понедельник, 21 июля 2008 г.

Overwhelmingly throughout the development of the impressionist

movement the story is one of colour: the discovery of colour

after staid classical representations, the need for brighter colours,

the representation of colour. It is tempting to think of this as the

result of absinthe-induced hallucinogenic experiences, and indeed

the desire for brighter colours to represent what the painters saw

in their mind’s eye may have been influenced by absinthe.

There are other interpretations, however. Van Gogh and other

impressionists were interested in advances in the understanding of

perception, such as the effect of the complementarity of colours on

the eye of the observer creating darker or lighter effects, from the

application of knowledge of the spectrum.

The period also saw advances in chemistry which permitted not

only the mass production of a wider range of oil-based pigments,

but the manufacture of tube paints which could be carried about

and resealed, thus vastly simplifying the process of outdoor painting

and allowing artists to paint colours illuminated by the brightest

light there was: the sun.

Van Gogh would be outside all the time, painting a canvas

so large that when he was carrying it people would think it was a

signboard. He would be sitting slashing away at his canvas with

energetic brush strokes, shouting and gesticulating in his excitement,

to the amused interest of passers-by, though van Gogh had

long since learned not to care what others thought of him. Even

other artists, he considered, ‘disgust me as men’.7

Theo suffered agonies from van Gogh’s disordered life. His

brother was argumentative and appallingly untidy in his habits; he

said Vincent seemed to be ‘two persons; one, marvellously gifted,

delightful, gentle, the other egoistical and hard-hearted’.8 Van Gogh

had a supreme sense of artistic mission coupled with a painful

emotional sensitivity; he was never going to find living in the real

world easy. To steel him for its rigours he drank more and more

heavily. As he said, ‘if the storm within gets too loud, I take a glass

too much to stun myself’.9 He was suffering the upset stomach

characteristic of the absinthe drinker, though in van Gogh’s case his

poor eating habits and nervous irritation contributed to the gastric

ulcer from which he suffered.

Van Gogh departed on February 1888 for Arles in Southern

France on the advice of Toulouse-Lautrec, who had spent time in

the Midi as a child and spoke of its light and wide open spaces.

Coincidentally, Arles had the highest absinthe consumption of any

region in France: four times the national average.10 His departure

from Paris was the beginning of van Gogh’s most creative, and most

disturbed, period. Paris had promised the security of a brotherhood

of like-minded artists, but in fact had offered a parade of egoists

and largely empty theorists. Away from the petty artistic politics

and the theorising of Paris, van Gogh could concentrate on artistic


Van Gogh wrote of Arles, ‘In all honesty I have to add that the

Zouaves [soldiers], the brothels, the adorable little Arles girls on

their way to their first communion, the priest in his surplice who

looks like a dangerous rhinoceros, the absinthe drinkers, all seem

to me creatures from another world’.11

He wrote to his sister of the colours he was using: ‘Now the

palette is distinctly colourful, sky-blue, orange, pink, vermilion, a

very bright yellow, bright green, wine-red, violet’.12 Most of van

Gogh’s most successful paintings were created here, of boats at Arles,

the bridge at Arles, a starry night on the Rhône, a café at night. Van

Gogh often worked from morning till night, with tremendous speed

under the burning sun.

At night he would go to a café and drink and smoke with

desperate determination. He depicted one of these low dives in The

All-night Café, which depicts the Café de la Gare, where he slept

when he first arrived at Arles because, though he had rented a

house, he could not afford a bed. These all-night cafés were places

where night prowlers could take refuge and sleep slumped over a

table if they could not afford to pay for a night in a doss house, or

were too drunk to be taken in. Van Gogh remarked that he ‘tried

to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself,

go mad or commit a crime’.13 The artist stayed up for three

nights, painting in the café and sleeping during the day, telling the

landlord he would paint ‘the whole of his rotten joint’.

The glare of the lights and the brilliance of the colours show

something of van Gogh’s vision:

the room is blood red and dark yellow, with a green billiard table

in the middle; there are four citron-yellow lamps with a glow of

orange and green. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the

most disparate reds and greens in the figures of little sleeping

hooligans, in the empty, dreary room, in violet and blue.

He described to Emile Bernard how he saw colour:

I was in a brothel here last Sunday – not counting other days – a

large room, the walls covered with blued whitewash – like a

village school. Fifty or more military men in red and civilians in

black, their faces a magnificent yellow or organe (what hues there

are in the faces here), the women in sky blue, in vermillion, as

unqualified and garish as possible. The whole in a yellow light.14

He later advises Bernard, ‘Painting and fucking a lot are not compatible;

it weakens the brain’.15

The artist Paul Signac visited van Gogh in March 1889 and later

described the way he had lived, ‘returning home after having

passed all day in the sun, in torrid heat, and having no real house

in that town, he took a place on the terrasse of the café. Then the

eaus-de-vie and absinthe succeeded each other at a steady pace.’16

Van Gogh compared his drinking habits to those of the

Marseilles impressionist Adolphe Monticelli, who had inspired him

with his flower paintings. Monticelli lived in Paris from 1863, where

he received a commission from Napoleon III for the Palace of the

Tuilleries. The Franco–Prussian War in 1870 put paid to his career as

a court painter, and he returned to Marseilles, living in increasing

poverty and disorder, which worsened when he suffered a stroke

and was paralysed in 1883. He was said to have had furtive drinking

habits, as if he were ashamed of himself. One of his biographers described

how he would tiptoe furtively onto the street, and suddenly

duck into a café, where he would sit on a bench in a dark corner with

an absinthe and ‘head back, eyes ecstatic, sip in little mouthfuls of

his Ambrosia’.17 A fellow artist, Jules Monge, painted him in 1884,

two years before his death, in the process of mixing his absinthe.

When he heard of Monticelli’s death, supposedly from ‘absinthe

consumption’ (though he was not in good health and was 62),

van Gogh wrote that he ‘doubted more and more the truth of

the legend that Monticelli took enormous quantities of absinthe.

Considering his work, it doesn’t seem possible to me that a man

weakened by drink can do such things.’18

Van Gogh’s only good friend in Arles was Joseph Roulin, the

Arles postal agent (whom van Gogh called the postman), also a

man given to many absinthes. Van Gogh was obviously brooding

on Monticelli for he wrote,

I so often think of Monticelli, and when my mind dwells on the

stories going around about his death, it seems to me that not only

must you exclude the idea of his dying a drunkard in the sense

of being besotted by drink, but you must realise that here as a

matter of course one spends one’s life in the open air and in cafés

far more than in the North. My friend the postman, for instance,

lives a great deal in cafés, and is certainly more or less of a drinker,

and has been so all his life. But he is so much the reverse of a sot,

his exaltation is so natural, so intelligent, and he argues with such

sweep, in the style of Garibaldi, that I gladly reduce the legend

of Monticelli the drunkard on absinthe to exactly the same proportions

as my postman’s

In this van Gogh plays the familiar alcoholic’s mental trick of comparing

himself (or Monticelli in his stead) not to sober people or to

occasional drinkers but to other alcoholics.

