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Sympathy and the Devil

Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880-1914, Hammer Museum, January 25, – May 18, 2014 —

An inventively curated exhibition of late 19th and early 20th century works on paper by fin de siecle artists, culled from the recent acquisition of the Elisabeth Dean Collection, Tea and Morphine achieves its effects by couplings and contrasts. This is show of ‘ands,’ (the emphasis of the title above is my own interpolation). Public and private are displayed in radical contrast. Public is a woman outside the home, here looking at an exhibition through her lorgnette, contriving her costume so that the ruffles of her hat are echoed by her neckpiece, a woman who is to be seen, and who is also seeing. This is the Belle Epoque teetering on the cusp of modernity.

Private is the world of panic and anxiety assuaged by morphine, unregulated in France for a century, readily available at pharmacies, and most often injected with a syringe, creating a virtual epidemic of addiction especially among women who had need of a painkiller. Injections took place surreptitiously, through layers of clothing (think Edith Piaf), under a dining room table, in a church pew, in formal rooms that became chaotic, and here in a space that is neither private nor public but finally only gnarled torment.

 

Tea and Morphine presents a richness that prompts one’s own speculations and juxtapositions to emerge. There are connections to be made, voices to hear behind each image, looking to be released in the mind of an individual viewer. After I saw the show, I fell under its spell for several days, seized by a desire — almost a craving — both to fall into a revery and also to go on a chase, wanting to know more about the backdrop of the materials on display.( I use backdrop advisedly to convey the theatrical quality of the materials on display.)

I discovered a book both sordid and luminous, Morphine by Jean-Louis Dubut de Laforest, a writer of the period who wrote what his translator calls the French equivalent of English penny dreadfuls, or cheap serial stories. Morphine is a soap opera and a tragedy. The morphine-addicted hero, whose once-magnificent destiny is in its final descent, hallucinates that once again he will lead a battalion. He mounts his steed, his legs too withered even to hold up his boots, gallops wielding a sword onto his old parade grounds, charges — and falls from his horse. His last moments call for an aria that, which unheard in the book is present in the era, the time of Jules Massenet, composer of the opera Manon and of a song, Enchantement, that I was able to track down following the lead of sheet music displayed in the show.

Enchantment, by Jules Massenet (1842-1912), Sally Silver (soprano), Richard Bonynge (piano)

 

A little time with a French-English dictionary has helped me make a minimal translation of its lyrics.

You who comes in the night,
Your beauty has seduced me . . .
. . . Are you a guardian angel?
Mysterious and sweet?
Are you the beloved or {only} a futile mirage?
Are you despair
coldhearted to pleas?
Do you come from a black abyss
Or from a holy sphere?
What does it matter!
I seek you in an intoxicating dream,
My heart implores you,
Angel, Sylph or Nymph of Death,
O you who has smiled at me,
Who are you?
. . .
Ah I was in a delirium! . . .

This lovely, delicate song, so romantic, so over the top — but the yearned-for love object of this lyric is, I think, morphine. The key elements of the much described morphine experience are entwined here: the angel of release, the ever-thinning sylph, the overtaking demon who leads to death.

The theme of a bifurcated self runs throughout Morphine. Morphine itself created a chasm between what the book’s protagonist calls ‘a fake and a real me.’ Soon, in the grip of a delusion, he will shoot his own shadow. More than a symptom of the need for pain relief, morphine addiction, I believe, also indicates a pre-war crisis of identity with the freedom of release on one side, depravity on the other, with the self hovering, wavering — then plunging, rising and descending again and again.

What about tea, one might ask. Well, it’s not as interesting although there is a crossover between the two substances — calming, soothing, relieving, scintillating, stimulating — both of them derivatives and residues of the colonial experience. Then there is the tea room, a kind of anteroom between public and private, a space that was a friend to women who needed a sanctioned place to meet for an intimate ritual, later celebrated as Tea for Two.

There is one heart-piercing image in the exhibition which might be titled The Sadness of Tea Alone. This dry-point image of a heavy-set woman is by Mary Cassatt and, as I am inferring from later-life photographs, a likely self-portrait. To me the image captures not only the absence of an other, but also the poignant quality of a being a foreigner, perhaps an American, an outsider condemned to look inward even as one looks outward, scanning the soul and the horizon for a displaced self.

 

This woman is taking her tea alone among a city of sylphs where she is de trop, where women wear origami-like dresses blanched, stiffened, and pointing upward like angel wings. But in this image, entitled The Favorite Oyster, the woman is not an angel; she is a temptress who proffers morphine on an oyster shell.

 

This dress resonated for me with one by designer Rei Kawabudo ( not in the exhibition) whose resonant white outfit below is in visual lineage with the temptress, here creating an image for our own times, a woman in helmet and ruffle, who dominates her surroundings even as her surroundings seem to threaten her; a figure of self-invention no longer brought about by a drug but now out in the open in this image of a woman who is an icon of the freedom to transgress and also to self-possess.

