Much in the same way as morality, art reflects society’s values. In the case of intoxication, art reflects society’s attitude toward the use of mind-altering substances such as alcohol and drugs. Plenty of art which depicts intoxication is used to condemn it; however, there are some cases where intoxication in art is either treated as a method to create humor or to denote spiritual awareness. Certainly, plenty of art has been created while intoxicated (the most famous is believed to be cave paintings); however, for the purposes of this segment, only art which depicts intoxication will be the focus.
Early art depicting intoxication was plentiful. It was commonly seen in scenes depicting deities. The Triumph of Dionysus sarcophagus depicts a procession of the acolytes of Dionysus, who was most popularly the god of wine. Scenes depicting Dionysus were often hedonistic scenes of revelry, where he and his followers were intoxicated. Yet the joyous tone created by the scenes of ecstatic dancing and the undulating, smiling people does not condemn intoxication. Though the scene is chaotic, it is a celebration of the dead, Dionysus, and his lifestyle.
Allegory of Worldly and Otherworldly Drunkenness is part of a folio from the Divan of Hafiz by Sultan Muhammad. The piece depicts a revel, using brightly pigmented ink to differentiate the characters in the scene and their reactions to the party. According to the MET, where the illuminated manuscript is kept, “the tavern party, complete with ecstatic dancers, singers and overindulgent drinkers, is given a new meaning by the presence of angels on top of the pavilion, suggesting that the state of drunkenness can be likened to that of spiritual enlightenment. As a Sufi symbol, wine stands for heaven’s divine light and the cup into which it is poured, for the devotee’s heart” (“Allegory of Worldly and Otherworldly Drunkenness”). In this way, this piece equates intoxication with otherworldly revelation.
Drunken Immortal beneath an old tree by Chen Zihe likewise equates drunkenness with otherworldliness. Depicting, as the title suggests, a drunken immortal being sleeping under a tree, the correlation of the two is not in any way malicious. Rather, Chen Zihe used the drunkenness in his art to signify his rejection of traditional art conventions; as drunkenness was seen as unconventional, so too was the artist’s new style, which involved slashing diagonals, a massive scale, and “animated brushwork,” a contrast to previous styles (明 陳子和 古木酒仙圖 軸). In equating the two, Chen Zihe does not condemn drunkenness, but rather presents it as a new way of thinking.
The Drunken Man on a Chariot on his Way to Hell, from Hymmelwagen auff dem, wer wol lebt by Hans Schäufelein directly equates intoxication with going to hell, as the piece literally depicts demons leading a drunken man to hell. The chaos of the scene, with its overlapping figures and lack of color to differentiate them, is especially damning; due to this, the audience is overwhelmed. Through this piece, the audience equates a sense of being overwhelmed and going to hell with intoxication, thus turning the audience’s opinion against drunkenness.
The Drunkenness of Noah by Michelangelo is found in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. A deep sense of shame is reflected in this painting, caused by Noah’s drunkenness. This sense of shame is seen through the pointed fingers of Noah’s compatriots and an attempt to cover Noah, as if to protect him from the community. Though Noah is a well-known and important figure in Christianity, this humiliation as caused by drunkenness matches Christian opinions towards intoxication: namely, that it is, in a word, shameful.
The Triumph of Bacchus by Diego Velazquez depicts the Roman god Bacchus (who is often equated with the Greek god Dionysus) giving drinks to several Spanish men. Like Dionysus, Bacchus is the god of wine. The men around him are intoxicated, yet Bacchus seems to be totally sober. The pagan god looks off into the distance with a serious, narrow-eyed expression on his face, a contrast to the glee of the surrounding men. One may even argue that he looks conniving due to his narrowed eyes and the fact that he is facing away from the men he is serving wine to, as if he is a corrupting influence through the alcohol he gives out. By having a pagan god act as this potential corrupting influence, Velazquez demonizes pagan religion by equating it with drunkenness.
L’Absinthe by Edgar Degas depicts a woman sitting in a bar with a glass of absinthe in front of her. The muted color scheme and far-off, sad, jaded look in the woman’s eyes creates a tone of desolation in this painting. Equating the desolation with the drink placed in front of her, this painting depicts the degradation and sadness caused by drunkenness during a period where people were more likely to partake in societal drinking. How do you think that the different societal opinions on intoxication, as seen in these works of art, impact the way that we see intoxication today?
“‘Allegory of Worldly and Otherworldly Drunkenness’, Folio from the Divan of Hafiz.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/453311.
“明 陳子和 古木酒仙圖 軸 Drunken Immortal beneath an Old Tree.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/39553.