Assuming that the prominence of the word “tea” in the title of the Hammer Museum’s new exhibition, Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880 to 1914, suggests that it is given equal weight in this installation would be a mistake. In fact, one is hard-pressed to find more than a mention of tea – the “drug” of choice for respectable Parisian women – and only to establish the context for the dramatic rise in morphine use among women in Paris beginning in the late 1800s. Only one of the six-dozen or so prints in the exhibition depicts a woman with her tea. Perhaps not so surprisingly, that drawing is by American artist Mary Cassatt, the only woman among the 43 artists in the show. The rest focus on the increasingly frustrating existence of French women at the dawn of the 20th Century, for whom “career choice” was an oxymoron.
Sadly, the British set in motion the international drug trade that led thousands of French women down the road to morphine addiction. In the wake of the Opium Wars, which erupted as a result of Britain’s attempt to balance its trade deficit with China by forcing the Chinese to accept opium in exchange for tea, China legalized the drug and quickly became the leader in opium production, supplying 85 percent of the world market. Much of that opium found its way into the homes of Parisian women, who had few rights in late 19th Century France and were excluded from political and educational opportunities. Their frustration and feelings of helplessness led many women to quell their misery by injecting themselves with morphine or sipping Vin Mariani, a popular wine that was fortified with cocaine.
That the men whose work is featured in this exhibition chose to highlight the seamy side of women’s lives was both a positive and a negative. On the positive side, their work forced Parisian society to confront the plight of women at the time. But on the negative side, it perpetuated the image of women as the “weaker sex,” characterized by “weak nerves, feeble minds, and general wantonness.”*
As interesting as this exhibition is, it could have been more so had it focused equally on the tea side of the equation. Tea also played its part in calming the nerves of Parisian women – and with a much healthier outcome. What distinguished the women who opted for tea over morphine? What were their thoughts on tea? A better title for this exhibition would have been Morphine Over Tea: Women in Paris, 1880 to 1914.
The exhibition runs now through May 18, 2014 at the Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd in Westwood.
* From the exhibition brochure