BY Charlie Fox in Features , Opinion | 30 SEP 15
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Issue 4

Spirited Away: Hedonism and Decline

Charlie Fox traces the diverse portrayal and experience of intoxication throughout art history 

BY Charlie Fox in Features , Opinion | 30 SEP 15

The history of the long romance between artists and alcohol brims with more joy, despair and bad behaviour than might seem reasonable but, of course, going wildly beyond the bounds of reason has always been the aim of their relationship. This is the sprawling account of a great passion, which is at once fruitful and ruinous, stretching from the mythic landscapes of the Ancient Greek imagination to the nightly debauchery of London’s drinking dens at the end of the 20th century. Chronicling this vast revelry doesn’t only provide a lavish history of artistic pleasure, animated by ecstatic highs and apocalyptic lows, but illuminates other attractions, too. It’s also an account of the strange chemistry between artists and cities, which have long supplied the special conditions under which art can be dreamt about and invented. Tumultuous friendships and shifting communities come into focus; much in art history can be traced back to hazy conversations between friends in their favourite bars. Conjured up through all these tales of half-remembered nights and illicit adventures is the figure of the artist that haunts our collective imagination: a decadent rebel who goes in pursuit of intoxicants whatever the cost, knowing their excesses can have fatal consequences. Alcohol has a wicked gift for intensifying the private fire in an artist’s mind only to eventually leave it extinguished. Intoxication has always remained a subject and a deranged aim for art. This is a hallucinatory history, full of strange visions.

Caravaggio as Bacchus holding grapes and sitting on a wooden table.
Caravaggio, Self-portrait as the Sick Bacchus, c.1593–94, oil on canvas, 67 × 53 cm. Courtesy: Galleria Borghese, Rome/ SCALA Archives, Florence 

For the Ancient Greeks, Bacchus was the god of revelry and inspiration; art and alcohol provided different routes to the same sublime condition. Mythic bacchanals were a frequent subject for Renaissance artists, allowing them to pay homage to the culture of antiquity while exulting in a scene of sensual pleasure. In his great work Lives of the Artists (1550), Giorgio Vasari describes ‘the lovely details’ of a traditional bacchanal where there are rivers ‘flowing with bright red wine […] drunken singers and musicians and satyrs’. Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians (c.1523–26) is a radiant pastoral tableau celebrating the beauty of the body and the lush abundance of nature. The party never ended: all subsequent depictions of collective pleasure owe something to the bacchanal.

In his early 20s, Caravaggio appeared as the god in his Self-Portrait as the Sick Bacchus (c.1593–94), simultaneously playing a puckish dressing-up game and basking in his own degradation. The painting still looks like a punk provocation of a dissolute rascal; its maker leers at us with sickly joy. Bleary-eyed, with skin the same sour colour as his handful of grapes, he stares out at us with the sinister vacancy of someone long-ravaged by hangover and expert at navigating sleepless nights. Perhaps it’s in this picture of Caravaggio (and through the lurid tangle of fact and fiction which constitute his biography) that the idea of the artist as an intoxicated malcontent acquires its allure.

The sickly Bacchus returns in the impressionists’ paintings of Paris as the absinthe drinker, a wandering libertine at home on street corners and in the shadows. Édouard Manet saw the absinthe drinker slouching against a filthy wall in 1859 and made him the eponymous subject of a painting that same year, his face blurred as if it were emerging through the fog of too much booze, his giddy feet half off the ground and the magical green liquid in a glass close at hand. Edgar Degas caught him huddled in the Café de la Nouvelle Athènes in L’Absinthe (Absinthe, 1876), waxy-faced in the fading afternoon light like an out-of-work clown. (His female companion looks glass-eyed and sunk into the bleak existential reflection that strikes towards the end of a long drinking bout.) Later, Henri Matisse was a frequent visitor to the same cafe and Erik Satie was often found there too, playing the piano, his irreverent brain also swimming with la fée verte (the green fairy), as the spirit was affectionately known. Respectable Paris saw absinthe as a substance for degenerates and a fast route to oblivion. In his essay ‘The Green Goddess’ (1918), the British occultist and writer Aleister Crowley eagerly described its victims who ‘wear a ghastly aureole all their own’ and inhabit ‘a peculiar hell’.