He referred somewhat defensively to Monticelli when he wrote,

You can be fairly sure that the Marseilles artist who committed

suicide did not in any way do it as the result of absinthe, for the

simple reason that no one would have offered it to him and he

couldn’t have had anything to buy it with. Besides, he would

drink it not solely for pleasure, but because, being ill already, he

needed it to keep himself going.20

The use of the term ‘suicide’ is a grim portent in terms of van Gogh’s

life. It is quite inappropriate in reference to Monticelli, unless there

is some figurative meaning that Monticelli’s drinking contributed to

the cerebro-vascular attacks which left him paralysed. In fact he died

in the early morning of 29 June 1886 at the home of his cousins, who

were looking after him. Drinking may well have contributed, but

this was the death of a man who had already suffered two strokes.21

Van Gogh painted a still life with onions showing a bottle of

absinthe, a pitcher of water, his pipe and tobacco, a candle, a letter

from his brother and a copy of Health Annual, whose advice about

camphor in the pillow he used to treat his insomnia . Marie-Claude

Delahaye and Benoît Noël suggest that the bottle of absinthe and

the water, at opposite sides of the table, symbolise choices in life

between good and bad for van Gogh to make.22

Van Gogh always hankered after inclusion, for a community

which would contain and support him. He hoped to form a

working community of ‘Impressionists of the South’ based at his

house in Arles, but only Gauguin was willing to join him, more for

personal reasons of poverty than because he shared van Gogh’s

vision of community; Gauguin was far from being a team player.

Van Gogh was, moreover, completely lacking in the leadership

qualities which would make the dream of a ‘brotherhood of artists’

possible. Van Gogh, in his usual, wheedling way, persuaded his

brother to pay Gauguin’s debts to free him to come to Arles, so poor

Theo now had two unstable artists to support.

Gauguin thus went to Arles in October 1888. He was another

egoist full of his own vision of himself and of art, but a man with

striking differences from van Gogh, though like his friend Gauguin

came to painting late. He was born in 1848, so was five years older

than van Gogh and was a flamboyant, commanding figure, though

small of stature. He was born in Paris, but his mother was Spanish-

Peruvian and he spent some of his boyhood in Lima, so he was

used to travel from an early age. He was sailing the world in the

merchant navy from 1865 to 1871, and was on a fighting ship

during the Franco–Prussian war. At the age of 23 he turned to a

business career, taking a job with the stockbroking firm of Bertin

on the Paris Bourse, where for more than a decade he made a

generous income. He was an ideal bourgeois of the belle époque,

making big money fast on speculative business ventures and establishing

a home with his young wife, Mette Sophie Gad, from a

comfortable Danish family.

Very much in the mould of the Second Empire bourgeois,

Gauguin liked to dabble in art. The art which this bourgeois collected,

however, was impressionist – the work of Cezanne, Manet,

Renoir, Monet and Pissarro. He became a Sunday painter who

developed such skill that his work, with Pissarro’s sponsorship,

was exhibited in the fourth show organised by the impressionists

in 1879.

When the Paris stock exchange crashed in 1883, Gauguin

decided not to look for another bourgeois job but to devote his life

to art, a decision which his wife considered a monumental betrayal,

for she had married a wealthy, middle-class man and had four children

with him in good faith (with another on the way) and now

found herself wedded to an impoverished artist. Soon the family

moved to Copenhagen to stay with Mette’s parents, and in 1885

Gauguin went alone to Paris to follow his chosen path.

By the time he met van Gogh, his savings long gone, Gauguin

was virtually starving. He wanted to go back to the tropics, where

he could engage with brilliant colour and with a notion he had

of the elemental roots of art, which could be divined in ‘primitive’

societies. He travelled to Taboga and Martinique, dogged by

poverty, disease and harried by the police. After four months he

returned to Paris in poor physical shape but with several canvases.

He stayed with Emile Schuffenecker, another stockbroker-turnedartist,

though one account says he had to leave Paris in a hurry

when his benefactor started to suspect Gauguin was having an

affair with his wife. In early 1888 he travelled to the Brittany port

of Pont-Aven, which the colours of the picturesque landscape made

a haunt of artists.

Here he found company with Emile Bernard, a teenaged artist

from Lille who had been thrown out of Cormon’s studio in Paris.

He then experimented with pointillism under the influence of Paul

Signac, but the two quarrelled and Bernard destroyed his pointillist

works. Before he arrived at Pont-Aven, Bernard had been

making drawings with the simplicity of stained glass or wood cuts,

with flat colours and bold lines. A critic had named such work

‘cloisonnisme’, after the enamel work whose bold colours were

separated by metal cloisons. Bernard’s work, with its strong forms

and excessively simplified drawing, was to influence Gauguin; the

younger artist had made the conceptual leap in looking at stained

glass and folk art that reality was being created in non-imitative

forms. Gauguin and he therefore moved away from trying to recreate

an actual scene with paint, and instead explored the capacity

of pictures to induce the feeling inspired by the scene. Gauguin

received the credit for this development, though Bernard was

further advanced on the path when they met in Pont-Aven.

The movement thus created formed part of synthetism, an

artistic expression of the literary movement symbolism (though

confusingly Gauguin is sometimes referred to as a symbolist painter).

The origin of the movement can be dated to 1886, with the inspiration

of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, published that year in the

symbolist review La Vogue. The artistic objective (similar to the

transcendent ambitions of Rimbaud’s verse) was the expression

of ideas, mood and emotion through paint and the rejection of

naturalistic representation. As with symbolism in literature,


H i d e o u s A b s i n t h e

synthetism was moving a section of creative life in a direction in

which it was already proceeding, and it would be vain to quantify

the contribution made by absinthe. However, the realistic edge given

to thoughts, dreams and hallucinations by the green fairy also made

its contribution to an art of ideas. In 1889 Gauguin and other artists

from Pont-Aven were to exhibit their works as synthetist painters.

Van Gogh urged both Gauguin and Bernard to join his community

in Arles, but Bernard was unavailable, as he had been

called up for military service. Gauguin was destitute and not in

good humour, as he had been unable to seduce Bernard’s sister

Madeleine, so was only too ready for Theo’s offer to help send him

to Arles.

The brief time van Gogh and Gauguin spent together (it was

two months) is one of the most discussed in art history. It is worth

dwelling on because it is a tale of madness, and if madness is the

consequence of drinking absinthe, this is one of the prime and most

frequently cited examples.

Gauguin’s domineering, arrogant personality acted as a stabilising

force on van Gogh, who was almost pathetically pleased to

have a fellow artist to work with. Gauguin organised such essentials

as van Gogh’s chaotic working space, where tubes of paint were

left without their caps on to be trodden underfoot, and van Gogh

would spend money he could not afford on buying paint he

already had but could not find in the mess. Gauguin also imposed

some kind of discipline on their spending, with a shared petty-cash

box and a list of necessary expenses, headed by such essentials

as visits to the brothel and tobacco. Gauguin painted one of their

haunts, Café de nuit à Arles, in which the manager sits at a table

with her glass of absinthe, water and sugar cubes before her.

