Monday, March 10, 2014

Tea, morphine and other stuff

That would be a more fitting title for the Hammer Museum’s new exhibition, Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880 to 1914. Organized from a selection of prints from UCLA’s Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, including a major gift by collector Elisabeth Dean, the exhibition feels more like a “Works from the Collection of…” rather than a tightly woven thematic show. The description on the other side of the colon is more representative: Women in Paris from 1880-1914—an array of women: mystics, laundresses, mothers, prostitutes, and yes, drug addicts. The “morphine” indeed lures you, if not the “Women in Paris” part. As for the tea, only one image involving the drink comes to mind. All this to say, the show’s title is misleading, but the show itself is anything but a disappointment.

The early twentieth century was a watershed for printmaking: new techniques were being explored, like the lithograph; japonisme, the Parisian mania for woodcut prints, was in full swing. Color printing enabled the circulation of garrulous posters advertising products like Vin Mariani, a wine treated with coca leaves. At the helm of the ad campaign was a boisterous woman, a modern-day maenad.

Other female archetypes prevailed through print. The erratic, vitriolic woman was captured by artists like Eugène Grasset, whose La Vitrioleuse (The acid thrower) reveals a deranged, embittered woman in the prelude to an acid attack. Emile Prouvé’s L’Opium captures a woman in morphine-induced sleep, her lax, seductive posture reminiscent of a sleeping Aphrodite.

The show’s preponderance of mystical women foreshadows the rising secularization of art, which gained footing in the Enlightenment. (How often do we see religious themes in contemporary art?) No longer do we find a straightforward Jesus but a straw-haired woman crowned in thorns. 

Indeed women in fin-de-siècle France were martyrs inasmuch as they were targets of scathing misogyny and judgment. That is one reason why morphine addiction was so rampant among women. It was not only an escape, but a communal one: Parisian women might spend an entire day at the morphine den, languoring in their own haze in the midst of other morphinomanes. Some of the show’s examples of morphine addicts are disquieting, while others are quite beautiful. A color lithograph of a woman injecting herself through the thigh is spine-tingling; an etching of two women in a morphine haze is lustful and wispy.

Was morphine addiction a problem among men? Based on the visual evidence, it appears not. Male afflictions with morphine seem to have been relegated to literature. Poet and essayist Laurent Tailhade published a book about his battles with morphine addiction, calling the drug a “voluptuous, sinister poison.” You can see a copy of his La Noire Idole (The Dark Idol), along with other fascinating publications and ephemera, in the exhibition. It’s a pity that women rarely had the opportunity to speak for themselves. Would they set the record straight, or did the guys have it right?

Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880 to 1914 is on view at the Hammer Museum through May 18. 


  1. Neat write-up. I'm going to check out the show tomorrow.