Tall, dark man standing next to an empty absinthe bottle.
Edouard Manet, The Absinthe Drinker, 1859, oil on canvas, 1.8 × 1 m. Courtesy: Glyptoteket, Copenhagen

Though this taste for absinthe is a louche example of how artists have always explored their sinful impulses and succumbed to the siren song of illicit substances, impressionism’s intoxicating properties reveal themselves in scenes as far from those make-believe infernos as you can imagine. Claude Monet’s Bain à la Grenouillère (Bathers at La Grenouillère, 1869) depicts their idyllic world in all its lulling calm. La Grenouillère was a middle-class resort stretching across a jetty on the Seine, which counted among its attractions a long floating bar. Here is a place full of luscious trees, dancing summer light and figures at play or deep in dreamy reflection. The impressionists had no moral caution to impart; they were thrilled by a new social climate that allowed pleasures to be explored and different classes to commingle. The methods they used to capture this world were radical and sprang from a fevered sensuality. (Look again at Monet’s trees: they’re abstract swirls of delirious colour.) Seen through the eyes of these painters, reality makes you light-headed; it glitters and moves through strange new textures. As the impressionists’ century ended and the next began, artists appeared who were eager to explore this vision further.

Pablo Picasso was often in a celebratory mood in Montmartre, carousing with his party of followers, including the painters André Derain and Max Jacob. They went to the circus several times a week where Picasso befriended the clowns and acrobats who populate the paintings of his Rose period. These trips often concluded with the screening of a few films, a supposedly lowbrow amusement that the gang discovered was best enjoyed after smoking opium. (Picasso eventually swore it off, claiming it left him too sleepy to paint anything.) After drinking heartily with the circus folk, they would repair to the Lapin Agile, fast becoming habitués of this bar, which was also home to stray monkeys and a donkey named Lolo that ate much of the food. Picasso commemorated his time there in the painting At the Lapin Agile (1905), playfully depicting himself dressed in a gaudy green and red costume, a mixture of a jester and a devil. The landlord’s stepdaughter, Margot, and her pet crow were the subjects of another Picasso painting from 1904. Woman with a Crow is a gauzy symbolist daydream in purple and gold where Margot’s adolescent body is turning woozily birdlike, complete with slender head and talons, making her into a glamorous witch. In a haunting touch, the painting’s surface is hazy, as if its subjects are seen in an opium smoker’s reverie. The scene also recalls the proverb of the fictional Parisian jazz fiends, abstract painters and apprentice surrealists who haunt the bars in Julio Cortázar’s novel Rayuela (Hopscotch, 1963): ‘There is a bird sleeping in all good wines.’

The surrealists’ private cartography of Paris in the 1920s and ’30s was chequered with favourite cafes where they met to conspire, talk over their dreams and have furious rows. As its ringleader and chief theoretician, André Breton presided over these gatherings like a paranoid cardinal, ready to excommunicate other attendants for the smallest lapse in taste or perceived aesthetic treachery. (Their astonishing cabal included, among others, Antonin Artaud, Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst.) They would meet at the same place, such as the Café Certa, for weeks and all consume the same drink — at one point, mandarin curaçao was the official surrealist beverage — then suddenly switch to another lair and a new tipple. Extracts from beloved texts like the Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (The Songs of Maldoror, 1868) were read aloud as they sought to cast a magical spell over everyday life. The surrealists maintained a romantic tradition through these meetings, wanting to transform their city into a fantastical place, a grand mystery in which the marvellous activities of their imaginations could be discovered in reality.

Impressionist portrayal of a pond with a floating bar.
Claude Monet, Bain à la Grenouillère, 1869, oil on canvas, 75 × 100 cm. Courtesy: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

At a corner cafe on the Boulevard Raspail in 1929, Lee Miller, then a sylph-like major-league fashion model scarcely out of adolescence, met the émigré surrealist photographer Man Ray. Miller was a wild girl in flight from upstate New York; Ray a rakish provocateur from Philadelphia: she wished to become his pupil. As both Ray’s muse and collaborator, Miller supplied us with some of surrealism’s most eloquent images. Simultaneously ghoulish, carnal and glamorous, they capture uncanny erotic riddles. She appears shrouded in wire or radiating light in one of Ray’s ‘solar portraits’, and as a statue representing physical beauty in Jean Cocteau’s film Le sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet, 1930). Her subsequent work as a wartime photojournalist for Vogue (and other publications) indicates the persistence of a keen surrealist gaze. Her exemplary shots include Fire Masks, Downshire Hill, London, England (1941), with its startling fetish party atmosphere, and Nonconformist Chapel (1940), where apocalyptic rubble spills onto quiet streets. If here she tracked an outlandish reality, Miller also documented scenes that are beyond the domain even of nightmares. She was present at the liberation of Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps in 1945: perhaps her most famous photograph shows the corpse of an SS guard submerged in a canal. Miller’s consequent twin spirals into alcoholism and a self-obliterating narcotic regime — involving the manic, contrary consumption of amphetamines and sleeping pills — are all too easy to see as brutal attempts at blocking out these traumas.

