Currently running at London’s Tate Gallery, the BP Spotlight – Art and Alcohol display presents a collection of a dozen paintings as well as a “drinking sculpture” depicting the effects of alcohol on society. These artistic works from renown British artists from the 18th to the 20th century range from the rather judgmental to the “happy-go-blurry”. Next to each work of art information is given about the artist, the context in which the painting or photographs were realized and how they were perceived by their contemporaries.
I have to admit I was a bit disappointed when I first entered the exhibition. I expected there to be more works on display. I then realised it would give me proper time to fully appreciate each painting or photograph instead of rushing my visit before meeting up with some friends. Two works of art especially held my interest : “The Worship of Bacchus” by George Cruikshank and “Balls: The Evening Before the Morning After” by Gilbert & George.
The Worship of Bacchus 1860–2
I went into full “art history student” mode with George Cruikshank ’s “The Worship of Bacchus” and spent a long while examining it.
In terms of depiction of alcohol I could divide the painting in two different parts of unequal proportions. In the foreground, at the bottom of the painting, there are 5 scenes celebrating different stages in life (marriage, birth, birthday/anniversary, death) where alcohol is a companion to toast to the joyful events or the memories of those who passed away. In this part of the painting alcohol is presumably consumed in a responsible manner as the people seem to behave. The major part of the painting however depicts the evil effects excessive drinking has on society: debauchery, agressivity, upheavals, etc. Among the scenes of chaos are two kiosks with noble people drinking. The contrast between them who are seemingly in control of their behaviour and the raucous people around them made me wonder: was Cruikshank trying to represent how drunken people perceive themselves and see others? Even though they are inebriated and in the middle of others as intoxicated as they are they still think they’re sober? In the middle of the painting, on the right and left hand sides, groups of Oriental people watch with dismay clergymen, ministers and preachers under the influence of alcohol. Confirming their opinion, stone inscriptions are painted beneath these scenes with the words “Horrible abyss of ruin & disgrace into which clergymen (respectively, ministers and preachers) fall who sacrifice themselves at the shrine of Bacchus”. To complete the portrayal of alcohol as an agent of destruction and disgrace, the only buildings on the painting are a hospital, a jail, an asylum for lunatics, a brewery, a distillery, drinking establishments, a reformatory, a cemetery, etc. The hospital and the ships in the background are ablaze but no one is sober enough to care.
Gilbert & George
Balls: The Evening Before the Morning After – Drinking Sculpture 1972
On the opposite wall of Cruikshank’s painting is a montage of photographs by collaborative duo Gilbert & George, a “drinking sculpture” named “The Evening Before the Morning After”. The artists took an original approach to represent people’s hazy memories of a festive night out. Just as intoxicated people tend to see things a little fuzzy, the photographs taken at a party in a London bar are progressively blurred. Also some subjects are rather random just as you’d expect to find some when developing a photographic film or flipping through your digital camera after a wild night partying. I really liked the concept of freezing drunken people’s vision, even if it’s through a trick with the camera lens. It’s one way of becoming aware of the impairing effects alcohol has on our senses. Another one is the use of alcohol impairment simulation goggles. Quite a sobering experience!
There are another ten or so paintings in the exhibition, such as Julius Caesar Ibbetson’s contrasting “An Unmarried Sailor’s Return” and “A Married Sailor’s Return”, or the famous “Gin Lane” by William Hogarth. Why don’t you visit Tate Britain and see them yourself? The exhibition runs until autumn 2016.