Tea and Morphine at UCLA’s Hammer Museum presents an intricate portrait of 19th century women in Paris from 1880 to 1914. This exhibit explores 100 works of femme fatale and upper class debutantes in frilly collars placed alongside impoverished morphine addicts. It highlights artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, René Lalique, Edgar Degas, Hermann-Paul, Albert Besnard and others from the Elisabeth Dean Collection and the UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts. In addition, the show features prints, etchings, music scores, rare books and ephemera.
When observers compare 19th century art with Parisian women portrayed in artworks, they typically visualize paintings like Edgar Degas’ Dancer or Claude Monet’s Woman with a Parasol. However, during the end of the 19th century, a more sordid class of women were rendered that consisted of prostitutes, drug addicts and alcoholics.
These penurious women colorized the studios and canvases of many French artists, who desired to illustrate the economic discontentment related to the fin-de-siècle artistic movement: an iconic period that was far from refined with artists boldly displaying “the erosion of moral character,” especially in a woman. According to 1893 addition of The Art Critic, the fin-de-siècle Frenchman would desire a “dissolute wench to a domestic woman.”
Through the eyes of mostly male artists, with the exception of featured American artist Mary Cassatt, the Parisian women’s struggles were stylized. The subjects were usually depicted as beautiful with long, flowing hair, no matter how bleak their origin.
One of the featured artists, Eugene Grasset, made a publicly fearless statement (for both the period and today) in his print called, La Morphinomane (The Morphine Addict). The gritty image depicts a woman in a nightgown; with teeth clenched and eyebrows scrunched, she steadies herself to inject a needle into her exposed thigh. Her bottle of morphine is by her side.
In another one of Grasset’s works entitled, La Vitrioleuse (The Acid Thrower), a scowling, woman shown with a green face akin to Dorothy’s wicked witch of the west, grasps a bowl of acid as if she is ready to throw it at the viewer at any moment. The prints are but two examples of the Parisian female archetypes that are commonly illustrated as afflicting French society in the late 19th century.
Victoria Dailey, an independent curator, commented that artworks like Grasset stemmed from a “response to demands for women’s rights.” Although Parisian women were deprived of job opportunities and education, they were able to become prostitutes. The women’s livelihood pushed them to turn to substance abuse in order to ease their desolation.
As seen in the exhibit, even refined women wearied with their leisurely lives and afternoon teas often turned to morphine. This new caste of drug-addicted women became visibly problematic in Parisian society.
This darker side of fin-de-siècle riveted male artists. It inspired negative representations that women were acid throwers and drug addicts afflicting the male-dominated society. Since their works were typically paintings, the depictions were publicly displayed.
However, Leslie Cozzi, Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts curatorial associate, notes that the UCLA Hammer museum exhibition’s objective is not to create “binaries” between immoral and moral women or those connected with tea and morphine. Instead, the subject variations and works on display simply correspond to the “range of artist’s motives” in a complex society at the end of the century.
Not all of the represented artists in the exhibit portrayed women in a dark light. For example, Auguste Lepere called attention to women hard at work as seen in his print, Les Pêcheuses de Pignons (Women Shellfishing), or in Edgar Degas’ etching, The Laundresses.
Dailey remarks that although the works featured are dated between 1880 and 1914 their significance still connects to present life and issues such as women’s rights and drug addiction. She says, “by looking at the past,” a person can glean a better picture of the present, and observe what is different and what is not.
These featured works provide a segment of the Parisian art world that reveals the artistic diversity of the era. The renderings and all of the perceptions in-between set the boundaries for artworks in the show. It likens Symbolist and Impressionist painters with Nabi artists together with illustrators and graphic designers, contributors to print journals like L’Estampe Modern. The Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880 to 1914 exhibit runs through May 18th 2014 at the UCLA’s Hammer Museum. More about the museum’s hours and location is available by clicking on the visitor information link below.
By Dawn Levesque