Sunday, 24 July 2016

Piss artists

I like a drink. Sometimes I like one a bit too much.

I like to visit a gallery. Sometimes I like to visit galleries a bit too often.

So Tate Britain''s free Art and Alcohol exhibition was always going to tempt me in. Binge drinking isn't new in British art. Some of the works celebrate it. Most criticize. The first British boozing paintings were inspired by 17th century Dutch tavern scenes and we kick off with Hogarth's infamous 1751 etching Gin Lane.

Set in the slums of Covent Garden it portrays an era when uncontrolled production and sale of gin created drunken chaos in Georgian Britain and moral panic about rising alcoholism. A companion piece, Beer Street, showed the supposedly more wholesome effects of that particular poison. Which, presumably, include less hanging in attics and plummeting babies. I'll drink to that.

Richard Billingham's 1994 Ray's A Laugh series chronicles his own father's spiralling addiction. The almost hyper real colour serves only to render the mundane bleakness more vivid.

Gilbert & George considered drinking a duty, rather than a pleasure (or a need) and, in truth, rarely touched the stuff. Ironically, because of this, their work lacks clarity and comes across as both dilettantish and aloof.

Edward Le Bon's 1940 Saloon Bar rings truer. It shows a woman drinking alone, verging on scandalous in those days, in a Knightsbridge tavern and, for emphasis, it has been paired with Louis MacNiece's contemporary poem Alcohol.

William Mulready's 1809 Returning From The Ale House takes issue, indulgently, with drunken fathers and borrows its style from the aforementioned Dutch genre paintings.

At the same time David Wilkie painted Village Holiday showing a drunkard torn between vice and virtue, wife and wantonness, It's instructive that both Wilkie and Mulready needed to tone down, or excise completely, references to alcohol in their works in order to sell them.

Benjamin Haydon's Chairing The Member (euphemism?) takes us further into a dipsomaniac fug. In the lower left corner a cowering wreck has been driven insane by his sottish ways. As others in the painting parade around hitting each other with glasses and wearing crockery on their heads our man holds a finger to his mouth. A lush assuming the audience to be co-conspirators in his predilection.

The centrepiece is George Cruikshank's vast 1860 Worship of Bacchus. The Victorian moralist, whose own father had died in a drinking contest during the height of Regency excess, paints a panorama of pissedness. Toasts and taverns right down to a inebriated idiot beating a woman's face to a pulp. Bacchus himself stands proudly over a scene that sees men in harlequin costumes and babies being fed booze. I've never been so drunk I've put a jester's outfit on but that's something to look forward to.

Robert Martineau also came from the Victorian moralist school. His Last Day in the Old Home (1862) shows the genteel Pulleyne family driven to ruin by port, champagne, and gambling and forced to sell their ancestral home.

It was a neat little free show that Tate Britain does so well. I certainly felt warned off the dangers of the demon drink but not so much that I didn't walk immediately into the first pub I saw on exiting the Pimlico institution.

Bottoms up!

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