Oscar Wilde once said when describing his much loved absinthe:
“After the first glass you see things as you wish they were
After the second glass you see things as they are not
Finally you see things as they really are”
It was called The Green Fairy, named so for the intense color of the liquor, and the spell though often hideous and sometimes fatal, it put it’s imbibers under. The addiction was instantaneous, the power to alter the senses intense, and the risk of poisoning by the fatal wormwood was high. But these were the attractions of the sugar laden toxic alcohol,the ladies and gents of the Belle Epoque era in Paris were smitten by daily at the Green hour of five o’clock , when the cafés would fill up with the artists and writers of the time , all looking forward to embellishing their day with the popular beverage known as absinthe.
Speaking of art – one doesn’t have to be under the green fairy’s spell to achieve a similar effect of drugged out stupor, when looking at certain paintings be it a Jackson Pollock, a Basquiet, a Twombly, be it the colorful swirls of a Van Gogh, also an absinthe drinker, or the street scenes of Utrillo, an absinthe devotee. The varied shades of the French impressionists, the New York Ab-Ex group, the graffiti artists of the 70’s and 80’s, the surrealists from Dali to Magritte and the pop wonders of Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Warhol , and Rosenquist, give the viewer of these greats works, that crazy indefineable, multifaceted range of emotions, the love -hate, that transcends us to a new level of thought and perception uniquely ours to behold and absorb.
Paintings job is to provoke, disturb, stimulate, cause joy, or sadness, excite, or depress. The gamut of emotions stir our spirit when confronted with a work of art, and it’s always a surprise to feel the effect. As the Guru of art education and philosophy states in his famous well read book, The Art Spirit, Robert Henri says “the artist disturbs, upsets ,enlightens, and opens ways for better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it and shows there are still more pages possible.”
So why have the guilty pleasures of absinthe, opium, LSD, alcohol, marijuana, been socially linked to artists as a fundamental almost necessary part of their artist identity? The fuel necessary to stoke the creative fire?
It’s not easy making art and though the paint may flow easily, from your brush, the ideas may be more difficult to give birth to. Retreating to your studio- the sanctuary where the birth takes place,means leaving behind the outer world of society’s conformist rituals in order to reach deep inside and extract the magic from the soul, that gives life to ideas, transforming them unto the canvas, the page, as the painting, the poem, the novel, the song. The additional impetus of alcohol, or opiates serves to assist in this process and enlighten the sub – conscious where new and extraordinary visions reveal themselves and in the process art is formed.
Absinthe was a natural during the Belle Epoch era in Paris, where the Impressionists, like, Picasso, Lautrec, Matisse, Valladon, Cezanne, Renoir, Modigliani, Rousseau, and their friends like Max Jacobsand Apollinaire, gathered in cafés after laboring in the birth process of creation all day, to indulge their senses with absinthe and conversation. Five o’clock, the Green Fairy descended and the cafés filled up with her enthusiasts!Then the 60’s brought with it, LSD, rock and roll, pop art, pot, and the art crowd were hooked! Through their transformed, acid tripped heads, the artists work was enhanced with supernatural effects not achieved when their heads were screwed on straight.Be it absinthe in Paris, LSD in Manhattan, or opium in Chinatown, drugs have been a ubiquitous art tool along with paintbrush paint and palette.
Toulouse Lautrec kept his super convenient stash of absinthe in the hook of his walking stick, a clever invention making him able to supply his addiction moment to moment, as he strolled the streets of Monmartre and the brothels, of Pigalle. Picasso’s drug of choice was opium, and the only ill effect it seemed to have on him was making it possible for him to create a superhuman body of work. His productivity was infinite!
The factory pop gang of Warhol’s invention in NYC back in the day was known for its cocaine useage,with LSD and pot the common standby. The artists of the 70’s and 80’s thrived on hallucinogens, with the excess and transcendental experiences they encouraged. The swirling colors of those trademark hippie light shows, the expected background to the pop concerts of the day, the masses of stoned out hippies chanting to the Hare Krishnas mantras, the Haight Ashbury communes where LSD ruled, all joined art and drugs as a connected link towards the road to creative expression.Wildes 3 stages of experience in his personal absinthe history, are similar to the same mind altering events artists of all generations can attest to in one form or another.
The Cooler than School, hipsters of today in Williamsburg ,the Lower East Side, and Prospect Heights, can only imagine the world that the dead artists and writers society, lived and worked in, often from a drug induced mind, where their subconscious floated way over the grid, leaving their incredible bounty of art to the world, the paintings and literature that documents another time past , kept alive thru the power of the paintings, the written word, the poetic visions.
So interestingly, today in our Pop culture urban life, we see absinthe bars popping up all over the Nyc metropolis. Absinthe cocktails on the bar menus of the hippest hottest restaurants in town. Absinthe had a resurrection, and became cool again, but only in the dumbed down version, the watered down let’s pretend it’real, and of course, minus the dreaded wormwood. Let’s call it a Virgin Absinthe. Yet it still holds an allure of danger, of romance, of risk, that people associate with the artists world , and if the Brooklyn hipster landing in Nyc from Cleveland, or Philly, or Seattle, can sample a small part of that taboo life, of the days of Oscar Wilde and Toulouse Lautrec in the confines of a dark, sleek bar possibly one of the new ones springing up every week in Brooklyn, in Union Square, on Pell street, in FlatIron, with the Green Fairy working her spell, stopping time, and unleashing the fantasies as you trip the light fantastique into the unknown, heading towards that mysterious place where YES!”
After the third glass you see things as they REALLY ARE!”