вторник, 29 июля 2008 г.

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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