Nicknamed ‘la fée brune’ (the brown fairy), opium may be less colourful than its friend absinthe, ‘the green fairy’, but it is no less intriguing. Imported from China by sailors in the 19th century, it became widely used in brothels in the port cities of France. But it wasn’t long before this ‘midnight oil’ became the fashionable drug of choice in the French capital.
In the glorious years of the Parisian belle époque and then afterwards in the Golden Twenties (or as the French called them, les années folles, the ‘mad years’) opium use seized the artistic circles of society. Infamous opium users include Charles Baudelaire and André Malraux, who travelled to French Indochina in his youth. Perhaps the most famous of all was Jean Cocteau, who shared his struggles against opium with the world in writings such as Opium. He illustrated this with his own quirky pen-and-ink drawings, which feature opium smokers made out of pipes. Across the channel, meanwhile, Thomas De Quincey had rocketed to fame with his influential Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
Montmartre, that well-known artists’ haven perched on a hill overlooking Paris, was a surely a hotbed of opium dens. It was here that Picasso was living when he started experimenting with the drug, during his period of intense artistic creativity in the early years of the 1900s. Another foreign artist who, like Picasso, was drawn to the artistic capital of the world was the Transylvanian photographer Brassaï. During the early 1930s he published photographs documenting the night-time world of Paris, showing barefaced revelations of the seedier aspects of life alongside images of high society. Opium smokers made frequent appearances.
So just what was it about this drug that so fascinated and attracted some of these artistic and literary legends? Perhaps they found a certain glamour in lounging in a hazy room, new visions of their world slowly appearing before them. We will never quite know. But if you’d like to discover more of the mysterious beauty of art inspired by opium, pick up a copy of one of our latest books, Donald Wigal’s Opium: The Flowers of Evil.