Tea, Morphine, and Acid at the Hammer

In the Details by Ashley Berry


There’s nothing like hearing a new piece of music or seeing a painting for the first time and being completely captivated by the experience, and this past weekend I was eaten alive by Eugene Grasset’s “La Vitrioleuse”. It is just one of the many works that are currently on display in the Hammer Museum’s Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880 to 1914 exhibit in Los Angeles, but as far as I’m concerned, it could have been the only piece of art in the gallery. Sure, I could appreciate the sultry, dream-like quality of Emile Prouve’s “Contemplation” and the airy, ethereal tone of Odilon Redon’s “La Sulamite”, but the intensity of Grasset’s photo-relief with watercolor stenciling had me spellbound from the moment it came into my line of sight.

“La Vitrioleuse”, which translates as “the acid thrower”, is a representation of a phenomenon in which a series of French women in the late 1800s took to throwing acid on their romantic rivals, and it skillfully evokes the terror that must surely grip the heart of anyone with a known and violent enemy. Absolutely everything about the piece demands the viewer’s attention as it delicately blends Art Nouveau with japonisme to create the dramatic lines and vibrant colors one might expect to see in a modern day graphic novel.  The melon sky streaked with tangerine clouds creates a beautifully apocalyptic backdrop for the female subject who holds a bowl of acid in her hands. Even her features are arresting, with wildly flowing auburn tendrils, sky blue irises, high cheekbones, and a venomous, determined expression.

"La Vitroleuse" by Eugene Grasset

As a redhead, I might have been offended by Grasset’s choice to give this vengeful vigilante auburn locks, only furthering the representation of my ginger sisters as having fiery, reckless temperaments. But, Grasset seems to have a thing for this particular phenotype as is evidenced by the subject of another work of his that is on display in the exhibit, “Contemplation”, in which a woman with a strikingly similar appearance is portrayed as a lovely, goddess-like creature, so I’ll give him a pass.

"Meditation" by Eugene Grasset

What I loved most about this piece is the fact that it is not entirely clear whether it is a condemnation or a celebration of the women who chose to be so boldly aggressive, despite their historically deficient status as the “weaker sex”. Many of the pieces in the Tea and Morphine exhibit depict Parisian women of the time shopping, drinking tea, and generally, appearing quite bored. While there is no doubt that the image of the woman in “La Vitrioleuse” is meant to inspire fear with her faintly green complexion and cold, penetrating gaze, Grasset’s usage of lively colors and flowing lines creates an unmistakable allure and could even be construed as a subversive glorification of the women who fought against their lack of civil rights. It is this contrast of beauty and terror that makes the experience of viewing “La Vitrioleuse” so mesmerizing and most definitely the reason that I found myself absolutely compelled to look closely.


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