced the hallucinogenic drink into their art in the form of content. Others did both. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, from all indications, practically painted with the stuff at times. His portrait of van Gogh (left), clearly titled Vincent van Gogh Drinking Absinthe, would suggest both artists had a fondness for the greenish liquid. Van Gogh, for his part, didn't "rat" on his fellow artists for their vice but instead, painted a still-life of the highly addictive beverage itself (below, often diluted with lemonade and thus not always green).

Glass of Absinthe and a Carafe, 1884, Vincent, van Gogh
Of all the absinthe artists during the latter part of the 19th-century in Paris, Toulouse-Lautrec is, perhaps the painter most closely associated with the drink. An alcoholic for most of his life, he was especially "into" American cocktails, and is said to have invented one himself, the "earthquake" which was a potent concoction of half cognac and half absinthe. His weakness for alcohol (of any and every flavor) coupled with syphilis, led to his institutionalization and early death in 1901 at the age of thirty-six. Today, there is a brand of absinthe (left) bearing his name.
Toulouse-Lautrec (left) and fellow poster
artist, Lucien Metivet, drinking absinthe, 1895.

So, what, exactly, is absinthe? It's a distilled, highly alcoholic beverage, (90–148 U.S. proof) having an anise (licorice) flavor derived from botanicals, including the flowers and leaves of Artemisia absinthium ("grand wormwood"), together with green anise, sweet fennel, and other medicinal and culinary herbs too numerous to mention. Needless to say, it's seldom consumed full strength, though plenty potent even in diluted form. Perhaps more important than what's in it is what absinthe does. The British author, Oscar Wilde, obviously no stranger to the stuff himself, may have summed it up best:

The first stage is like ordinary drinking; the second [is] when you begin to see cruel and monstrous things. But if you can persevere, you will enter in upon the third stage where your see things that you want to see.” --Oscar Wilde

An Art Nouveau ad for absinthe, ca.1900.
Someone once said, "Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder...of absinthe." The spirit drink, has been called “madness in a bottle” and was a central feature of the left bank, Bohemian lifestyle of Paris during most of the 19th century. In 1874, 700,000 litters a year were produced. By 1910 that number had grown to thirty-six million. Beyond simple alcoholism, long term absinthe use led to psychosis and extreme paranoia. Violent love affairs with stab wounds and bullet holes were commonplace. By 1915, the substance (not without a great deal of organized protest in France) had pretty much been banned around the world. A lot of artists who were partial to the drink, were also quite distressed in that it was an important source of revenue for their advertising art (left).

The Absinthe Drinker,
1858-59, Edouard Manet.

However, despite their intimate familiarity with "the green fairy," several artists were directly or indirectly responsible for its eventual prohibition. Perhaps the first was Edouard Manet, who, in 1858-59 painted a work he called The Absinthe Drinker (right). It was originally simply a painting (a portrait, actually) of a familiar drunk named Collardet, who used to hang around outside the Louvre. He was quite familiar to virtually every artist in Paris. (The glass of absinthe and the bottle on the ground were added sometime later.) Considered to be one of his first major works, Manet submitted it to the Salon jury of 1859 where it received only one vote for acceptance, that of Eugene Delacroix. Although the subject was probably considered abhorrent, it was likely the crude manner in which it was painted that "turned off" the jury. "Look, you can see his brushstrokes!"

The Absinthe Drinker, 1876,
Edgar Degas.

Had Manet's Absinthe Drinker been accepted, it would have, no doubt, caused an uproar. That distinction, however, was saved for Edgar Degas' 1876 Absinthe Drinker nearly twenty years later. Unlike Manet's long-forgotten early effort, Degas' Absinthe Drinker was, first of all a woman and in fact, a well-known actress, Ellen Andrée, accompanied by a rather scruffy man named, Marcellin Desboutin, an artist friend of Degas. The dislike for the work was instantaneous, both broad and deep, one critic call it, "The perfection of ugliness… The color is as repulsive as the figures; a brutal, sensual-looking French workman and a sickly looking grisette; a most unlovely couple.” The word "whore" was used quite often by other critics. It was a look at the underbelly of Parisian nightlife no one, least of all art critics, who themselves, enjoyed it, wanted to see exposed. Nonetheless, Degas' painting could be said to have started the outrage and stirred negative sentiment, not just insofar as art was concerned, but against the "drug" itself. The painting finally sold in London in 1892 to boos and hisses. Today it hangs in the Orsay Museum in Paris.

Absinthe, 1902,
Axel Törneman
La Muse Verte, 1895,
Albert Maignan

Absinth, 1901, Pablo Picasso.
In the years that followed, painting absinthe drinkers became almost routine in Paris. Some artists such as Axel Törneman (above, left) likely painted their own experiences with the substance. Others, such as Albert Maignan in his La Muse Verte (The Green Muse, above, right) from 1895 have a somewhat playful, illustrative quality. More often, artists such as a very young Picasso, painted a grittier, more desperate, more devastating image of the sad, mentally debilitating effects of absinthe addiction. Around 1990, with the advent of the European Union, absinthe once more became legal. Today there are over two-hundred brands of absinthe being produced in a dozen countries, mostly in France, Switzerland, Australia, United States, Spain, and the Czech Republic.

The Absinthe Drinker,
Portrait of Angel Fernandez
de Soto, 1903, Pablo Picasso.
I couldn't resist adding this modern-day
ad for Bourgeois (middle class) Absinthe.
Must have made for some wild catnaps.

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