 

The world of Tea and Morphine, in exhibition and in my speculation, does not exist in a state of either/or, although the exhibition bifurcates images of each by separating them in different rooms. Now we want our doubleness, angel and demon in one, talking with one another. At the time there was a French nineteenth century cordon sanitaire to stop the spread of disease; now there is no cordon to stop the spread of creativity.

Not for a minute do I want to make morphine sexy, or poetic — nor for that matter do I want to make tea prosaic. The Belle Epoque gave way to the First World War with its agonizing wounds, its soldiers screaming for relief, morphine administered without controls, and later to our own synthetic, although poppy-derived scourge, OxyContin.

We all yearn for relief, the need caused by circumstances large and small, personal and social, temporary and permanent. We need it and we find it, in ways benign and destructive. Our animal condition is feeling pain; our modern condition is being acutely aware of its source, even as our existential condition knows that our relief is only palliative; there is no cure. The word palliative derives from the Latin for ‘cloak;’ morphine is the cloak that we hang around our shoulders to warm our end-of-life suffering. In regulated doses, morphine has become a friend to the dying, relief bringing with it the other meaning of ‘cloak,’ a means to disguise our suffering. Now, though, we have an alternative: to claim the wound by wearing it.

 

Then and now; past and present; old-fashioned and modern — these linkages help to pose questions. Are our conceptions of the body cyclical?

How different are Kawakubo’s deformations from the fashions of the Belle Epoque, when a woman was made misshapen by ever tighter waist corsets and leg o’mutton sleeves? Of course the obvious difference is between an era that demanded outward conformity and a time that allows for choice. When Kawabudo designed costumes for Merce Cunningham, she envisioned them in terms of a modern woman who as a matter of course wears a backpack and sometimes a baby pouch. Stuffing spandex with down feathers, Kawabudo created a body shaped for modernity.

 

What then is ‘natural?’ To ask this question is to acknowledge the liminal state implied by the exhibition Tea and Morphine, where we meet a woman, her back to us, peering intently at an image hanging on a wall . . .

 

. . . while across time Kawakubo’s model, the contour of her face partly eclipsed by an immense baby blue sleeve, her hand splayed in an oval of light for no apparent reason . . .

 

. . . stares back at us.

Comments

  1. Steven Lavine says:

    Beautiful essay, particularly in the leap from belle epoch France to our current belle epoch enlightened
    decadence

  2. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Janet, this is quite remarkable and insightful. The influence on culture of opiates beginning way way beack is an intriguing arena you’ve managed to draw into the light here. There’s a good deal more nuance in this subject matter than what we are treated to after calamities like Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s recent death. Thanks for bringing this exhibit to my attention – definitely plan to check it out…

    All best,

    Guy Z.

  3. rafael lopez-barrantes says:

    Thank you also for your article. As usual I am in awe by your ability to weave threads that a priory i would not think they will even be able to neighbor each other. That is your “janet ability”: create new ground and life. Much like a laboratory culture. Time to ponder and observe. You prompt me to reflect of course and dialogue with you in return.
    I am very excited by your inclusion of Rei Kawakubo in your piece. I would have never thought her work in the context that your piece suggests.
    Such an artist mind (you and her)! Her ability to merge the angst and lust of life in a very unsettling manner. Those protrusions… the pushing, the pulling and crashing of fabric and forms… she allows a place for the grotesque (hell), the outgrowths and the excessive of our experience to be. She has the ability of making our human condition and frailty to appear to be contained within the landscape of form, fabric… shapes; we do not belong to it… we are in it (public/private). No resolution possible…rather a state of being. Her work surrenders the human to a small reminder appearance of our condition within the abnormal swellings (of forms) that take over us (nature, the world). Humans never looked so vulnerable immersed in fabric, planes, volumes, lines, excrescences (of the mind too) and disorderly organic activity (oversized nodules, lumps, Wilhendorf buttocks)… her couture deals on a sartorial level with the metaphysical question: what is to be human?.You mention descent and enchantment (“of form”). A heaven and hell. She renders tangible one floating world after another and another…After all: “we are such staff as dreams are made of”. And again, we can not resolve the conflict, its tension, but … i think i better go to the studio and work!

    Thank you again dear friend. I would have never realized any if these thoughts without your “Sympathy and the devil”.

    rafael

  4. So many gems here, Janet. Love your leaps. And phrases and aperçus: “This is the Belle Epoque teetering on the cusp of modernity.” “…here in a space that is neither private nor public but finally only gnarled torment.” “the tea room, a kind of anteroom between public and private, a space that was a friend to women who needed a sanctioned place to meet for an intimate ritual…” And who knew, “The word palliative derives from the Latin for ‘cloak.'” (Makes me think of how the word ‘abrigo,’ in Spanish, both ‘coat’ and ‘shelter.’ Thanks for your treasures…and the reminder to go and see the show!

  5. Lewin Wertheimer says:

    Beautifully written article about a very provocative exhibition and subject. I greatly respect the Hammer and can’t wait to see there newest show. Thank you for more wonderful insights.

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