Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 15, 2015
UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880 to 1914 Los Angeles: 2014.
Exhibition schedule: Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, January 25–May 18, 2014
Thumbnail
Large
Eugène Grasset. La Morphinomane (The Morphine Addict) (1897). Color lithograph. 22 1/2 x 16 7/8 inches. Collection UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum. Promised Gift of Elisabeth Dean. Photograph by Brian Forrest.

Parisiennes . . . form an aristocracy among the women of the world,” states the writer and fashion enthusiast Octave Uzanne in the introduction to his 1894 book, La Femme à Paris, nos contemporaines ([The Women of Paris: Our Contemporaries] Paris: Ancienne maison Quantin, 1894, 5; my translation). In this volume, Uzanne assembled a feminine taxonomy describing the city’s residents, ranging from “great ladies” to the working classes. A conservative aesthete who entreated the modern bourgeoisie to revive eighteenth-century aristocratic graces, Uzanne articulated prevailing cultural anxieties about women, who had gained some freedoms by the 1880s and 1890s, yet remained men’s legal and social inferiors. Describing females who had sunk below their station into prostitution, Uzanne said: “First, they dreamed of an advantageous marriage, then of a skilled worker who’d become their lover, then husband and business owner. Instead, all they found was the chance seducer, a few coquettish satisfactions, the cafe-bar (la guinguette), the hovel, wantonness, poverty, and the final fall” (256; my translation). In late nineteenth-century narrations like this, numerous indiscretions could hasten a woman’s “final fall.” One such transgression was morphine addiction. A narcotic first isolated from opium in 1804 and named after Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep, morphine’s effects included languidness, lucid dreams, sensitivity to visual stimuli like color, and powerful dependency. Until the French government regulated its distribution in 1916, a vogue for recreational morphine use in Paris incited public fears of social degeneration. Indeed, many writers of the period published accounts of upper-class morphinomanes, or female addicts, while avant-garde artists and illustrators produced sensational visual images of morphine’s assumed social effects: female destitution and depravity.

The trope of the female drug user was the locus in Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880 to 1914, an exhibition at the Hammer Museum at UCLA that celebrated collector Elizabeth Dean’s gift to the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts of over nine hundred late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century prints, volumes, and ephemera. Independent curator Victoria Dailey and Cynthia Burlingham, director of the Grunwald Center, selected approximately one hundred works by Odilon Redon, Maurice Denis, Jules Chéret, Edgar Degas, and other artists that were meant to demonstrate what Dailey described in a companion essay published in a short brochure as a “strong undercurrent of feminine misery” in late nineteenth-century French culture. The exhibition proposed that tea and morphine—key commodities in Europe’s mid-century Opium Wars with China—be viewed as framing metaphors for this misery: the former representing restrictive bourgeois parlor mœurs, and the latter representing an intemperate urban world without them.

These fears were starkly displayed in the exhibition’s entry room. Prints by artists such as Paul Albert Besnard and Henri Boutet rendered women’s plight through social realism and editorial melodrama. An 1897 color lithograph entitled La Morphinomane (The Morphine Addict) by Eugène Grasset was undoubtedly the room’s centerpiece. In acid yellow and green, it presented a frantic-looking young woman injecting morphine into her bared thigh with a hypodermic syringe, and illustrated Dailey’s argument that women made up a majority of morphine addicts in late nineteenth-century Paris. The theme of morphine and tea receded in the following rooms, as prints, musical scores, dinner invitations, theater handbills, and books on various subjects underscored Tea and Morphine’s status as an acquisition show. If these works often diverged thematically from the exhibition’s main narcotic focus, they showed how artists deployed the female form to illustrate allegorical, nationalistic, and religious subjects. Many of the works first appeared in multi-artist portfolios like L’Estampe originale and L’Estampe moderne: collections produced by fine-art printing firms to showcase new technologies like brilliantly colored lithographs and older printing traditions like woodcuts. Large-scale wall quotes by authors such as Charles Baudelaire and Charles Hichens set the rooms’ tenor, but clearly Uzanne’s classifications influenced the curatorial decisions, and brought their own sets of associations. As Debora Silverman has described in her book Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siècle France: Politics, Psychology, and Style (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), Uzanne’s work helped to spur hostilities both toward the burgeoning French feminist movement and toward the femmes nouvelles: educated bourgeois women who—without necessarily campaigning for women’s legal rights—threatened detractors by flouting Third Republic guidelines for feminine dress and comportment.

