Absinthe Makes The Art Grow Fonder


2013071820190612 (BBC7)
20190613 (BBC7)

The novelist and poet Michèle Roberts presents a history of absinthe, and its influence on art and writing.

Toulouse-Lautrec, Verlaine, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Oscar Wilde and Hemingway - all are united by their love of absinthe. In the late 19th century, it became so popular that 5pm, when absinthe was served, became known as 'the Green Hour'.

Artists celebrated this bitter-sweet, aperitif. The way it changes from clear green to milky white with the addition of water is an alcoholic metaphor for inspiration and artistic transformation. But absinthe is very strong, and was thought to be hallucinogenic.

Artists' subjects and modes of expression changed radically in the later C19th. Artists and writers seemed to pursue lives of reckless extremity. Michèle investigates how all this became associated with absinthe. A symbol of the demi-monde, 'the green fairy' was demonised and banned in much of Europe (including in France), and America. At first an aid to inspiration, did absinthe lead to fondness, in the Shakespearian sense of foolishness? Did absinthe make the art grow fonder?

Michèle meets George Rowley, absinthe entrepreneur, who initiates her into the rituals of its consumption and Marie-Claude Delahaye of the absinthe museum in Auvers-sur-Oise, where Van Gogh lived, who helped Rowley recreate absinthe using old recipes. The historian Jad Adams and Pataphysician Kevin Jackson explain the myths surrounding the spirit; its rise, decline and fall - and recent resurgence. Barnaby Wright of the Courtauld Institute explores the fascination of absinthe for the young Picasso. And, under its influence, Michèle writes a poem. Maurice Riordan, editor of Poetry Review, judges whether absinthe inspires or wrecks her work.

Producer: Julian May

First broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2013.

Michele Roberts on absinthe, the drink that fuelled bohemia, and its influence on art.