Nearby three prostitutes sit with Roulin, and a man is slumped over

another table with his head in his hands.

However much order was being injected into his life, Gauguin’s

presence also put van Gogh under intense pressure, because he so

believed in the notion of a community of artists to make him feel

less alone. It was his responsibility to please Gauguin in every way

and keep him in Arles. This was a vain hope, for Gauguin was not

an individual with a need for a fixed home; while he was with van

Gogh he longed to be back in the tropics.

This fear of Gauguin’s departure, coupled with differences

in artistic approach, exacerbated van Gogh’s drinking. Overall,

Gauguin’s influence was to increase van Gogh’s intake of absinthe

and his visits to local brothels. Both men drank, but Gauguin tended

to binges, van Gogh drank solidly. He wrote to a friend describing

van Gogh as ‘an excellent fellow who is sick, who suffers, and who

asked for me. Remember the life of Edgar Allen Poe who became an

alcoholic as a result of grief and a nervous condition.’23 One evening,

after Gauguin had completed a portrait of his companion which

Van Gogh lamented was ‘I gone mad’, they went to the café, where

van Gogh (according to Gauguin’s account with no provocation)

threw his glass of absinthe at him. Gauguin frogmarched him back

to the house, where van Gogh fell asleep, the next day having no

good recollection of the event.

Both the sudden onset of this violence and van Gogh’s quiescence

and hazy memory afterwards suggest a psychotic episode.

Whatever the cause, Gauguin had had enough, and wrote to

Theo that he wanted to leave. He vacillated following van Gogh’s

exhortations, but both knew the end had come.

The crisis came soon after, on the evening of 23 December 1888.

Gauguin’s account is that he went for a walk in a nearby public

garden after dinner and van Gogh came rushing up behind him

with an open razor. He says he frightened van Gogh off and went

to sleep in a hotel, returning to the yellow house the next morning

to find a crowd and a policeman, who asked, ‘What have you done

to your comrade?’ They followed a trail of blood upstairs to van

Gogh’s room, where he lay apparently dead under bloodied sheets.

To general relief, he was alive.

It later became clear how the attention of the police had been

attracted to the event: late on the night of 23 December, van Gogh,

bloody and distracted, had gone to a brothel he frequented and

asked for a prostitute called Rachel. On her appearance he gave her

a part of his ear, saying she should ‘guard this object carefully’. His

friend Roulin was at the brothel, and dragged him home.

Gauguin left forthwith, a departure which has led to speculation

that the notoriously hot-blooded Gauguin attacked van Gogh with

one of the fencing foils he had brought with him after an absinthefuelled

argument about his wish to leave.24 It is significant in this

interpretation that Gauguin did not tell the police van Gogh had

approached him with an open razor; this element of the story appears

only in Gauguin’s memoir Avant et Après.

A benign explanation of this violent domestic dispute is that van

Gogh began to flash the razor around the house, threatening to

do himself damage if Gauguin left, and Gauguin went away in

order that he was not responsible for the consequences. He had

often awoken to find van Gogh in the room staring at him while

he slept, so he had reason to fear attack, even though he was by far

the stronger man.

The conventional view, and the most likely one, is that after

Gauguin’s departure from the scene van Gogh had mutilated

himself by slicing off almost his entire left ear with a razor, causing

a prodigious loss of blood. Theo arrived soon after Gauguin

left Arles, and van Gogh was committed to hospital to the care of

a Dr Rey. Roulin visited and wrote to Theo, ‘I think he is lost. Not

only is his mind affected, but he is very weak and downhearted.’

Dr Rey, not a specialist in mental illness, and struggling with

the limited conceptual framework of contemporary medicine,

diagnosed that his patient was suffering from a form of epilepsy

(then considered a mental illness) provoked by a combination of

bad diet and absinthe and aggravated by overwork and excessive

amounts of coffee.25

He was allowed to leave the hospital after two weeks, and

resumed painting but his behaviour was again bizarre, showing

signs of paranoia such as refusing to eat because he believed his

food was poisoned. The townspeople of Arles were also alarmed

at his conduct: they accused him of drinking too much and of

being a threat. Women were said to be frightened because he

‘indulges in touching them and also makes obscene remarks in

their presence’.26

He had some understanding of his state, saying ‘I am unable to

look after myself and control myself, I feel quite different from what

I used to be’.27 He agreed to be admitted as a voluntary patient

to St Paul-de-Mausole Asylum for the Alienated where he was

diagnosed as ‘suffering from acute mania with hallucinations of

sight and hearing’.28

A diagnosis of insanity gave van Gogh the freedom to cease his

internal struggle to keep up appearances, and he became prey to

intermittent bouts of psychosis: he went into Dr Rey’s bathroom

once when the physician was shaving with an open razor and

offered to do it for him; after a walk with an attendant who accompanied

him while he painted, van Gogh kicked the man in the

stomach, saying he was compelled to do it because the Arles police

were after him. All this adds to the picture given by Gauguin and

the Arles townspeople of an unstable and potentially dangerous


Far more alarming, and perhaps more revealing than these

general paranoid experiences, were the episodes which were peculiar

to van Gogh as an artist. In March 1889 Paul Signac took his

friend out of the hospital and to his old house to look at his

pictures. He had to rush van Gogh back to hospital because he was

trying to drink turpentine. On two other occasions van Gogh had

an attack in which he started eating the paint from his tubes. His

carers interpreted this as a suicide attempt. More creatively, one

could see it as a psychotic delusion – perhaps a notion that he

would become a greater painter by internalising the paint.

Van Gogh has been variously diagnosed, retrospectively, as

having a psychosis, cerebral tumour, syphilis, magnesium deficiency,

manic depression, temporal lobe epilepsy, toxic psychosis, acute

intermittent porphyria, chronic sunstroke, poison by digitalis (which

could have provoked the yellow vision) and glaucoma (some selfportraits

show a dilated right pupil, and he depicted coloured halos

around lights).29 Even if some of these diagnoses are accurate (and

there is general agreement on psychosis), they are hardly adequate

to explain van Gogh’s style, though they may have had some influence,

as may the altered perceptions caused by absinthe.

In depictions of madness it is important too to allow the patient

his voice. Van Gogh’s view was that his insanity was caused by his

desperate devotion to his work, to push himself further into the

unknown in creativity. As he said in one of the last things he wrote,

‘Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it and my reason has

half foundered because of it’.30

The biochemist Wilfred Niels Arnold has made a study of van

Gogh at this period, and he considers that family members and

others have acknowledged the contribution of van Gogh’s drinking

habits to his failing health, ‘but they have confused the literature

by missing or underestimating his proclivity for absinthe (and its

damaging components in addition to alcohol)’.31

Arnold points to the substance known as thujone for absinthe’s

addictive and psychodynamic properties. Chemists have defined

the constituents of many essential oils, including the terpenes, a

family of chemicals which are found in the basic constituents of

absinthe: pinocamphone found in hyssop; fenchone from fennel

and, most importantly, thujone from wormwood. Thujone is the

major constituent of wormwood oil, making up 90 per cent of the

oil’s weight.

