It was a very nice hospital. It had a view and a private sitting area in the room. I had tubes sticking out. Some to drain fluids, others to pump fluids in. I was given observation and pain management, modern medical euphemisms for the twin social ailments of boredom and drugs. I ended up staying an extra night. Doctors often keep business hours and no one else was authorized to release me. Either as apology or just further negligence, I was treated to an extra night of pain management, melting away creeping anxieties about the logistics of returning to everyday life, and for a while, melting away the desire to return to it.
* * *
Only a few of the hundred or so prints, drawings, etchings, lithographs and watercolors on view in Tea and Morphine actually depict tea and morphine. Mainly these pictures of women, all authored by men, could be released in fin-de-siècle Paris. They are all, frankly, beautiful. It’s a hard pill not swallow. Feminine self-imaging will be calibrated to this for years to come.
The title is intriguing though, conflating image as theme, unifying a range of styles and methods. Tea and Morphine not as opposite ends of a spectrum, but two socially differentiated sides of the same coin. The types are diverse, but the subject is the same. Morphine as morpheme.
Alfredo Müller, Beatrice, c. 1899, Etching and aquatint, 25 x 19 ½ inches (63.5 x 49.5 cm); Collection UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum; Promised Gift of Elisabeth Dean; Photograph by Brian Forrest.
I’m grateful for Mary Cassatt’s 1890 drypoint sketch Tea, her heavy-lidded woman bored but thoughtful. Degas’ picture of Cassatt is striking among the limpid wraiths draped on couches and stout modistes peeking into shop windows. She's standing in front of a painting at the Louvre, leaning on her umbrella like a dandy on his cane, looking louche and confident. I always thought of Mary as Our Man in Paris, the American who got off on a technicality. Her pictures were perhaps no less typically feminine, but certainly less timid and nervous-looking than, say, Berthe Morisot's.
Eugène Grasset, La Vitrioleuse [The Acid Thrower], 1894, Photo-relief with water-color stenciling, 22 7/8 x 18 inches (58.1 x 45.7 cm); Collection UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum; Promised Gift of Elisabeth Dean; Photograph by Brian Forrest
Excerpts from Eugène Grasset’s decorative study of women’s emotions are undeniably the most striking and graphic—graphic in the literal sense: hard lines, blocks of color, easily read. He is not a portraitist but a gleeful taxonomist of misapprehensions. To call the series a "study" at all brings to mind the other, rather oppressive 19th century soft sciences like physiognomy. La Vitrioleuse (1894) is a gorgeous pioneering example of Art Nouveau. More obliquely, the green-hued skin and murderous stare seem to presage the cartoon witch, the feminine Disney villain, visaged with a rainbow of colors. This is probably not a big deal. Sontag considered Art Nouveau pre-eminent camp: silly, delightful, and life-affirming. I feel the same way about cartoons.
But cartoons aren’t real women, are they?
(Image on top: Paul Albert Besnard, Morphinomanes ou Le plumet [Morphine Addicts or The Plume], 1887, Etching, drypoint and aquatint, 12 3/4 x 17 in.; Courtesy of Hammer Museum)