1897 by Eugène Samuel Grasset
V&A; Wellcome Collection in High Society until 27 February 2010
High Society is a much subtler exhibition than perhaps advertised; far from a tantalising collection of high-impact images, it is a quiet display of drugs throughout history, pausing occasionally to present their effects. We peer into tiny etchings of vast opium factories in India (small boys rolling balls of treasure), marvel at the miniature bottles and packets of narcotic-filled medicine from the 1800s, while wondering whether the playing of light from slides made in the ‘70s really reflect the ‘intoxicated feeling’. As we should come to expect from the Wellcome, the exhibition is more of an historical collection with visualised and creative observations, rather than a history lesson or display of drug inspired art. Grasset’s Morphinomane then stands out with artful impact – large, brightly coloured, and poster-like. Indeed, it was painted in the time when posters in the Art Nouveau style dominated Paris and London; everything from transport to the theatre was advertised in this way. Though Grasset was famous for his posters, it is interesting that he decided to portray his drug-reliant protagonist (Morphinomane means morphine addict) in this vein, usually so associated with glorified glamour. She has all the usual tropes, dark hair that cascades in waves, skin made perfect with a one-tone porcelain finish, yet Grasset uses these with a distinct taste of irony. The perfect skin tone is a sickly haunting yellow, making the usually bright and warming colour of the background lurid rather than a happily celebratory glow. The bright green that colours the chair then carries this further, coming off as gleefully horrific; the combination of brilliant yellow and green with off-white and ill-toned skin gives the composition a distinctly sickly atmosphere. The hands clutching the needle and leg are crinkled, haggard compared to the rest of the body, and the look of desperation on the face is acute, the teeth clenched tight and uncomfortably. Grasset’s hair, usually so seductively arranged, is cast back above the forehead in the manner of madness. The portrayal is a sharp contrast to Grasset’s usual celebration of ‘all women’, and indeed that of his contemporaries’ such as Toulouse-Lautrec – they frequently painted prostitutes and significantly without judgement. The irony in Grasset’s Morphinomane, however, is not without humour and it is the very monstrous quality in the portrayal that makes the figure slightly ridiculous. It is just another visual comment of a raucous lifestyle, unabashed to show the good along with the bad.