Absinthe: the drink that shaped a nation

Image credit: Degas via wikipedia.org

Absinthe is not an ancient drink. Dating back only to the 1790s, it lacks the imposing longevity of either the grape or the grain. Yet, starting around 1840, it quickly became one of the biggest phenomena in French history. For sixty years, it flowed as a green undercurrent beneath most of that country’s art: almost every artist of note either depicted it or partook in it. Van Gogh cut off his ear while drunk on it; Gauguin’s bold strokes are often attributed to it; Toulouse-Lautrec even carried a cane filled with it.

Édouard Manet, though not generally thought to be an enthusiastic drinker, started his career with a remarkably confident representation of its effects in 'The Absinthe Drinker'. Painted around 1859, it depicts an alcoholic Parisian peasant named Collardet in very bleak, dark tones. While the figure himself is somewhat blurred and obscure, the almost luminescent glass beside him remains clear: we are left in no doubt as to what it has wrought. Another incongruity, his almost aristocratic top-hat and cloak, suggest the arresting way in which the drink transcended the notion of class, wherein lies the real import of the work. It was thought that absinthe brought a beggar to the level of a nobleman, a nobleman to the level of a beggar, while everyone else looked on both as irretrievable reprobates. Yet for such an evocative work, it was roundly criticised at the time: ‘It is you who have lost your moral sense,’ said Manet’s master. It was simply not a problem people were willing to face.

Some twenty years later, Edgar Degas looked on the issue from a different perspective with 'In A Café'. His powerful context of choice was a bourgeois French café, with two figures present this time: unlike Manet, he separates the class divide into two distinct people. In the centre, one sees the grey-faced Ellen Andrée, in a slightly muddied dress, staring out with a haunting emptiness. Beside her sits a man based on artist Marcellin Desboutin, with unkempt hair, a suspicious appearance and decidedly bohemian clothing. The immediate contrast between the light and the dark of the two characters suggests a feeling that the delicate, once pure woman has been tempted to some darker side; Degas again seems hardly a supporter of its effects. Indeed, one feels a certain underhand irony in his choice of an artist as model: when so many of his contemporaries saw the drink as a gateway to a higher level of beauty, ideals and understanding, our artist remains a sceptic. One critic, George Moore, poignantly noted that ‘the tale is not a pleasant one, but it is a lesson’.

Not long after the turn of the twentieth century, the governments of continental Europe successively resorted to banning the drink under immense public pressure. It thus dwindled in popularity throughout the 1900s, until an enterprising firm noticed in the mid-90s that Britain had never quite got round to prohibiting it; a revival bloomed, and continues to this day. Recently, I had the opportunity to try the drink myself, after a friend of mine revealed that he had some in his room; it remains a wonderful novelty that Cambridge seems full of these people. From what little I remember of the evening, I would merely say that it was a really quite unique experience; it was quite unlike anything I had tried before. Ultimately, it was perhaps a little underwhelming - I did not suddenly lapse into delinquency, nor did I have an immediate bout of artistic inspiration.  I thought it a little odd that it could have influenced a nation’s visual culture so profoundly. Yet I am tremendously glad that it did.

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