In postwar New York, the painter Willem de Kooning went most nights to the Cedar Tavern, a blue-collar bar in New York’s Greenwich Village that was commandeered by the abstract expressionists and became the movement’s engine room. According to a bar regular quoted in Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s biography, De Kooning: An American Master (2004), the light inside was ‘a bilious yellow-green that made everyone look worse than they already looked’, but if you peered through this miasma you might have found an illustrious collection of nighthawks alongside De Kooning (festively sousing himself with scotch), including Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock. Just like in some cautionary cartoon, alcohol turned these introverted figures into lunatics, high on their own wayward brand of machismo and horny as satyrs. Pollock once tore off the men’s room door in a fury; he and De Kooning frequently ended the evening by having a clumsy brawl on the floor like two debauched gorillas.

Picasso and a young woman standing at the bar.
Pablo Picasso, At the Lapin Agile, 1905, oil on canvas, 1 × 1 m. Courtesy: © Estate of Pablo Picasso / DACS, London 

As much as alcohol powered their tough-man camaraderie, it was also their undoing. Long a sepulchral presence at the bar and the veteran of multiple heart attacks, Kline died suddenly from rheumatic heart disease in 1962, an end surely hastened by the landfilling quantities of booze he consumed night after night — a popular joke at Cedar claimed that it was the only thing he lived on. Always a toxic drunk to be around (John Cage recalled, ‘I crossed the road whenever I saw him coming’), Pollock’s habit grew in proportion with his fame and, by the time it peaked, he was a total wreck. The need for painting to be at once a source of agony and rapture had endowed him with a Faustian glamour but it also left him unable to paint, craving new heights beyond his reach. In 1956, at exactly this point of creative exhaustion, he thundered to his death in a drunken car crash.

Only De Kooning was able to achieve some balance between his addiction and his desire to paint, salvaging great work from terrifying interludes of personal dereliction. The grim litany of incidents went on for decades: he would vanish on self-immolating binges and wake up, days later, in some New York gutter with no memory of what had happened. These long blackouts alternated with weeks of enforced abstinence where he was near-catatonic. De Kooning’s slow drift back and forth from the abyss is all the more striking because, for years, he was reticent to touch alcohol, perhaps on account of lingering ill-feeling due to unhappy memories of growing up above a dismal pub run by his mother in the Netherlands. But, during his long struggle to complete Woman, I (1950–52), he began drinking with desperate intensity to calm his nerves. For De Kooning, painting was a process involving tremendous mental agitation bordering on mania, endless self-questioning, panic and constant attempts to escape his familiar tricks. (Believing he was doomed, he repeated his motto: ‘Art is the thing that you cannot make.’) Alongside the monstrous women that he painted throughout his career, there are the primitive male figures messily wrought in bronze during his short foray into sculpture. The magmatic golem known as Clamdigger (1972) looks deeply confessional; a grotesque self-portrait by a man whose body was threatening to fall apart. Despite the lonely chill to De Kooning’s life — only the slow fall into dementia stopped his drinking — it was sustained by heroic attempts to keep his work lyrical and inventive, full of explosive surprise. According to the reminiscences of friends and hangers-on, drunken conversations with De Kooning always contained a feast of eccentric observations. Exaggerating his Dutch accent, he called the rich ‘the ritz’ or told his wife, Elaine, her mood was so frosty that she could ‘make Siberia anywhere!’ or insisted: ‘The figure is nothing unless you can twist it around like a strange miracle.’

Abstract painting of a woman.
Willem de Kooning, Woman I, 1950–52, oil on canvas, 1.9 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: © The Willem de Kooning Foundation / DACS, London 

Francis Bacon was equally preoccupied with transformations of the figure, though his methods often look far more infernal than miraculous. Like De Kooning, he was a prodigious drinker. The critic David Sylvester was present when the two of them dined together once in Berlin, late in their careers, when they were both unquestioned masters of their form. He recalled that it was like a meeting between ‘Russian and American generals: lots of toasts and bear hugs, not much communication.’

