Paul Albert Besnard, Morphinomanes ou le plumet, 1887. Image via the Hammer Museum.
The Hammer Museum, in LA, is currently showing an exhibition titled “Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880 to 1914.” The juxtaposition of the two substances is deliberate; the show aims to present what the curators call “a multidimensional portrait of the Parisian woman at the turn of the century, spanning from the frilly collars of the upper class to the dirty syringes of the desperately poor.” All of this is represented by some of the great artists of the day in a series of arresting engravings, paintings, and lithographs. (Occasional bits of ephemera—and books like Les morphinées—round out the show.)
By definition, the portrayals run the gamut from civilized—George Bottini’s graceful fin de siècle women shopping or walking down Parisian boulevards—to depraved. But even the most abject addict is glossed with romance. The renderings, whether they be stylized art nouveau commercial work or a Bonnard etching, are so achingly beautiful as to provide a sense of continuity. All these women, whatever they were drinking, were muses.
And the show is at pains, via notes and curation, to make it clear that one substance was not synonymous with only one group of subjects; monied women frequently resorted to morphine in the nineteenth century, to the point where their widespread drug use became a problem. Meanwhile, even when yielding acid, or injecting morphine, the demimondaine is rendered with the same beauty and care, avenging goddesses and righteous furies. (Which is all very well, if you were a Parisian prostitute.) As Proust—no stranger to morphine himself—would have it, “The paradoxes of today are the prejudices of tomorrow, since the most benighted and the most deplorable prejudices have had their moment of novelty when fashion lent them its fragile grace.” That women numbing themselves was so pervasive a theme is both scary and illuminating.
But here is the thing. Shortly after studying the images in this exhibition, I took a walk and saw this:
Too easy, I think, to say plus ça change. But barely.
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