Opium and the Arts

The relationship between opium and creativity has long been a topic of much debate, and from the Ming dynasty, the use of opium was associated with the literate classes. Towards the end of the Ming dynasty, China had become consumed by “garden mania.” The cultivation of opium poppies for both their beauty and their usefulness was widespread among men of letters, and some of the most influential men of the period engaged in it. The association between opium and cultural sophistication was further solidified during the reign of the Qianlong emperor, and as Zheng Yangwen explains in The Social Life of Opium in China, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, opium smoking had become a fixture among the artistic elite and the literati in the major cities.

Painting on rice paper, 19th century.

China was not the only country where opium provided creative inspiration, however. Arnold de Liedekerke has termed the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries “la belle epoque de l’opium,” and many European literary figures were opium users who treated the topic in their work. In England, Thomas De Quincey, the author of the first addiction memoir, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, at once decried and celebrated the drug, whose use he continued throughout his life. His contemporary, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, claimed to have found the inspiration for his famous poem, “Kubla Khan,” in an opium dream.

Drawing from Jean Cocteau’s Diary.

In France, opium became even more closely associated with literature and art. Among the writers inspired by opium were Claude Farrere, who eroticized the ritual of smoking opium, and Charles Baudelaire, whose ruminations on the subject aptly express the pessimism and ennui of modern urban life. With the arrival of Chinese-style opium dens in Europe after 1850, opium became an even greater object of fascination among the creative classes. As Margaret Crosland notes in her introduction to Jean Cocteau’s Diary, among the literary and artistic circles in early twentieth-century France, it would have been difficult to avoid opium smoking. The photographs of Brassai documented the opium smoking underground of pre-WWII Paris, and the artist Pablo Picasso smoked opium, which he famously declared “the least stupid smell in the world.”

Woodblock print from “Opium Primitives,” Dana Young.

While opium smoking waned in the West after WWII, correspondence between the artist Dana Young, whose work includes the “Opium Primitives,” and his friends suggests that opium smoking was common among beat poets are artists living and traveling in Southeast Asia in the second half of the twentieth century. The poems of Martin Matz, whose work is featured in Peter Lee’s Opium Culture, evoke the inspiration provided by hours spent reclining with the pipe, an altogether different sensibility from that of writers known to indulge in modern opioids, such as William Burroughs. Whether opium truly does make one more creative is debatable, but the romance of opium as a thematic element in art and literature is unequivocal.