Arnold describes the action of thujone: ‘the compound causes

marked excitement of the autonomic nervous system, followed by

unconsciousness and convulsions’.32 Certainly wormwood, or the

thujone in it, was the key ingredient of absinthe. However, Arnold

elegantly fits other aspects of van Gogh’s illness into a framework

of the artist’s physical dependence on terpenes.

While recovering in the Arles hospital from the damage he had

done to his ear he was suffering from insomnia, but was fighting it

himself ‘with a very, very strong dose of camphor in my pillow and

mattress’.33 Camphor oil is a terpene with a similar structure to

thujone, and indeed the margin between convulsant and fatal doses

is narrower for camphor than for thujone.

The craving for terpenes also explains van Gogh’s attempting

to drink turpentine (containing pinene) and the bizarre episodes

where he ate his paints (whose solvent was turpentine). Van Gogh’s

need for thujone, then, developed into a generalised craving for

terpenes when the most easily accessible form – absinthe – was not

available because of hospital restrictions.

Van Gogh therefore was demonstrating a pica, a craving for

unnatural foods, which was associated with his heavy use of

absinthe. This throws no light on van Gogh as an artist, but a great

deal on the debate surrounding the addictiveness of absinthe. Were

others similarly addicted not only to alcohol, but to the terpene oil

in absinthe as well?

Arnold considers van Gogh’s ‘madness’ was caused by porphyria,

a metabolic condition characterised by a marked increase

in the formation and excretion of porphyrins. His proposal has

received experimental support from a team at the University of

Massachusetts Medical Centre who tested camphor, pinene and

thujone for their ability to produce porphyria in those with a liver

condition which predisposed them to it.34

The rest of van Gogh’s story is sadly familiar: he was deemed

cured in 1890 after a year in the asylum and sent, in apparently

good health, to the picturesque village of Auvers-sur-Oise, just north

of Paris. There he was under the care of Dr Gachet, a specialist in

mental illness and a friend to many artists. The daughter of the

house where van Gogh lodged above a café later reported in a

memoir of him that he did not drink while he was with them, and

as he ate meals in the café where she helped out, she would have

known. One of the village youths, however, said he was drinking

with them, and grew talkative when he did so.

He painted around the town and in wheat fields in the surrounding

countryside. His mental state began to decline, and he

obtained a revolver, perhaps stolen from the hunting bag of the

youths he met, perhaps loaned to him in order to scare off the

crows which troubled him while he was painting. He went out into

the fields on 27 July 1890 and shot himself in the chest. He did not

die, but returned to the café where he lodged and made his way

upstairs, to the alarm of the proprietor. The bullet had missed vital

organs, but infection set in and van Gogh died after two days.

He was buried in the graveyard at Auvers-sur-Oise. Theo outlived

him by only six months, dying of a kidney infection complicated

by a weak heart. He was buried at Utrecht, but was later exhumed

and reinterred beside his brother. The village is now home to a

museum commemorating van Gogh’s time there and a Museum of


Emile Bernard organised an exhibition of van Gogh’s work,

though he was expanding his creative horizons and began to study

mysticism and philosophy. He left for Constantinople in 1893, then

settled in Egypt for 10 years. He returned in 1904 to found and edit

an arts review, La Rénovation Esthétique. He died in Paris at the age

of 73 in 1941.

Theo’s widow Johanna worked tirelessly to establish van Gogh’s

posthumous reputation. It is the stuff of art legend that the man

who sold only one painting in his lifetime had produced work

which, a hundred years later, sold for staggering sums: a self portrait

sold for $65 million at Christie’s New York in 1998.

Gauguin’s Travels

After van Gogh’s death, Gauguin struggled to return to the south

seas, at one time hoping Theo would fund the trip. His life is often

interpreted as that of a stockbroker who threw it all up to be an

artist and to travel. In fact, Gauguin had been travelling all his

life; it was settling down to be a stockbroker for 12 years which was

the aberration, not his wanderings, which began in 1851 when he

was four years old and on his way to Lima. Nor did he truly give

up the bourgeois role of buying and selling for his bread: Gauguin

was convinced that the time was right in modern art for him to be

able to make a killing on the art market, a prediction which was

nearly correct.

In recognition of their contribution to contemporary culture, and

of their poverty, the Théâtre d’Art gave two benefit performances

on 20 and 21 May 1891 in aid of Verlaine and Gauguin. They were

a sell-out, though after expenses the returns were disappointing

and Gauguin was not, as he had hoped, able to fund his trip to

Tahiti with the money raised. He was already on his way by the

time of the benefit, and what money was raised went to the visibly

needy Verlaine.

Gauguin hadn’t forgotten how to work the system to ensure

favourable treatment – he obtained a letter of ‘official mission’ from

the French government to give him a reduction in his fare and

respectful treatment by colonial officials. However, when he

arrived in the south seas, far from feting him as a great artist come

to immortalise them, the French authorities regarded Gauguin

with disdain.

He had made his voyage because he believed the primordial

secrets of artistic truth were to be found in primitive cultures, and

was looking for noble savages. He actually found drunkenness and

syphilis. Moreover, there was no easy life in this supposed tropical

paradise. The islanders grew their own food and a Chinese merchant

sold such imported delicacies as canned food. Gauguin could

have hunted, but the noble savage, he found, would spend his

entire time in hunting, leaving nothing for painting.

Far from leaving the petty demands of money behind him,

Gauguin was increasingly fixated on the monthly arrival of the mail

boat with its promise of letters and money from France. He married

a native girl of 13 in a local ceremony, and Teha’amana moved

into his bamboo hut to cater for his needs, though she would still

meet native lovers when she went out into the bush to gather fruit.

Gauguin produced 60 paintings, though was unable to keep

himself by the sale of his art, and money left for him in France was

embezzled. After two-and-a-half years he was granted free repatriation

to France, leaving another young wife weeping for him.

Another symbolist exhibition was greeted with mirth by the

critics, but at least Gauguin gained some financial security from the

will of an uncle. He set up a salon, where Degas, Mallarmé and

others gathered to hear his travellers’ tales, and he was comforted

by his new girlfriend, a 13-year-old Indian-Malay girl called Annah.

On a trip to Brittany, he responded to racist insults aimed at

Annah and was brutally beaten by Breton sailors, receiving a severe

injury to his ankle which was never to heal properly. Back in Paris

after two months’ convalescence in Pont-Aven, he found his apartment

had been ransacked for any valuables by Annah, who had

subsequently departed. He set up an auction of his work (Annah

hadn’t considered that valuable) and returned to Tahiti in 1895.

