Opium usage in art and literature is not as uncommon as you might think. Fascination with narcotics has reigned interest since the late 19th to early 20th Centuries with movies relating to the drug craze, such as: The Derelict (1914), The Dividend (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919) and Human Wreckage (1924). These focussed on the unsavoury aspects of drug taking and fueled anti-opium crusaders; who spoke of related tales including seduction, white slavery and opium smuggling.
The use of drugs began to feature in new detective novels with writers, artists and photographers capturing the essence of the allure which opium possessed. Much of this is echoed with the images featured above, which tell their own opium story.
- Dope! Rivers of it, to flood the nation! ‘ Race Williams battles drugs, smugglers and a dame named Flame in Carroll John Daly’s action-filled adventure “Just Another Stiff” (Dime Detective Magazine, April, 1936)
- Black Opium (Cover for Berkley Books English translation (1958) reprint of Claude Farrere’s Fumee D’Opium). This book was first published in 1904 and consisted of a series of short stories linked thematically by opium. These were drawn on Farrere’s observations and experiences in the French Navy. Within this text, the reader visits opium dens in China, Saigon, Paris and Toulon. The “shocking” cover of the Berkley reprint features a naked woman which incorrectly implies a connection between opium smoking and sexual ecstasy.
- Fumeur d’opium (Opium Den) postcard from the Territoire de Kouang-Icheou-Wan, Indochina.
- Photograph of a Caucasian woman dressed in ‘Oriental‘ clothes and posing as an opium smoker; but is actually holding a tobacco pipe. Caucasian women as opium smokers, opium den proprietors or as wives or concubines of Asian opium dealers, added a sensual overtone to the smoking ritual and so; were a favourite topic among writers who frequented or imagined opium dens. However, few women have ever written about their motivation for smoking opium, therefore, their stories and accounts of smoking have been relegated to obscurity.
- Lastly, La Vice d’Asie L’Opium (The Vice of Asia: Opium) painting by Henri Vallet. This was exhibited at the 1909 Paris Salon depicting an idealized Parisian opium den.
Writers in fiction, poetry and biography have gone to great lengths to describe their experiences with opium. In Theophile Gautier’s book “Mademoiselle de Maupin” he wrote:
“Me, I’d be there, immobile, silent, under a magnificent canopy, … and a huge tame lion under my elbow, the naked breast of a young slave girl under my feet like a footstool, and I’d be smoking opium in a massive jade pipe”.
However, the most famous text regarding opium belongs to Thomas de Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” (1822), which is one of the first and most famous literary accounts of opium addiction written from the point of view of an addict and details the pleasures and dangers of the drug.
In this tale, De Quincey wrote about the great English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), whose Kubla Khan was considered to be a poem influenced by opium use. It appears that Coleridge began using opium in 1791 to treat jaundice and rheumatic fever. Later, he became a full addict after a severe attack of the disease in 1801, requiring 80–100 drops of laudanum daily.
- The images above can be found in Barbara Hodgson’s book Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon, (1999).
“Is It Art?”