The Complicated Relationship Between Opium and Art in the 20th Century

Jeff Goldberg
May 4, 2018 7:43PM

Opium nights at Le Bateau-Lavoir, the dilapidated artists’ residence on the Rue Ravignan in Montmartre, often took place in Pablo Picasso’s studio. The 24-year-old painter, his girlfriend Fernande Olivier, and one or more of the other artists and writers who lived in the building could be found lying on straw mats around a small oil lamp that cast ghostly shadows on the canvases of sad-eyed acrobats and voluptuous blue nudes stacked against the walls. Slowly, with ritualistic deliberation, they passed around a ceramic pot of the tarry, amber-brown drug; a long, thin needle; and Picasso’s favorite bamboo pipe, its ivory mouthpiece and bowl decorated with enamel and silver.

Each person, in turn, would dip the needle into the pot, extract a small glob of the sticky paste, and hold it over the flame of the oil lamp until it started to bubble, then carefully position the bowl of the pipe above it and inhale the smoke. The room was filled with the acrid aroma that Picasso once praised as “the most intelligent of all odors.”

As Olivier wrote in a July 1905 diary entry, the hours would slip by and the miseries of their surroundings would be transformed into an atmosphere of “heightened intelligence, subtlety, and delicious contentment,” in which “everything became beautiful and noble.”

The tenants of Le Bateau-Lavoir included a virtual Who’s Who of the nascent turn of the 20th-century French avant-garde. In addition to Picasso, the building was home to the painters Amedeo Modigliani and Juan Gris, the sculptor Pablo Gargallo, the novelist André Salmon, and the poets Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob. La nuit d’opium was a routine part of the lifestyle of the building’s bohemian denizens.

Le Bateau-Lavoir, 2014. Photo by David McSpadden, via Wikimedia Commons.


What, exactly, was the substance they were so enamored with? Opium, the mother of all opioid drugs, is the dried sap of the opium poppy. By the turn of the 20th century, it had been refined into stronger and progressively more dangerous formulations—including the liquid tincture, laudanum—as well as patent medicines containing the alkaloid salts codeine and morphine. A powerful new painkiller called heroin had just been introduced by Bayer Pharmaceuticals in 1898. All of these provided faster, more potent highs. But it was the elaborate rite of smoking opium that captivated Picasso and his circle, as did all things supposedly exotic, from Far Eastern art to African masks.

The drug was readily available at a number of fumeries in Montmartre. A brothel run by Georges Braque’s mistress Paulette Philippi doubled as a private opium den on the Rue de Douai, behind the Moulin Rouge. Modigliani’s patron, Dr. Paul Alexandre, a firm believer in the power of opium and hashish to stimulate the imagination, ran another on the Rue du Delta. The most popular was the studio of George Pigeard, who’d given himself the fake title of “Baron,” and who is said to have turned Picasso on to the drug.

The young artist, then in his Blue Period, quickly became an aficionado. According to the first volume of John Richardson’s authoritative 1991 biography A Life of Picasso, he smoked opium several times a week between 1904 and 1908. Opium was more of a means of escape—and a love-potion for him and Olivier—than a creative tool for Picasso. He was no peintre maudit, like Modigliani, a cursed artist whose genius could only be liberated by drugs. Nor was he drawn to the drug out of a desire to follow his idol Rimbaud’s dictate to “derange all senses,” in order to achieve visionary flights of artistic fantasy.

Pablo Picasso
Mother and Child, Summer 1907
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

“Picasso regarded his work as sacrosanct and always kept his physical and mental energies tuned to the highest pitch,” wrote Richardson. “Work, sex, and tobacco were his only addictions. Le dérangement de tous les sens was fine for Modigliani—but not for him.”

Richardson and other art historians agree, however, that the influence of the drug can be seen in the dreamy, drowsy mood and trancelike, expressionless faces of the waifs and harlequins in paintings of the Rose Period, such as Family of Saltimbanques (1905). It’s possible, too, that opium-induced oblivion—a sense of having fallen out of time—may have contributed to the new style Picasso had begun to explore. He wanted to add the dimension of time to the spatial dimensions of painting, and to depict figures in motion from many angles simultaneously—a style that critics later dubbed “Cubism.”

Picasso’s opium nights ended abruptly in 1908 after the suicide of Karl-Heinz Wiegels, a young German painter whom he’d befriended and encouraged to move into Le Bateau-Lavoir. Wiegels suffered a psychotic breakdown after indulging in a cocktail of opium, hashish, and ether; Picasso found him hanging from a ceiling beam.