The syphilis from which he was probably already suffering

when he first went to the island had worsened, his leg injury

caused him suffering, and Teha’amana had since remarried. She

returned to Gauguin briefly, but soon went back, appalled to find

that her foreign husband was now covered with running sores.35

He was still able to tempt girls with alcohol and small gifts,

however; he wrote ‘every night skittish young girls invade my

bed – three of them yesterday to keep me busy.’36 He soon found

another 13-year-old, Pau’ura a Tai, to live with him. In 1897 he

wrote about the joys of south-sea life,

just to sit here at the open door, smoking a cigarette and drinking

a glass of absinthe, is an unmixed pleasure which I have every day.

And then I have a fifteen-year-old wife who cooks my simple

everyday fare and goes down on her back for me whenever I

want, all for the modest reward of a frock, worth ten francs a


Poverty again overcame him, and his difficulties were exacerbated

by the death of his teenage daughter Aline from pneumonia. She

was the only one of his family who kept faith with him, who had

told him ‘I shall be your wife’. In response to her death he produced

one of his largest and finest paintings: Where do we come from? What

are we? Where are we going? Shortly after completing it he walked into

the hills behind his hut and swallowed the arsenic powder he had

been prescribed for his syphilis sores. It was too great a dose and

he regurgitated it, ‘condemned,’ as he put it, ‘to live’.38

M a d m e n o f A r t


He took a job in the Tahitian public-works department as a

clerk and did some work of satirical journalism. His poverty was

alleviated in 1900 at the age of 51 when the Parisian art dealer

Ambroise Vollard offered to buy all his future paintings and to give

him an advance.

Sick and in pain, despised by the natives and Europeans alike,

he left for Hiva Oa in the Marquesas, where he said he hoped to

find ‘unspoiled’ native life. He may, however, have felt obliged to

leave, as one of his acquaintances said, because no woman in Tahiti

would have sex with him any more, so disgusting were his syphilis

sores and ‘the women of the Marquesas were poorer and more

savage, and he would have better opportunities there’. Another

friend was recorded as saying Gauguin one day returned triumphant

from a trip to Papeete (the capital). ‘He had heard that

in the Marquesas you could still buy a girl model for a handful of

sweets! He ordered a sackful.’39

He acquired a new girlfriend, Vaeoho, aged 14, and continued

painting. He would sometimes have friends round, including a

former infantry sergeant and a native carpenter, for dinner and an

evening of absinthe. He had a bitter dispute with the local Catholic

priest, who tried to stop native girls from going to his hut, which

he had called Maison du Jouir, ‘House of Pleasure’. The artist

responded by trying to get the natives to stop sending their children

to school.

The idyllic life included prodigious amounts of absinthe, and it

was his favourite drink, but how important was it? Rum was 2.50

francs a litre, while absinthe was 7 francs a bottle. It is reasonable

to assume that when money was tight, Gauguin drank rum. In one

four-month period, according to the records of a Hiva Oa merchant,

Gauguin bought ‘25 litres of absinthe and assorted spirits’ (my emphasis).

He also bought 202 litres of red wine and 80 bottles of beer.40

If absinthe is claimed to have made a contribution to his artistic

vision, why not beer or wine?

There was diminishing fun, and increasing quarrels with the

local authorities, the church and the police. Finally Gauguin died

alone in his hut at the age of 53 in 1903. At the auction after his

death, one canvas sold for 7 francs; some canvases, deemed indecent,

were burned.

Gauguin was always sufficiently a bourgeois to have an eye on

the market which he declared was there for exotic pictures from the

south seas. He was correct: after his death, his wife and children

were able to live in increasing comfort because of the rising value

of his paintings, which fed a market eager for a different kind of

exoticism after enjoying itself to the full on the oriental. Whatever

his failings as a husband and father while alive, Gauguin made up

for it after death.

His contribution to the development of art was his move away

from the conception of a picture as an image of an actual scene and

therefore away from impressionism. He had continually nagged

van Gogh to get away from representation in art and paint from

his imagination. Gauguin was interested in the capacity of pictures

not to re-create a scene but to invoke a feeling. He was more

interested in a conceptual method of representation, and in this

prefigured the development of art in the twentieth century.

As with Verlaine, it is questionable how much of Gauguin’s

behaviour had anything to do with absinthe, or even to do with

drinking. Artists developed an admirable distancing to preserve

the quality of their art from the contamination of bourgeois values.

This quickly turned into an artistic moral exceptionism in which

drinking to excess and sex without regard to the human consequences

were acceptable, and even became a necessary part of the

artistic pose. At least in Gauguin’s case the art was valid; plenty

who flocked to Paris claimed the supposed moral exceptionism of

artists and produced nothing of value.

Gauguin was taken with the conviction that he was a genius

and as such he was outside the rules which governed ordinary

mortals, but his ‘bad behaviour’ consisted primarily of abandoning

his family and, while infected with venereal disease, of taking up

with a succession of teenagers; alcohol was not a major issue. For

Verlaine and Rimbaud, the ‘little drunken vigil holy’ was a vital

part of their lives and of Rimbaud’s artistic endeavour. Gauguin

drank a good deal but never wrote or spoke as if absinthe were

overwhelmingly important to him; it is not a factor in his paintings.

It is more realistic to examine what he said about the south seas and

about art, and what he did both in his travels and his paintings,

and devise a Gauguin world-view from that.

The most that can be said about Gauguin and absinthe is that

his approach to colour, to seeing colours as representative of moods

rather than direct representations of a scene, is an approach to

artistic conceptualising for which the synaesthetic effects of absinthe

had prepared the artistic community.

Strindberg’s Inferno

Gauguin’s brother-in-law Fritz Thaulow is credited with introducing

impressionism to Norway; and Gauguin’s relationship to

Copenhagen (his wife Mette’s home city) was another route to the

Scandinavian avant garde. Gauguin’s artistic influence was particularly

strong on two of the most brilliant of the Scandinavians,

Edvard Munch and August Strindberg.

Munch was born in Löten, Norway in 1863 into a family which

was politically and culturally prominent, but its many tragedies

were to form the backdrop to his emotionally blistering work.

His mother died of tuberculosis when he was five, and before his

twenty-sixth birthday his sister, father and brother also died; later

another sister became mentally ill. Some of his strongest work was

concerned with death-beds, sickness and corpses. His first major

painting, The Sick Child, created after he first visited Paris in 1885,

is a radical break from his previous realistic works. He was now

using techniques of expressing emotion direct from the canvas

without an attempt at realism, the birth of what came to be called


On this and subsequent visits to Paris he was first inspired by

the work of Pissarro and Monet; later he was to come more strongly

under the influence of Gauguin and the concepts of synthetism

which Gauguin and Bernard had developed with artistic colleagues

at Pont-Aven. Gauguin was the artistic link between the work of

the impressionists, still featuring what was seen by the artists, and

the harsher vision of the Scandinavians, Germans and Austrians of

what was felt.

