I was watching the movie, McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971: Warren Beatty and Julie Christie) about a man building a frontier town somewhere in the North western United States. (It was actually filmed in Vancouver by Robert Altman.) One scene shows Julie Christie (the resident brothel Madam) secretly sneaking off to smoke opium (although it is not called that, or called anything for that matter.)
This is not the first time I have seen movies allude to womens’ use of opium in the 1800’s and I wondered how accurate this depiction was. As the saying goes, ‘where there’s smoke there’s fire’. I decided to research the use of opium in the United States during the 1800’s.
Wow - not only did I find pages of information, I also learned that the everyman’s drug of choice was actually called laudanum (Latin laudare, to praise) and was used in many patent medicines to relieve pain... to produce sleep... to allay irritation... Today we take Advil, whereas the Victorian citizen smoked opium or ingested a morphine tincture. Laudanum was cheaper than alcohol, (due to its pharmacological definition it was exempt from taxes) and it provided wonderful dreams.
Laudanum lost its initial appeal when people were faced with a unexpected withdrawal caused by physical dependency on the opiate. The drug soon lost public favour as its addictive properties destroyed many families and frequently caused accidental overdoses. Surprisingly, ”laudanum is still available by prescription in the United States, classified as a Schedule II drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Its most common formulation is known as "deodorized tincture of opium," (Thanks Wikipedia.)
Researching laudanum led me to the Australian artist, Tracey Moffatt. An glimpse of her art photography is available online as is a schedule for her upcoming shows. At first I was unsure if Moffatt’s art was old photographs that she had manipulated and/or added to; or if they are current photographs she has taken. From all that I have read on Tracey Moffatt, these would be current photographs that she has staged to appear historical. Quite an outstanding job - judge for yourself. Each photograph challenges one’s imagination to fill in the blanks and complete the story.
Whatever the story, Moffatt’s “Laudanum” exhibition was held in 1998 and the photographs are mesmerizing - clearly depicting the dreamlike state the laudanum smoker could achieve. The pictures also give the sense of lethargical escape, or perhaps fulfils the user’s temporary wish to escape. Some of the women are half dressed implying a courtesan status or ...
Immediately I want to know why they need to escape? Were they addicted to laudanum? How did they come into contact with the drug? Where are the photographs supposed to be staged. What is the story?
Definitely an interesting collection. One that I would have liked to have seen in person.
Tracy Moffatt is currently showing her work in Australia. Another collection I would recommend viewing is her Scarred for Life series
Images from roslynoxley9.com.