Alcohol’s history is looong, many of the records that have informed us of our favourite beverages’ past pre-date the written word and are, therefore, expressed through pictures. From ancient civilizations through to modern times, art and alcohol have tightly coexisted with one another.
Ancient Egyptian wall paintings depicted both wine and beer consumption and production, while the ancient Greeks and Romans often portrayed alcohol in a relationship to the Gods. Roman God, Bacchus (aka Dionysus), is the God of wine and agriculture and is often portrayed throughout classical paintings. Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio painted two portraits of Bacchus in the late 1500, Bacchus (c. 1595) and Young Sick Bacchus (c. 1593). Both are pictures of a young, muscular Bacchus draped in white robe, his dark hair adorned with a wreath of leaves. In Young Sick Bacchus he clutches a bunch of grapes, in Bacchus he offers a glass of wine to the viewer. In both paintings there is a melancholy look in his cherub-like face. According to historians, Caravaggio likely used himself as his model, and was suffering from illness through the paintings of these works.
In comparison, Diego Velazquez – also of the Baroque period – painted his The Triumph of Bacchus (c. 1628-29) which portrayed a more spirited scene where a more content Bacchus, with a small smirk across his face, sits on a barrel, his robe fallen off his softer torso. He is surrounded by men with smiles on their faces and mugs in hand, there is a sense of light-heartedness, a sense of joy, and yes, a sense of drunkenness about the subjects.
These two artists, perhaps unintentionally, reflect a common contrast between the positive and negative impression of alcohol. Over a century later, in 1751, the English artist William Hogarth – known for his moral satire – created two etched engravings that enhance this contrast and directly related it to the drink of one’s choice; Beer Street and Gin Lane.
Beer Street depicts a happy, cordial community. Smiling fat faces drink out of steins in a street surrounded by repaired and new buildings, a suspended barrel denotes the pub’s location. A basket of books sits beside a woman reading from a scroll, a basket of fish balancing atop her head, while above her an artist paints the joyous scene. This community, their bellies full of beer, are happy, they are fed and educated, civil and well-off. Below the scene is a poem that starts “Beer, happy Produce of our Isle / Can sinewy Strength impart / And wearied with Fatigue and Toil / Can cheer each manly Heart”.
Gin Lane depicts quite a different scene. Front and center a woman sits, breasts out, eyes closed with a dopey smile across her face unaware that her terrified child falls from her arms headfirst to the cobblestones below. Down the stoop from her is a man with a skeletal figure, his shoe falling off his foot and glass falling out of his hand. Behind the woman a child and dog gnaw on the same meat-less bone. A brawl takes place in the, chairs held high in the air, men raid a coffin, a suspended coffin denotes, what appears to be due to the noosed man hanging from the rafters, the hangman’s location. The scene is rife with starvation, violence, death and despair. Below the poem begins “Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught, / Makes human Race a Prey. / It enters by a deadly Draught / And steals our Life away.”
As the centuries passed the presence of alcohol in art became more common, possibly because art was moving away from religious ties. In the mid-1800s Honore Daumier created Physiologie du Bugeur: Le quatre ages; a grey-scale engraving of 4 men, all varying ages, having a drink. Later, in the 1890s Van Gogh did his own rendition of Daumier’s engraving. Named The Drinkers, by adding colour Van Gogh brightens the tone in comparison to the original.
For the artist duo Gilbert & George, drinking and getting drunk, were common themes in their early work. In 1972 they produced a piece entitled Balls: The Evening Before the Morning After – Drinking Sculpture; a structural compilation of photographs the artists took at, what was, their local watering hole Balls Brothers Wine Bar in London. “The images are distorted, fragmented and blurred to evoke the experience of being drunk” (Tate UK). That same year they produced Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk a video installation of the two artists seated at a table, drinking Gordon’s gin and progressively getting more intoxicated. Another photographer, Graham Smith, a British photographer who documented many pub nights during the 1970s and 80s is quoted as saying “The truth might be that the camera was just an extension of my drinking arm.”
Whether the subject or the muse, whether being condemned or celebrated, the close relationship between alcohol and art is a psychological and cultural rabbit hole. Shall we venture down?
Written by Allison Caldicott-Levitt