Munch was at the forefront of anti-naturalist thinking in art,

which was also a reaction against the replicas of life, which photography

could provide. ‘The camera cannot compete with a brush

and canvas,’ he wrote, ‘as long as it cannot be used in heaven and

hell’. Munch’s best-known work, The Scream, demonstrates his

depiction of hell in the form of a single, anguished individual.

He was one of a circle of bohemians gathered around the anarchist

thinker Hans Jaeger, who wrote of this Scandinavian cenacle

in a book From Christiania’s Bohemia, for which he was prosecuted

and imprisoned for 60 days for ‘immorality’. Munch depicted

Jaeger and another friend, Jappe Nilssen, in 1890 in a café drinking

absinthe; it was called by the artist The Absinthe Drinkers, though in

common with other pictures with this title it had a troubled history.

It was due to be exhibited along with nine other works in the Oslo

Autumn Salon but before the exhibition it was sold to an American

millionaire, Mac Curdy, who insisted that this picture (now his

picture) was not exhibited under a name which drew attention to

absinthe, so it became known as The Confession. It survived the

subsequent fire at the exhibition, which destroyed five of Munch’s


In 1892 Munch was invited to exhibit in Berlin by the Artists’

Association, but the exhibition was greeted with outrage, as conservative

painters and the public interpreted Munch’s work as

an anarchistic provocation. Just over half the Artists’ Association

members (in a close vote) forced an early closure after a few days,

in a gesture considered outrageous behaviour to an invited guest,

leaving Munch at 29 such a star of the avant garde that he decided

to remain in Berlin. He joined the bohemian circle comprising

sculptors, painters and writers who gathered at the tiny, dark Black

Piglet Café (Zum schwarzen Ferkel) on the corner of the Unter den

Linden and Potsdammerstrasse.

Here Munch first met, and painted, Strindberg, who was a

kindred spirit in being suspicious of impressionism, wanting to see

modern movements take art further into an exploration of the artist’s

soul. Together they would discuss Nietzsche, the occult, psychology

and sex. Strindberg was a fascinated observer of the impressionists;

Gauguin describes him sitting in a corner of the artist’s studio

playing the guitar and singing; ‘your blue Nordic eye studied

attentively the pictures on the walls’. Gauguin asked Strindberg

to write a foreword to the catalogue for an auction of his Tahiti

paintings in 1895 when he was selling up for his final return to the

south seas. Strindberg refused in a long, considered letter, saying,

‘I cannot understand your art and I cannot like it…But I know that

this avowal will not surprise or hurt you, for you seem to me to be

strengthened by other men’s scorn.’ Gauguin sent his effusive

thanks, printed the letter in its entirety and sent it to the press.41

In March 1893 Munch introduced to the Black Piglet circle an

old friend from Christiania (later to become Oslo), 25-year-old

musician Dagny Juel. He had known Dagny there, where he had

painted her and her sister as Two Music-Making Sisters. Dagny, who

was to be the tragic muse of the Black Piglet bohemians, was born in

1867 in Kongsvinger in the south of Norway, where her father was

a doctor and the town mayor. The family was musical, and in the

mid-1880s Dagny and her sister went to Christiania to study music.

She went to Berlin to continue her studies in 1892 and met up

with Munch. Finnish writer Adolf Paul described his first sight of her:

One day she stepped into the Black Piglet at Munch’s side –

blonde, slender, elegant and dressed with a sense of refinement

that understood how to hint at the body’s sensuous movement

but simultaneously avoid revealing too definite contours…A

classic, pure profile, her face overshadowed by a profusion of

curls!…A laugh that inspired a longing for kisses, simultaneously

revealing two rows of pearl-like white teeth awaiting the opportunity

to attach themselves! And in addition, a primeval, affected


H i d e o u s A b s i n t h e

sleepiness in her movements, never excluding the possibility of a

lightning attack.42

An advocate of free love and female equality, Dagny was soon to

be the lover of several of the Black Piglet circle. An anonymous

writer described her attraction:

She was by no means beautiful, yet few women were more

seductive…A much too large mouth with narrow lips, which

gleamed so redly over her pointed weasel teeth that those who

did not know her swore they were artificially coloured…spirit

shone in her smile, in every movement of her supple limbs, that

were wrapped in a loose hanging gown. She needed only to look

at a man, and put her hand on his arm, and he at once found

himself able to express something he had long carried within him

without previously having been able to give it form. She was the

intellectual mid-wife for these poets born in pain.43

Art historian Julius Meier-Graefe described her as being ‘very

slender with the figure of a fourteenth century Madonna and a smile

that drove men mad…she drank absinthe by the litre without ever

getting drunk’.44 She was given various nicknames including

Aspasia, after Pericles’s lover, and Ducha, meaning ‘soul’. Munch

painted her several times, most exceptionally in five versions of the

Madonna, which, according to some critics, show Dagny ‘naked

and at the point of orgasm’. Certainly Munch believed that sexual

ecstasy was the moment ‘when life and death join hands’.45

She was said to have had affairs with Munch, Strindberg, the

Swedish writer Bengt Lidforss, the German doctor Carl Schleich

who pioneered local anaesthesia, and finally with the Polish writer

Stanislaw Przybyszewski.46 ‘She rested in men’s arms as lightly as

a veil, a flock of clouds,’ a woman friend said.47

When Strindberg arrived at the Black Piglet in 1892, a short time

before Dagny, he was 43 and had already written his revolutionary

plays The Father and Miss Julie. They had both been played in Berlin,

where the former was shut down by the censorship office, the

second mainly by outraged women in the audience. When he met

Dagny he had just proposed to a young Austrian journalist, Frida

Uhl, and was writing to her every day. He was, however, unable to

resist Dagny’s charms.

Strindberg’s biographer Michael Meyer admits the story of their

first night is on the authority of two dubious witnesses (one of them

Strindberg himself), but justifiably feels it is too good a tale to omit.

Strindberg and Dagny spoke for hours, fuelled by beer, wine, toddy,

Swedish punch and absinthe. Dagny had a good head for drink,

and Strindberg boasted he never got drunk, but there was clearly

some effect. They went to her hotel room, where they had sex and

fell asleep. Waking up, Strindberg found himself, as he often did in

an unfamiliar hotel room. He noticed the hairpins on the carpet

and the face powder on the sofa and his familiar disgust for everything

that was woman rose in him. Then he noticed the woman in

bed beside him and was unable to control himself. He dragged

Dagny out of bed and pushed her out of the door and bolted it,

then went back to sleep. It had not occurred to him that it might

be her hotel room he was in. Quite what Dagny did is not recorded,

except that they met again the next night, and their relationship

was thought to have gone on for several weeks, so she was not

discouraged by this early evidence of the playwright’s attitude to

women.48 ‘I fucked her so had no revenge to seek,’ he explained in

a letter to a friend, who presumably was expected to understand

Strindberg’s bizarre logic of the sex war.49

Dagny was soon, however, enmeshed with Stanislaw

Przybyszewski, a Polish medical student, writer and newspaper

editor a year younger than herself. He was steeped in mysticism,

satanism and sex, had published essays on Nietzsche and Chopin

in 1892, and the following year brought out his first novel, The Mass

of the Dead.

