On a Bender

Édouard Manet, The Absinthe Drinker (Le buveur d’absinthe) (ca. 1861–62), etching on thin laid chine collé, second state of three (Harris), 28.7 × 16 cm. Private collection.

Beginning with the inclusive embrace of “intoxication” and concluding with the precision of “whisky sour,” section 996 of Roget’s Thesaurus cruises through more than 1,100 words and expressions related to the effects and affects of alcohol.1 By contrast, sex (section 419) runs barely half that distance, and God’s shrift (section 1013) is shorter still. The size of a thesaurus section is certainly an imperfect measure of cultural potency, but in this case it reveals of a couple of truths: one, that English speakers at least have spent a lot of time and energy thinking and talking about alcohol; and two, that we have put jeroboams of imaginative resources into the effort. The measly batch of 29 terms for sobriety (section 997) offer nothing as romantic as “moonshine,” as delightful as “winebibbery,” or as unsettling as “panther piss.”

This urge to invent apt representational housings for drink is also effusively present in visual art, where depictions of drunkenness—the subjective experience and its objective consequences—have featured through the millennia since Dionysus first figured in and on his cups. As Art in Print’s parting shot to the dreadful DTs of 2017, we offer this issue as an art-historical pub crawl, weaving from William Hogarth’s 1733 Midnight Modern Conversation (whose misunderstood moral is clarified by David Bindman), to Kate McCrickard’s 2017 daytime drinkers, clustered here as an Art in Art in Print project. (It was these monotypes, with their present urgency and their retrospective glance at the giddy and sordid history of pictured dipsomania, that sparked the idea for this issue.)

Fin de siècle Europe is well represented in these pages, for reasons lucidly explained by Gretchen Schultz in her account of the symbiosis between the aperitif industry, the temperance movement (of which the French wine industry was an active part) and poster artists. The impact of those forces on individuals is registered in Gerd Woll’s survey of alcohol as subject, catalyst and calamity in the work and life of Edvard Munch, and in Catherine Bindman’s study of James McNeil Whistler’s tiny, tender Wine Glass etching (ca. 1859) and his cherished “hour of the little cocktail.” In an article that will appear in our January issue, Juliet Wilson Bareau examines the several lives of Édouard Manet’s solitary Absinthe Drinker in painting, drawing and print.

The mid-20th-century-modern Martini is the explicit subject of a crisp screenprint by Allen Saalburg, whose body of printed work is rediscovered by Prudence Crowther, and it is also the implicit soul of the barfly life documented in Saloon Society: The Diary of a Year Beyond Aspirin, an innovative 1960 book by writer Bill Manville and photographer David Attie. This volume is reviewed here by Nicholas Alguire as the first iteration of a new Art in Print section on artists books.

If Whistler’s glinting champagne glass and Saalburg’s bright cocktail fixings signify the chic and comfortable end of the inebriant spectrum, the recent book Alcohol: Soviet Anti-Alcohol Posters addresses its other, desperate terminus. In the midst of America’s opioid epidemic, alcohol can seem an almost quaintly historic vice, but as Jill Bugajski explains in her review, these public service images aimed to dissuade Soviet citizens from drinking not just vodka, but also the colognes and insecticides adopted as affordable, if poisonous, substitutes.

This issue also includes, however, some essays that look at topics outside the saloon doors. Leora Lutz writes on the quixotic, clearheaded vision of Tucker Nichols, whose work ranges from paintings and prints to drawings for the Op Ed page of the New York Times. Peter Briggs reviews Flatbed at 25, the massive retrospective tome documenting the first quarter-century of the celebrated Austin, Texas, print workshop. In Tampa, meanwhile, Cheryl Rodriguez worked through Hurricane Irma to review “Black Pulp,” William Villalongo and Mark Thomas Gibson’s groundbreaking survey of African-American printed matter, visual art, simple heroism and super-heroism.

Finally, for this iteration of the Prix de Print, juror Marilyn Symmes selected a work that is sober in the profoundest sense of the term: Dan Wood’s letterpress memorial to the nine people gunned down in Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Wood borrowed two phrases from President Obama’s eulogy for the church’s pastor, Clementa Pinckney: “If we can find that grace,” and “everything can change.”

Let us raise our glasses to that.

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  1. Roget’s International Thesaurus, fourth edition, rev. Robert L. Chapman (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, and London and Sydney: Harper & Row, 1977). []