Absinthe and the Art World

Posted by Nicole J. Caruth on June 16, 2012



Marc Latamie. “For Rent” (detail), 2012. Sheet metal, variable dimensions. Courtesy of Americas Society. Photo: Wilson Santiago.

Absinthe is the famed drink of the modernist avant-garde. Degas, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Modigliani, and Picasso were all known to partake of the spirit. As the story goes, they weren’t just enjoying its mildly bitter and licorice-like flavor. Absinthe’s main ingredient, the wormwood plant species artemisia absinthium, was believed to contain mind-altering compounds. As Oscar Wilde told it, “After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second glass, you see things as they are not.” Not everyone extolled the high of “the green fairy.” Critics claimed absinthe was addictive, caused permanent lunacy, and contributed to social degradation. In vogue among the creative class of late 19th century France, by 1915 it was outlawed in most European countries and the United States.*

Tales of absinthe-era France will often cite Degas’ L’Absinthe (1876) to illustrate the drink’s supposed psychological effects and Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) as portrayal of Paris nightlife where the drink flourished. But mainstream art history will seldom (if ever) show us how absinthe spread from France to its colonies, namely the island of Martinique in the French Antilles. Though better known for its rums, absinthe has been produced in Martinique since the 1800s and continues to be part of the culture. Artist Marc Latamie brings this to light in a lovely solo exhibition now up at The Americas Society.

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