Przybyszewski left his common-law wife and the mother of his

two children for Dagny. When his former lover knew he was gone

for good (after he had returned for a time and given her another

child), she killed herself. The writer was thought by the police to

be implicated in her death and Strindberg wrote manically, underlined

in red ink, ‘Przybyszewski has been arrested for the murder

of his wife. Soot in my absinthe.’50 But no charges were laid, and he

was released.

Dagny and Przybyszewski married in summer 1893 and had

some happy, if impoverished, years as the king and queen of bohemia

in their one-roomed apartment on the Louisenstrasse, where the

artistic review Pan was conceived, Berlin’s equivalent of the Parisian

Revue Blanche. In this room, with its battered furniture they would

entertain their friends, with Dagny playing Grieg and Przybyszewski

playing Chopin on their rented piano, which had been baffled to

reduce the complaints of the neighbours. Meier-Graefe described

one of these evenings:

One of us would dance with Ducha while the other two looked

on from the table: one spectator was Munch, the other was

generally Strindberg. The four men in the room were all in love

with Ducha, each in his own way, but they never showed it. Most

subdued of all was Munch. He called Ducha ‘The Lady’, talked

dryly to her and was always very polite and discreet even

when drunk.51

Munch painted a sequence of Jealousy pictures, with a woman

tempting a man in the background and another figure, unmistakeably

that of Przybyszewski, staring out gloomily. These paintings

were considered to be an allusion to Munch’s relationship with

Dagny; Przybyszewski’s novel Overboard is felt to be a reply, in its

story of how a jealous painter commits suicide after his beloved is

seduced by a writer.

Dagny began to write short plays, stories and prose poems.

As the rejected lover Lidforss put it to Strindberg, ‘Juel has now

chosen her occupation, and seized the pen instead of the prick’.52

The Przybyszewskis had two children, born in 1895 and 1897, and

lived in desperate poverty, largely on the gifts of their family and

friends, with Dagny pawning summer clothes in winter and vice

versa. Neither practised sexual fidelity, though Przybyszewski was

more flagrant about it and resented Dagny’s sexual freedom. He

was obsessed with the occult, sex and drinking, and though

descriptions of their married life have tended to concentrate on

his to the exclusion of her behaviour, she also needed alcohol and

lovers to maintain her emotional equilibrium.

They moved to Krakow in the autumn of 1898, where

Przybyszewski was the centre of the Polish bohemians, though

Dagny did not enjoy her former celebrity, partly because she was

isolated by not knowing Polish. Their drinking and promiscuity

put an unbearable strain on the relationship, and they frequently

parted but remained in contact. Finally, at the age of 33 Dagny set

off to travel with a new young admirer, Wladyslaw Emeryk, a rich,

idealistic but unstable Russian Pole. On 5 June 1901 in Tiblisi he shot

her in the back of the head, then shot himself, leaving a letter to

her husband that he was ‘killing her for her own sake’.53

Przybyszewski never recovered from the shock of her death,

and left Krakow to live an obscure life as a railway or postal clerk

in the Prussian zone of Poland.54

Munch wrote kindly in an obituary notice about Dagny,

stressing her own creativity and the encouragement she gave to

other artists. He had a major exhibition in 1895 on the themes of

love, jealousy and anxiety which had inspired him during his

time with the bohemians, which he developed as The Frieze of Life

during the 1890s. He continued exhibiting his work across Europe

and America, making his living mainly from the entrance fees.

Munch put on 106 exhibitions between 1892 and 1909 in a painful

and unsettled period of his life in which he was drinking excessively,

though absinthe is not mentioned by biographers as a drug

of choice.

The crisis of what he called ‘the battle called love between a man

and a woman’ came over a tragic love affair with the beautiful

aristocrat Tulla Larsen between 1899 and 1902. She wanted to marry

him, though he had reservations, writing,

you must understand – that I am in a unique position here on

earth – the position imposed by a life filled with illness – unhappy

relationships – and my position as an artist – a life in which there

is no room for anything resembling happiness and which does not

even desire happiness.55


This ill-starred relationship came to a dramatic end after an argument

with Tulla, when Munch fired a revolver in his cottage in

Åsgårdstrand, taking the top of his finger off. He was bitterly

disappointed when Tulla did not visit him in hospital, and was

overwhelmed with jealousy when he discovered she had gone off

to Paris with a rival painter, whom she subsequently married.

Munch painted Tulla in pictures such as Hatred and The Murderess

as he became increasingly obsessed and disturbed. His pathological

jealousy and bitterness against her, combined with his paranoid

feelings of being persecuted in Norway because of his art, led to a

breakdown in 1908. He feared he was going to be interned in an

asylum, and suspected everyone of spying on him and intending

to deliver him to the police. He left Germany for Denmark, and

dosed his paranoid anxiety with alcohol:

I drink one whisky and soda after another. The alcohol warms me

up and, especially in the evening, excites me. I feel it eating its way

inward, inward to the delicate nerves. Need tobacco too. Cigars,

lots of strong ones…Whisky and soda, whisky and soda. Burn up

the pain.56

This is a good description of how the mentally ill can use the anaesthetic

qualities of alcohol. Munch was eventually admitted to a

clinic, where he underwent treatment for eight months, after

which he gave up alcohol for the rest of his life.

His friend Strindberg was an even heavier drinker and an even

more disturbed individual, but one for whom absinthe rather than

whisky was often the drink of choice. Strindberg had been born in

Stockholm in 1849, the son of an aristocrat and a former servant.

His childhood was marked by misery: his father went bankrupt

when he was a small child; when he was 13 his mother died and

his father quickly remarried. He described the poverty, insecurity

and religious fanaticism of his life in a bitter autobiography, Son of

a Servant.

The first 12 years of his adult life were to see study for the

ministry and in medicine, then failure as a teacher, and as an actor

and as a journalist, until a period of comparative calm when he

became a librarian and married Siri von Essen, a Finnish actress, in

1877. After a number of unsuccessful plays, he now wrote an autobiographical

novel, The Red Room. This satirical account of fraud

and abuse in Swedish society established him as both a great

talent and as an enemy of the establishment, a critical opinion

confirmed with his volumes of stories, which led to fierce attacks

on him and an unsuccessful prosecution for blasphemy. Partly

because of the attacks, in 1883 he left Sweden and for six years

travelled restlessly around the continent.

The family lived in Grez near Nemours in 1885, where his

daughter remarks that in 1885 he began to drink absinthe after a

long period of complete temperance. It is typical of Strindberg’s

extreme personality that he went from not drinking at all to

drinking the most highly alcoholic drink available.57 A Norwegian

writer, Johanas Lie, said Strindberg was already addicted to

absinthe when they met in Paris in 1884; certainly he was an alcoholic

after his return to Sweden in 1889.

