Saturday, March 16, 2013

Absinthe and Art

 Absinthe is distilled black licorice-flavored liquor derived from botanicals, including the flowers and leaves of a plant popularly known as “wormwood,”  along with anise, sweet fennel and other medicinal herbs.  Often sugar is added. Traditionally absinthe has a natural green color and was commonly known in Europe as “The Green Fairy.” It can be highly alcoholic,  ranging from 90 proof  (45% alcohol) to 148% (74%).   At the former number it has about the same spirituous content as most whiskey and beer.  At the latter, it is off the charts.

Absinthe originated in Switzerland, the product of the Kubler family, who produced it in its original formulation.   It became very popular in the late  19th and 20th Centuries in France, particularly among Parisian artists and writers.  Among the former were such giants of Post-Impressionism as Henri Touluse-Lautrec,  Vincent Van Gogh and Amedo Modigliani, all known absinthe drinkers.  It also inspired, as shown here a wide variety of advertising posters.

Note that many of them are in Art Nouveau mode, an artistic form that was highly popular at the same time as absinthe.  “Absinthe Robinette” epitomizes the style with its sinuous lettering,  backdrop of plants, and Medusa-like hair of the scantily clad lady holding the cup. Females in various stages of undress were a staple of the absinthe advertising.  Absinthe Blanoui” produced one that features both the lady and Art Nouveau styling.

Although the prior two signs showed us the spirits in a glass,  “Rosinette Absinthe” had a more traditional approach with a bottle sitting on a table.  The image also included a fully dressed woman with a rose hiding her cleavage.  The poster for “Terminus Absinthe” caused a minor scandal.   It used the images of two famous stage personalities of the day -- “Divine” Sarah Bernhardt and Constant Coquelin.  Sarah was outraged and sued the distiller for using her likeness without her permission.  She won in French courts and the posters had to be taken down.

“Absinthe Parisianne” inflated the bottle to full body size and apparently showed two Paris actors,  apparently anonymous,  having one heck of a good time as they consume the Green Fairy. Note that the body of the bottle says “sante” -- health.  The reference probably was occasioned because absinthe increasingly was being portrayed as a dangerously addictive, psychoactive drug.  In stark contrast to the gayety shown in the drink’s advertising,  famous artists painted a different picture.

For example,. Edgar Degas, the French Impressionist known for his upbeat pictures of ballet dancers and horses, here switched moods to give us a picture of a man and woman in a Paris dive drinking the verdant liquid.  The looks of vacant hopelessness on their faces bespeaks a tragic way of life.  Picasso in 1912 pictured a Pernod absinthe bottle done in a Cubist mode that seemed neutral about the drink.   A later picture painted a different picture,  showing a woman with a glass of absinthe with an abstracted glaze that is not unlike that of the Degas.

Perhaps the most gripping depiction of absinthe addiction was that of Felicien Rops, a Belgian artist and engraver who began his career in the 1850s.   In the black and white lithographic print shown here he shows us a young woman prostitute standing outside a dance hall.  One author has said of this image:  “M. Rops has created a type of woman that we will dream of...the type of absinthe drinker who, brutalized and hungry, grows very more menacing and voracious...the girl bitten by the green poison....”

Images like these helped to fire public opinion about the dangers of absinthe.  It was said to contain a chemical compound that caused addictive harmful effects.   By 1915 the liquor had been banned in many countries of Europe, including France, and the United States.  Even Switzerland, where it had been invented and manufactured by four generations of the Kubler family,  joined the ban.  Its prohibition there at midnight on December 7, 1910, engendered a satirical poster. The French title on the sign read “The End of the “Green Fairy.”  The fairy apparently was the half nude woman at the bottom of the picture stabbed to death with a large sword.

Although widely denounced, even up to the 1970s, there is little evidence that absinthe carried any more risks than any other spirits.  The problems identified likely were the result of the high alcoholic content.  Moreover the beverage was cheap and available to people of ordinary means.  Britain had a similar problem in the 1700s with gin.   Moreover, any beverage approaching 148 proof is likely to have rapid and deleterious effects.

With more scientific knowledge, countries one by one have been legitimizing absinthe again.  In 2006 the United States repealed its 92-year ban on the liquor.  The Kubler heirs got back in the business of making and marketing the drink.  Other brands followed.  There was enthusiasm that the appetite of Americans for this exotic and mysterious drink would be massive.  One major U.S. liquor wholesaler launched a major Kubler sales effort in all 50 states.  At first that company’s hopes seem realized, but as time has gone on, sales have slumped significantly.

It turns out that with only moderate alcohol levels permitted, those experimental first bottles failed to cause any distinctive highs or hallucinations.  People began to wonder what all the fuss had been about.  Moreover, a strong taste for licorice is not general in the U.S. drinking public.   Absinthe may always have its advocates but it will not replace the martini in America.  Whether pro and con, however, the “Green Fairy” has made a permanent contribution to world art.

No comments:

Post a Comment