After Wiegels’s death, Picasso began to worry more about his own health, forsaking aperitifs for mineral water and giving up opium altogether. “Such was the shock of Wiegels’ death,” wrote Olivier, that they “never smoked a single pipe of opium again.”

Jean Cocteau
Faun a la brindille, 1939
Fairhead Fine Art Limited
Jean Cocteau
Alternance, 1946
Denis Bloch Fine Art

While Picasso may have forsaken the drug by 1908, a decade later, the young artists and writers of the Parisian avant-garde were still indulging in opium nights—only the scene had shifted to Surrealist painter André Masson’s studio on Rue Blomet.

Automatism—freeform expression executed without conscious thought—was one of the foundations of the newborn Surrealist movement in the early 1920s. Masson was experimenting with automatic drawing, and found the altered state brought on by opium to be a useful aid. His notoriously grimy studio, with its crumbling walls and soiled mattresses on the floor, was the scene of evenings of passionate discussions about the role of art in society, accompanied by abundant opium smoking and mandarin curaçao drinking. A typical guestlist might have included Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Max Ernst, Man Ray, and the father of the French Surrealist movement, André Breton.

Breton referenced opium in his 1924 Surrealist manifesto to help explain automatic expression: “It is true of Surrealist images as it is of opium images that man does not evoke them; rather they come to him spontaneously,” he wrote. However, Breton scorned drug use, and, in fact, regarded Masson and his crowd as less-than-serious Surrealist practitioners because of their vices.

Breton’s disdain for opium and opium users was partly grounded in personal experience. One of his closest friends, the writer Jacques Vaché, had died of an opium overdose in 1919 at the age of 24. But his temperance also stemmed from his professional background. Breton had studied medicine before turning to writing, and “a veritable doctor’s club formed the core of the Surrealist group,” wrote art historian Tessel Bauduin. The author Louis Aragon, like Breton, was a trained physician; the painter Max Ernst had studied psychology in Bonn; and the poet Philippe Soupault’s father was a doctor. “As far as Breton was concerned, he and his poets and artists were ‘explorers of the hidden mind,’” Baudin noted, “and he considered the Surrealist undertaking to be similar to the studies of Freud,” with his emphasis on dream interpretation and free association.

Breton’s straight and sober approach to Surrealism had its dissenters, most notably the poet and artist Antonin Artaud, whose personal pharmaceutical preferences included opium, morphine, laudanum, cocaine, and psychedelics. When anti-drug crusaders advocated the criminalization of cocaine in 1925, Artaud responded with an impassioned rant in La Révolution Surréaliste, defending the use of drugs, in general, and of opium in particular.  

“We are born corrupted in body and spirit; we are congenitally fucked up,” he wrote. “Inasmuch as we shall never be able to identify and eliminate the causes of despair in humanity, we have no right to prevent a man from cleansing himself of sorrow.…Anti-drug laws have only benefited the medical, journalistic, and literary pimps, who have built reputations of shit founded on a righteous indignation leveled against this inoffensive sect of dope-fiends, this minority that’s damned by their minds, their souls, and their disease.”

Another champion of opium, the writer, filmmaker, and artist Jean Cocteau, began using the drug in his early thirties, despondent over the death in 1923 of his young protégé, the writer Raymond Radiguet. In the years that followed, he became a devotee.

For Cocteau, the euphoria of opium was superior to health. “I owe it my perfect hours,” he wrote. But try as he might to keep his dependence under control—boasting in his diary that he “never exceeded 10 pipes [a day]”—the drug’s emotional and physical toll would periodically drive him to sanatoriums to detox. His 1930 book Opium: The Diary of a Cure recounted in vivid detail his experiences of withdrawal and recovery, accompanied by drawings of human figures transformed entirely into opium pipes. More often than not, he would resume smoking again within months of taking the cure, and was an on-again off-again addict until finally weaning himself from the drug late in life.

Yet Cocteau never lost his attachment to opium’s allure. And he wasn’t alone. Recounting a 1953 meeting with a 72-year-old Picasso, the 64-year-old Cocteau wrote how both men spent most of the time reminiscing about opium.

Picasso extolled the drug, remarking at one point that “apart from the wheel, opium is man’s only discovery.”

“Do you still smoke?” he asked Cocteau.

“No, I don’t, and I regret it as much as you do,” Cocteau replied.

“Opium promotes benevolence,” Picasso sighed, wistfully. “The smoker lacks greed. He wants everyone else to smoke, too.”

Jeff Goldberg