Strindberg had problems in his family life, which he blamed on

a Danish friend of his wife Siri, Marie David, who encouraged Siri

to stand up to her husband, and became for him the embodiment

of everything he hated about feminism: ‘these damned modern

women who for a time made my marriage unendurable’.

Consequently, Strindberg attempted to smear David to the

church committee which was deliberating on his divorce from Siri,

writing that she was a lesbian and that she drank heavily, ‘cognac

with her breakfast coffee, absinthe before lunch and cognac again

throughout the day’. On the basis of such testimony, the committee

declared that in the interests of the children David should cease all

contact with the family.58

Strindberg and Siri were divorced in 1891, whereupon this unhappiness,

coupled with the lack of artistic recognition in Sweden,

led Strindberg to Berlin. While nominally a socialist, he had become

undemocratic and anti-feminist, a state of mind in which he found

Germany congenial. ‘France is absinthe and self-abuse,’ he

remarked, ‘Switzerland matriarchal sentimentality’ but Germany

was ‘patriarchal and male-dominated; army recruits six feet tall

with fat cheeks’.59

It was in this mood that he participated in the Black Piglet

cenacle and briefly became Dagny Juel’s lover while still keeping up

a relationship with the journalist Frida Uhl, whom he married in

1893. That relationship soon failed, and they parted within a year,

with Strindberg entering his ‘inferno’ period, the years between 1894

and 1897 of his teetering on the brink of insanity.

Strindberg was impoverished, and engaged in months of heavy

absinthe drinking during his disappointment at the failure of The

Father to bring him any real money. Each time it was performed in a

new country gave him renewed hope, which was always dashed.

The outcry from the press and public in Sweden was so vehement

that it came off after nine performances, though it was not without

its supporters. The French doctor and poet Marcel Réja, who saw

a lot of Strindberg in 1897–98, said alcohol ‘probably played a not

unimportant role in the inferno crisis’.60 One of Strindberg’s letters

describes ‘I drank one whole day from morning till late at night.

With L – one evening and half the night. To be sure this is swinishness.

But when I am alone in a great city, the tavern alone saves

me from suicide.’61

Drinking without eating properly left him emaciated through

poor nutrition and even more open to mental disturbance, in which

there was to some degree a physical cause. His illness tended to

follow a pattern of an initial period of restlessness and disquiet, a

feeling of illness, persecutory and suicidal ideas, followed by sudden

flight from the scene where the symptoms subside.62 He suffered

auditory hallucinations of such things as three pianos playing in

neighbouring rooms; he believed his neighbours were persecuting

him with ‘electric currents’; and he made wild accusations of his wife’s

infidelity and his friends’ treachery. He believed friends such as

Munch and Przybyszewski were trying to kill him with domestic gas.

Part of his madness was Strindberg’s conviction that he was a

great scientist, or alchemist, for Strindberg made no distinction

between the two. Frederick Delius said,

M a d m e n o f A r t


I believed implicitly in his scientific discoveries then. He had such

a convincing way of explaining them and certainly was very

ambitious to be an inventor. For instance, Röntgen rays [X-rays]

had just been discovered, and he confided to me one afternoon

over an absinthe at the Café Closerie des Lilas that he himself had

discovered them ten years ago.63

Strindberg’s biographer Michael Meyer tells how the women who

owned the restaurant across the road from Strindberg’s lodgings

went downstairs one morning to find him in the middle of the

room, having moved all the chairs against the walls and arranged

the pots and pans in a circle.

Wearing only underpants and a shirt, he was performing a dance

of exorcism around them. He explained he was doing this to chase

away the evil spirits which might poison the food. During hot

weather, he would usually climb in through the window, since evil

spirits stood watching in the doorway; and one day everything in

the kitchen exploded just before lunch was to be served. This was

a consequence of Strindberg trying to make gold in a saucepan.64

He made occasional references to absinthe as one of a number of

drinks he was taking, only once ascribing to it special effects: ‘several

times this month I have drunk absinthe with Sjöstedt, but

always with unpleasant results’; the café ‘became filthy with horrid

types,’ people ‘covered with filth as though they had come out

of the sewers’ appeared on the streets and stared at him.65

Rather as with van Gogh, there is no shortage of theories as

to what caused Strindberg’s strange behaviour. Diagnoses for

Strindberg’s ‘hallucinatory delusional psychosis’ include schizophrenia,

manic depression, paranoia, alcoholism and, invariably,

given the medical preoccupations of the time, ‘absinthism’.

E.W. Anderson, who has studied Strindberg’s case, remarks

that there is no question as to the schizophrenic character of the

playwright’s crises, ‘but this is not the same as a diagnosis of schizophrenia’.

He feels the sense deceptions, elementary hallucinations,

mortal panic, heart tension, and the fact that the symptoms occurred

most intensely at night ‘are strongly suggestive of a toxic delirium’.

He maintains that with ‘the definitive history of alcoholism,

especially absinthe, the diagnosis of an alcoholic delirium or more

probably one of those more commonly seen mixed forms, intermediate

between a delirium tremens and an alcoholic hallucinosis,

seems compelling’. He notes the probably impure forms of absinthe

Strindberg would have been drinking, ‘well known for its highly

toxic effects’. In support of this, Réja made a diagnosis of ‘alcoholic

delirium’, but it appears did not specifically implicate absinthe.66

When Strindberg recognised the damaging qualities of alcohol,

he foreswore the spirits he had been used to drinking, notably

putting absinthe far down the list: ‘Today I promise myself never

again to touch schnapps, cognac or whisky! My God help me to

keep this vow! Including rum, arrack, absinthe.’67

By 1896 Strindberg emerged from mental crisis with a renewed

vigour for creativity, and in the 11 years from 1898 wrote 35 plays

and founded his own theatre in Stockholm, as well as writing Inferno,

his own account of his descent into madness. In his later years he

was to enjoy the acclaim of the public in Sweden, though never of

the Swedish establishment. Strindberg married a Norwegian

actress almost 30 years his junior, though they were parted within

a year, and he was to propose to a 19-year-old painter before he

eventually died from stomach cancer in Stockholm at the age of 63.

Despite his stormy emotional life, Munch was a survivor, and

lived on to the age of 80 in deliberate self-isolation in Norway.

Norway’s National Women’s Museum has now been established

in Dagny Juel’s childhood home in Kongsvinger.

Van Gogh, Munch and Strindberg were all manically devoted

to their art, all heavy drinkers, and all suffered periods of mental

illness, but absinthe was not a prime mover in any particular case.

Strindberg drank what was available and attached no particular

importance to absinthe.

If a case can be made for absinthe’s involvement in the postimpressionist

use of colour, as in van Gogh’s work, or to some

extent in the creation of synthetism, as in Gauguin and Bernard’s

experiments, its influence can equally be said to be absent from

Munch’s expressionism. Moreover, though he drank it, absinthe

mattered little to Gauguin and not at all to Bernard. The case for

absinthe’s involvement in the artistic process dwindles away into

a mass of qualifications. It was a colourful contribution to a scene

which would have existed and progressed along the same lines

with or without the green fairy.

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