Society

Under The Influence: Tracing A Long, Twisted History Of Artists And Their Drugs

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.

Austrian painter Arnulf Rainer used to draw under the influence of mescaline, LSD, psilocybin, and hypnosis
Austrian painter Arnulf Rainer used to draw under the influence of mescaline, LSD, psilocybin, and hypnosis
Philippe Dagen

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