But Bacon was usually a brilliant talker, even as he drank himself into a blur. Reigning over London’s sodden bohemians and the small-time criminals who congregated at The Colony Room — his favourite Soho haunt — he was a devilishly mesmeric presence, speaking in his fallen-aristocrat purr and fuelled by a seemingly endless supply of champagne. He might declare, ‘I’ve made images the intellect would never make!’ or insouciantly share macabre gossip —  ‘in the end, his pancreas simply exploded’ — or wonder aloud whether he might regain the job of a gentleman’s valet he had held as a young man. According to Michael Peppiatt’s magisterial biography, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma (1996), which brims with verbatim accounts of the artist’s exploits, weary friends struggled to keep up with his bafflingly robust constitution, occasionally submitting that they had drunk enough. With theatrical flair, Bacon would retort: ‘Only too much is enough!’

A man and a woman wearing surrealist masks.
Lee Miller, Fire Masks, Downshire Hill, London, England, 1941. Courtesy: © Lee Miller Archives, England

These antics were the grand retaliation against Bacon’s puritanical ogre of a father, the self-styled ‘Captain’ Eddy Bacon, who forbade alcohol in his home, trained horses and had his ‘weakling’ son frequently whipped for disobedience. The motto on the family coat of arms read ‘Mediocria Firma’ (‘Moderation is Safest’), which Bacon took lifelong joy in scorning. A creature of immoderate but unchanging habits, he was frequently up before dawn to paint. The conclusion of a day’s rage at the canvas was marked with champagne as the morning ebbed, inaugurating festivities that drifted on until the end of the night. Making his lordly progress through Soho’s nightlife, he called on secret gambling dens where he gleefully squandered vast sums at roulette or, with his band of fellow revellers in tow, visited bars with names that promised gothic decadence, like The Gargoyle or The Iron Lung.

The Colony Room was Bacon’s adopted home: he went there from its opening in 1948 until his death in 1992. The regal and foul-mouthed Muriel Belcher, who called Bacon her ‘daughter’, ran this dank bohemian grotto. (One regular likened his time there to inhabiting ‘an enormous bed, with drinks’.) Belcher was the subject of several of his paintings, most powerfully in the triptych Three Studies for a Portrait of Muriel Belcher (1966). She looks out at us with abnormal clarity for a figure in Bacon’s corpus: so often the subject’s stare is obscured by their nightmarish convulsions. Bacon transformed her face into a flayed expanse of red flesh and swirling strata of white fat reminiscent of the animal carcasses that had long fascinated him. Their friendship was playful, lacking the operatic levels of tragedy and mutual cruelty that characterized Bacon’s entanglements with men. Belcher was a near-constant presence in his life for almost 30 years until her death in 1979 and his portraits of her are especially tender. Too much critical stress falls on Bacon’s portraiture as a sadistic activity when it often seems stricken with premonitions of grief, transforming a collection of friends into ghosts. (He once confessed: ‘My friends have always been drunks or suicides.’) Renowned for their grotesquerie, Bacon’s figures, shuddering in their dark rooms, are also incarnations of loneliness, terrible depression and withdrawal.

Three faces in red.
Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Muriel Belcher, 1966, oil on canvas, each 35.5 × 30.5 cm. Courtesy: © Estate of Francis Bacon / DACS, London 

The ghastly cost of a night’s excesses became the engine for new work the next morning: ‘I often work best with a hangover because my mind is crackling with energy and I can think very clearly.’ For all his carousing, Bacon was, in his own perverse way, a deeply disciplined character, convivial yet opaque, with a capacity for partaking or abstaining at will that’s impossible for a more conventional breed of alcoholic. He told Peppiatt: ‘When I’m alone, I never have a drink even though there’s masses of stuff here — I’m not a complete drunk, though I’m sure I would be if I didn’t also want terribly to paint.’ Bacon was luckily able to follow his angelic and demonic impulses as he wished. But he also knew that making art carries the promise of a greater intoxication than alcohol — something that can’t be bought or become familiar. Such artists have used their work as vessels for manic energies, memories and deliriums, things much stranger and more powerful than whatever swirls at the bottom of a glass.

Main image: Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Muriel Belcher, 1966, oil on canvas, each 35.5 × 30.5 cm. Courtesy: © Estate of Francis Bacon / DACS, London 

Charlie Fox is a writer who lives in London, UK. His book of essays, This Young Monster (2017), is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.