“The smell of opium,” said Pablo Picasso to fellow smoker Jean Cocteau, “is the most intelligent of all odors.”
While Picasso never got hooked on the drug, Cocteau had to be treated in a hospital where he wrote a book on his addiction.
“Sous Influences” (Under the Influence), an exhibition at the Maison Rouge in Paris, examines the role of drugs in the arts. Antoine Perpere, the show’s curator, is an artist himself who has worked at a Paris detoxification center.
It’s an enormous subject, well beyond the means of a small, private institution. You’ll look in vain for Baroque boozing scenes or masterpieces such as Edgar Degas’s “Absinthe Drinkers.”
Although alcohol and tobacco are briefly mentioned, the emphasis is on illegal drugs, mostly in connection with contemporary art. Some of the 90 artists who created the 250 works on view are well known. Many others are not.
One of the earliest pieces is an 1853 drawing by French neurologist Jean Martin Charcot, Sigmund Freud’s teacher, who experimented with hashish -- a nightmarish document not unlike Hieronymus Bosch’s apocalyptic visions.
Belgian writer Henri Michaux (1899-1984) used mescaline to widen the doors of perception. His drawings are calmer: Some look like mysterious tissues viewed through a microscope.
The counterculture of the 1960s turned the use of psychedelic drugs based on LSD, which had been discovered in 1943, into a popular pastime.
The show includes colorful posters from that period with bizarre distortions and sinuous lines straight from the arsenal of Art Nouveau.
Although the catalog does its best to explain the difference between calming psycholeptics (opium, morphine, heroin), stimulating psychoanaleptics (cocaine, crack, amphetamines) and hallucinogens (defined as cannabis and LSD), you could be forgiven for getting lost in the show.
Clarity is not the show’s forte, and the wall texts are of no great help. You have to follow your own instinct to discover the highlights.
One of the more remarkable contributions comes from U.S. performance artist Bryan Lewis Saunders. He has produced a series of self-portraits under the influence of various substances including marijuana, valium, cough syrup and bath salts.
Francis Alys, a Belgian who lives in Mexico City, specializes in “paseos,” or strolls, in the tradition of the French “flaneurs.” In one of his walks, titled “Narcotourism,” he took a different drug in the course of seven days and recorded his trips with notes and photographs.
Carsten Holler, a German agricultural scientist and entomologist, is fascinated by poisonous mushrooms. He has produced replicas of the amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, that was used by Siberian shamans as an intoxicant.
Some of Holler’s mushrooms come in specially adapted aluminum suitcases complete with mirror, solar battery and electric motor.
Mushrooms also appear in Damien Hirst’s “The Last Supper,” a tongue-in-cheek series of giant posters based on pharmaceutical labels. The brand names of the drugs have been replaced with trivial foodstuffs such as corned beef, meatballs and yes, mushrooms.
Not every item in the show is so amusing. Shortly after Jean-Michel Basquiat presented his drug-fuelled paintings in Paris, he died of an overdose.
“Sous Influences” runs through May 19. Information: http://www.lamaisonrouge.org.
Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food, Jeffrey Burke on books, John Mariani on wine and Greg Evans on U.S. television.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)