Thus, following Uzanne, Tea and Morphine summoned a cross-section of familiar Parisian female archetypes loosely arranged according to the nineteenth-century dichotomy between the domestic and public spheres. A room concerned with the latter offered pictures of women attending salons, participating in popular entertainments like bals and circuses, and walking the boulevards. The bourgeois femme nouvelle shared space with working-class types: the prostitute and the shop girl. In Félix Vallotton’s 1894 woodcut, La Modiste (The Milliner), black-clad salesgirls and female patrons assessed and caressed the merchandise in a spindly forest of hat stands, the admiring hand gesture here an emblematic common denominator for women, who—regardless of class—were articulated as both consumers and consumed in capitalism’s cash nexus. In another 1895 color lithograph, Rayons de chaussures (The Shoe Department) by the anarchist artist Hermann René Georges Paul (called Hermann-Paul), a salesgirl thrust an accusing index finger at a well-heeled bourgeois couple: a wordless altercation whose framing wall of shoeboxes graphically reiterated the economic divide. Both of these prints manifested a potential subtheme of the exhibition: the artistic depiction of encounters between women of different classes, and in some cases—as implied with several images of the Japanese theater performer Sada Yacco, who performed in Paris around 1900—between women of different nationalities.

Works that introduced Symbolist and other literary motifs, and that drew upon fin-de-siècle aesthetics like japonisme—inspired by the Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock print—were integrated in the show’s thematic rooms. In the last gallery, one such color lithograph by George Auriol (a popular artist and graphic designer associated with Art Nouveau), entitled Je veux de la poudre et des balles (I Want Gunpowder and Bullets), presented a portrait of a dark-haired young girl framed in profile against a sunny, rural backdrop. Its title refers to Victor Hugo’s 1829 poem, “L’Enfant” (“The Child”), in which the poem’s narrator discovers a Greek boy sitting alone in the smoldering ruins of a town that has been destroyed by the Turkish Army during the Greek War of Independence. When offered a series of symbolic trifles to allay his suffering, the boy demurs, replying, “I want gunpowder and bullets.” Strikingly, Auriol has transformed the gender of Hugo’s child. With her cool, level gaze and colorful kerchief, Auriol’s young girl is neither the salacious prostitute nor the bored bourgeois. Made in 1897, just three years after a wave of anarchist bombings gripped Paris, and after the government had enacted legislation targeting radical organizations, the print’s grim, retributive undertone recalls that women in this period were also political militants. I think of the Communard, schoolteacher, and anarchist Louise Michel, who was deported to the French territories for her activities, and who returned to France to publish and lecture widely on socialism and anarchism before large audiences throughout the 1880s and 1890s. Her 1905 funeral in Paris drew thousands of mourners, a crowd surpassed only by Victor Hugo’s funeral twenty years prior. Sadly, the exhibition made slight mention of radical figures of the era like Michel, giving prominence instead to the so-called vitrioleuses: jealous women who disfigured romantic rivals with acid, or vitriol. The exhibition was comfortable portraying women more or less as male artists sometimes presented them: as desperate, circumstantial victims of the conditions of their own subjugation. Nowhere was it acknowledged that women might have actively and successfully worked to abolish these conditions.

I invoke the specter of Michel not to fault Tea and Morphine for—comme Uzanne—privileging select forms of female experience over others. To be sure, the exhibition faithfully cataloged a diverse range of salient Third Republic artistic tropes and materials. Rather, I would return to the show’s premise and caution against taking the artworks for granted as embodiments of social truths. Certainly images of female despair and deviance commanded part of the fin-de-siècle cultural imaginary. But the realities—of morphine abuse, for instance—may have diverged from artistic portrayals, and therefore from Tea and Morphine’s curatorial assertions. Historians like Virginia Berridge, Jean-Jacques Yvorel, and Jesper Vaczy Kragh have suggested that the largest demographic of nineteenth-century morphine users were male physicians, i.e., those with the professional access and the financial means to procure the drug (Virginia Berridge, Opium and the People: Opiate Use and Drug Control Policy in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century England, London: Free Association Books, 1999; Jesper Vaczy Kragh, “Women, Men, and the Morphine Problem, 1870–1955,” in Teresa Ortiz-Gómez and María Jesús Santesmases, eds., Gendered Drugs and Medicine: Historical and Socio-Cultural Perspectives, Burlington: Ashgate, 2014; Jean-Jacques Yvorel, “La Morphinée,” Communications 56, no. 1 (1993): 105–13). Furthermore, I would question the emphasis on women as the primary shareholders in French fin-de-siècle misery, tout court. Many scholars argue that a range of factors in this era contributed to an endemic, culture-wide malaise—or to use the period’s pervasive term, neurasthenia—that affected men and women both. These factors included the 1892 Panama financial scandals, the nationalist upheavals precipitated by the Dreyfus affair, bourgeois fears of the increasingly radicalized working classes, and a stagnant birthrate (a problem that directly implicated women)—all subjects bypassed by the exhibition.

Following this diagnostic line, I wondered why the sensationalist, Baz Luhrmannesque fantasy of “feminine misery” was not supplanted by a broader, inclusive theme attentive to such political, social, and economic factors. For although it is unclear whether or not the Elizabeth Dean Collection could have supported such an exhibition framework, it seemed apparent that to circumvent these realities merely reinforced the surface assumptions and cultural anxieties that some of the show’s pieces were arguably so symptomatic of. Nonetheless, Tea and Morphine presented a compelling assortment of excellent works, such that we may be optimistic about the prospect of future exhibitions drawn from the Dean Collection.

Avigail Moss
PhD candidate, Department of Art History, University of Southern California

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.