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Culture

Artists haven't abandoned search for psychedelic nirvana of inspiration

From Victorian use of cocaine eye-drops to Amy Winehouse's reliance on horse sedatives, creative minds have sought out psychedelic experiences for centuries. But does doping make for better art?

Thomas Lyttle's Blotter Art

Artists have often tried to capture their hallucinations

From poetry to pop music, the question has been asked repeatedly over the years: Can mind-altering substances enhance an artist's performance?

An exhibition currently taking place at London's Wellcome Institute examines the huge influence dope has had on the arts - and artists of all kinds - across the ages.

"There is a huge range not only of substances, but also across different periods of time," curator Emily Sergeant said, while pointing to bamboo opium pipe, a plastic ashtray from the 1970s and some fly agaric mushrooms, which she said are illegal in the UK.

Spiders on caffeine

A particularly compelling part of the exhibition, however, is not directly related to artist - but to spiders.

NASA experiments on spiders

The webs may not be functional for catching flies, but they could be considered art (left to right: Benzedrine, caffeine, marijuana)

Three graphics are taken from a series of experiments carried out by NASA on arachnids given doses of the amphetamine Benzedrine, caffeine and marijuana. Their web-making ability was then assessed and the results are curious: The spider on caffeine created the most unconventional web.

In the other two cases the usual web structure was visible at the beginning of the process. But the caffeine-fuelled spider was noticeably less systematic and its web had large gaps and no circular center, making it essentially non-functional.

The survival of the artist, however, is admittedly less dependent on the functionality of his product and more on its aesthetic appeal. During the 19th century, a large number of writers, artists and scientists experimented with mind-altering substances - many of them legal at the time - to find out what kind of experience they could have.

"We have an example from France and the Club des Hashischins, a group of artists and writers who met under the guidance of a scientist, Jacques Moreau, and were administered a quantity of hashish and these experiences are recorded," explained Sergeant. "Moreau was interested in the effects of this substance on the genius: What would happen to an already extraordinary mind if it were altered in some way?"

First opium confession

Thomas de Quincy may have been a genius, but his autobiographical "Confessions of an English Opium Eater" from 1821 certainly influenced many creative minds, including composer Hector Berlioz, whose "Symphonie Fantastique" was inspired by it.

"This was really the beginning of the modern European drug culture in many ways. This was the first time that someone had written about their life in terms of their drug-taking and talked about what it was like to be an opium addict," said Mike Jay, the exhibition's co-curator and author of the accompanying book.

Doctor and Mrs Syntax, T Rowlandson after W Combe, colored aquatint, 1823

This 1823 painting, "Doctor and Mrs Syntax," satirizes the trend of hosting nitrous oxide parties.

These days, it's practically a rite of passage for musicians to get arrested for possession of illegal drugs, but two centuries ago, composers were using drugs for a different reason: to enhance their ability to dream up new sounds, combinations of chords and assembling huge orchestras.

"If you look at [French Romantic composer Hector] Berlioz at the time, he was taking opium and writing about an opium dream, but actually he was in a very over-stimulated visionary state for about a year, hardly sleeping at all," Jay said. "He was probably taking the opium to calm down. So sometimes when we see creative people writing about drugs and taking drugs, the relationship isn't as it appears."

'No nirvana of inspiration'

The exhibition is careful to avoid taking a position on drug use. According to Sergeant, there is a connection between drugs and art, but it is unclear whether drugs improve on talent.

"It doesn't seem from the material that we've looked at that it is the answer to anything," she said. "There is no nirvana of inspiration that any one drug has unlocked. But they have played this very important role in the lives of artists, writers and scientists throughout history."

Author: Sylvia Smith, London (kjb)

Editor: Sean Sinico

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