Whether alcohol or absinthe, LSD or heroin, some of humanity's creative geniuses produced their greatest work as mind-altering substances did theirs. A Paris exhibit connects the dots.
PARIS – For the first time in Paris, the Maison Rouge art foundation explores head-on the role of drugs in art.
It is impossible to imagine a history of modern and contemporary literature without English essayist Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater or French poet Charles Baudelaire’s Paradis Artificiels (Artificial Paradises). The list is long, from Baudelaire to American novelist William Burroughs and German writer Ernst Jünger.
Some will end up addicted to a “substance,” others will just experiment – like German philosopher Walter Benjamin with hashish in Marseille. The same goes for a large part of the history of musical creation in the last 50 years. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, sang the Beatles. You know what the initials of the song title spell out, right?
What’s strange is not that the Maison Rouge’s exhibition, entitled “Under the Influence” and subtitled “Artists and Psychoactive Drugs,” talks about drugs and art, it is that it is the first foundation or museum to do so in such detail. Anyone with an interest in surrealism remembers French surrealist writers Jacques Vaché and René Crevel – two famous addicts – and playwright Antonin Artaud, of course, with opium and peyote. Many contemporary artists don’t even bother to hide their use of hallucinogenic drugs.
Such a wide-ranging topic should have its place in a big Parisian museum like the Centre Pompidou. Unfortunately it seems that talking about drugs in Paris' temple of contemporary art is considered too shocking. Whatever, what’s important is that the exhibition exists.
“Under the Influence” goes from fact to fact, but also from interrogation to interrogation. Only one has a simple answer: the use or abuse of products by an artist that have the effect of affecting – briefly or durably – perceptions, emotions or thoughts is a major factor in art since the beginning of the 20th century, even maybe earlier. These products can be legal or illegal.
In the first category are alcohol and tobacco, there is enough for a separate exhibition: Van Gogh and absinthe, Pollock and Bacon’s penchant for the bottle. The second category includes the substances that come from a plant – opium, cocaine, etc – and the third and last category the substances created by chemists – LSD being the most famous.
Many famous artists are represented: Francis Picabia, Hans Bellmer, Jean Cocteau, Martial Raysse, Daniel Spoerri, Gary Hill, Markus Raetz; and others less known: Daniel Pommereulle, Bernard Saby, Frédéric Pardo, Batan Matta.
This doesn’t mean that these 91 artists were all “drug addicts,” but, just like the writers, some artists got hooked and some even died because from it. A percentage of them took drugs in the 60s and 70s – when it was all the rage – and then stopped more or less quickly. Others experimented with drugs as if they were scientists, French poet Henri Michaux for instance, who drew after taking mescaline, or artist Jean-Jacques Lebel after dropping acid.
There are also those who broached the subject from afar, like a chronicler or a historian would. Matthieu Briand is one of them – his sculptures are tributes to the creator of LSD, Albert Hofmann.
Hallucinogenic drugs or hallucinations?
When a psychoactive drug is absorbed, how does it act and how far can it make the artist go? What perception of the world does it stir up? Or what “visions” – a word to be used with caution- does it impose? In some cases, the answer is easy. The comparison between Michaux’s “mescalinian” drawings and his work when he’s not under the influence suggests that the drug set off ideas of swarming and crystallization: “lots of crystals, everything always end up in crystals,” he wrote, but he also experienced muscle rigidity – his 1956 drawings resemble those produced by a seismograph.
With Lebel, the assessment is less definitive. Are these curves, the “psychedelic” interlacing, due to chemistry or the artist's unique graphic style? Austrian painter Arnulf Rainer was drawing under the influence of mescaline, LSD, psilocybin, and hypnosis. What he accomplished was however very much like his work in a “normal” state, granted we know what normal actually is.
Like Rainer, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, also went off the deep end. She spends her life between her workshop and a psychiatric ward. Where is the influence? Is it the hallucinogenic drugs or the hallucinations? This begs the question: how does creation happen? What mental and physical operations are needed to bring out archetypes and obsessions?
Many artists who try drugs are only trying to find the answer to this question. American performance artist Brian Lewis Saunders is the perfect example of this. In 2001, he drew, for weeks on, a self-portrait under the influence of a different mix: Valium, cocaine, marijuana and other various types of medicine. His portraits can be figurative or almost destroyed, hilarious or frightening.
Another spectacular experiment comes from French artist Bruno Botella. He worked on clay mixed with a hallucinogenic substance. By contact of his skin, enhanced by a solvent, the molecule penetrates the body and affects the movements – and therefor the shape that is given to the clay. The protocol resembles a lab experiment. The relationship between science and art appears very clearly all throughout the exhibition.
The exhibition also confirms that the hypothesis that is repeated all too often – that these substances liberate the creating power, by taking away inhibitions and stimulation the central nervous system is just not true. This is no more true than to say that Van Gogh was only Van Gogh because of his inner turmoil or than Jean-Michel Basquiat needed heroin to draw or paint. But it is also worth remembering that it killed them both.