Once it became widely available in the mid-1800s, a drink fondly nicknamed “the green fairy” became the liquid muse of choice for the artists, writers, and intellectuals who debated and exchanged ideas in the cafés, bars, and cabarets in Paris. Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Charles Baudelaire, Amedeo Modigliani, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Erik Satie, Lord Byron, Paul Gauguin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Pablo Picasso were notoriously fond of its effect on their creative process. Arthur Rimbaud combined it with hashish. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec had a hollow cane made to store glass vials of it for his long nights out on the town. It’s rumored that Vincent van Gogh was intoxicated on it when he cut off his ear. Dozens of artists, including Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Pablo Picasso depicted men and women under its influence as subjects in their paintings.
Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks. Great success shooting the knife underhand into the piano. – Ernest Hemingway
Wormwood, a medicinal plant and the main ingredient in absinthe, is nature’s richest source of thujone, a bitter-tasting neurotoxin that was believed to trigger an inexplicable clarity of thought and perception, enhance creativity, and bestow an ability to “see beyond”. In the mid-1800s, when an aphid began to decimate two-thirds of the grape vines in France, Henri-Louis Pernod recognized a business opportunity and opened up a distillery that bottled absinthe at about 70 percent alcohol by volume. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for absinthe to earn a reputation as a mind-altering, addictive cocktail. By 1910, the French were drinking over seven times more absinthe as compared to their annual consumption of wine; 5 – 7 PM was known as the “the green hour”.
Preparation of the drink began by slowly adding droplets of cold water into a special glass that contained a measure of absinthe, not only to dilute the high alcohol content, but to conjure the green fairy’s appearance. The water caused the plant’s flavorful essentials oils to precipitate out in a highly aromatic stream, which transformed the deep emerald color to a lighter, cloudy, iridescent green – an effect called le louche. To cut the bitter taste, a sugar cube was placed atop a slotted spoon that rested over the mouth of the glass. The spoon’s metal wormwood-like foliage guided the water and sweet crystals into the hazy concoction below. Personal absinthe fountains allowed bar patrons to draw out the ritual of le louche with patience and finesse.
The temperance movement and the wine industry made absinthe the public symbol of alcoholism and social collapse. Convinced that absinthe had powerful effects beyond those of the high alcohol content, the United States and most of Europe banned its sale in 1915.
Pull up a bar stool and take a closer look at Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
In 1914, only thirty-three years old and living in Paris, Picasso was on to something new. He had already moved through his somber “Blue Period” and brighter “Rose Period”, absorbed the qualities of African art into his work, and invented with George Braque a new approach to painting that structurally dissected the subject into fragmentary multiple viewpoints and overlapping planes.
He and Braque continued to experiment. Instead of imitating textures on canvas with paint, they glued newspaper cuttings, parts of musical instruments, music scores, tobacco boxes, fabrics, and metal onto the canvas. The flat surface of the canvas erupted into the third dimension; they invented collage.
To further his exploration of multiple perspectives and space, Picasso turned to sculpture. He folded sheet metal, modeled in plaster, carved in wood, and executed sculptures made from clay, tin plates, wires, nails, and bits of wood. To Picasso, it didn’t matter if anyone liked his more than 700 sculptures. Most of them remained in his studio until a few years before he died. He treated them affectionately; he sat them in chairs and talked to them, had conversations with them, and wrapped scarves around them to keep them warm.
In the spring of 1914, Picasso modeled two glasses from wax, turned one upside down, and inserted a wooden dowel between them for support. Sagging here, stiff and rectangular there, the stacked elements form an absinthe glass that is almost nine inches tall. From the singular wax model, he had six bronze casts made and then painted each one with different patterns and pigments – personalities.
By bending the handle slightly, Picasso stabilized a real mass-produced absinthe spoon and sugar cube made from painted bronze across the rim of the bronze glass. The spoons are an early example of incorporating a ready-made object into a sculpture. (Marcel Duchamp made the first one in 1913 by nailing a bicycle wheel to a stool.) All of these elements were held together by a tiny, invisible pin that attached to the bronze sugar cube and passed through one of the perforations in the spoon into a tiny socket in the lip of the glass.
A sculpture created from a wax original, cast in bronze, painted to give the appearance of plaster, though it is an object that should be made of glass – Picasso offers a le louche-inspired transformation of space and form.
Stippled red and blue dots create the outside of the glass. Follow their spiraled path to below the rim where the side is partially pulled apart like a flap to reveal the top layer of the liquid and the inside of the glass. The shapes and planes of the glass are fractured into curving, rotating, interweaving components. Look from the other side, and they’ve been pieced back together again.
Instead of surrounding a solid mass by space, Picasso has integrated the surrounding space into the mass. Empty spaces suggest solid forms. Different viewpoints of the same glass appear simultaneously as if you are walking around it or turning it over in your hands. Is it tilting? Twisting? Stable? How can this glass be used as a glass?
Take another sip with your eyes and it starts to look back at you. A facial profile emerges from the sagging shapes and pinched edges. Protrusions and openings resemble a pair of droopy eyes and a wide mouth. The spoon and sugar cube form a jaunty, tipped hat fit for a flâneur.
Delirious. Syncopated. Hallucinating. Inebriated. Hungover. Drifting. Slurring. Wandering. Exaggerated. Transfigured.
Revelatory. Witty. Innovative.
(Top image, Pablo Picasso, left, and Jean Cocteau, right; 1953)
*Tom Waits, The Piano Has Been Drinking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3llvPIj_29g