Art, drugs and alcohol have gone hand in hand for centuries. Van Gogh was an avid Absinthe drinker and was known to finish a long day by taking a seat on a terrace with glass in hand, absinthe and brandy following each other in quick succession. Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas were also fans of the aquamarine liqueur, the former drinking it from a hollowed walking stick, the latter immortalizing it in his bleary-eyed painting,Absinthe Drinker. Van Gogh’s penchant for hallucinogens didn’t end with Absinthe. He was also known to have a hunger for unnatural “foods”, and on occasion attempted to eat his paints and drink turpentine.
If drugs and weren’t alcohol fueling creativity, it was something stronger. In the 19th century Opium was the drug of choice. Thomas De Quincey (an English essayist), known for a rare kind of imaginative prose that anticipated the modern “stream-of-consciousness” technique, used opium daily and was addicted to the drug from the age of 19 until he died. Coleridge saw the palace of Kublai Khan in a trance and sang its praise ‘‘in a state of Reverie, caused by 2 grains of opium.’’ Coleridge wrote: ‘‘For he on honeydew hath fed/And drunk the milk of Paradise.’’ John Keats also tried the drug and stated in his Ode to Melancholy: ‘‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains/My sense, as although of hemlock I had drunk/Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains.’’ Hector Berlioz, (the famous 19th century composer) used opium to relieve himself of the pain of chronic toothache. Whether he used it to enhance creativity is unclear, however he went on to compose the Symphonie Fantastique, in which the hero (a thinly disguised representation of Berlioz himself) supposedly survives a large dose of narcotic.
Modern artists have been happy to follow in the steps of their predecessors. Australia’s own Brett Whiteley was clearly interested in the effects of alcohol on creativity when, in 1971, he painted the aptly named “Self portrait after three bottles of wine”.
Now, Bryan Lewis Saunders, an American artist based in Washington D.C. has taken the exploration of art, drugs and alcohol to a completely new level.
“After experiencing drastic changes in my environment, I looked for other experiences that might profoundly affect my perception of the self. So I devised another experiment where everyday I took a different drug and drew myself under the influence. Within weeks I became lethargic and suffered mild brain damage. I am still conducting this experiment but over greater lapses of time. I only take drugs that are given to me.”
Whether you believe drugs and alcohol to be a relevant source of creativity, or simply consider them crutches on which the weak of talent rely, it is amazing to see the influence they can have within a controlled artistic experiment.
Below are a collection of portraits drawn whilst Saunders was under the influence of various substances ranging from cocaine, to marijuana, to DMT. Each gives us an astonishing look into the creativity of a drug affected mind and, at the very least, provides a unique record of one artist’s exploration to the edge of chemical influence.