Melvyn Minnaar: There’s something about alcohol

By , 12 October 2020



In the world of fine wine, the word ‘drunk’ is never used. The somewhat more high-sounding ‘inebriated’ too never passes lips more worthy of a Reidel’s rim. But if the effect of alcohol is only briefly mentioned in nerdy wine judgment when the ‘heat’ spoils the palate, in the mighty history of art that effect has a high reputation in masterful creativity.

The Afrikaans poet, dramatist and writer Uys Krige, a colourful presence in my school days and in Onrust where he indulged in a marvellous bonhomie lifestyle, wrote a gorgeous short play with the unabridged title Die Lewe Is Alleen Draaglik As ’n Mens Bietjie Dronk Is (“Life is only bearable if one is a little drunk’). I was fortunate to work with Krige again when Capab Drama produced the autobiographically-inspired comedy in the early 1980s, and we certainly shared a glass and more of wine.

Krige was outspoken about the inspiring pleasures of wine. And then, like now, the mysterious link between indulgence and creativity, between drunk and dynamic, makes for good conversation. A few years ago the Tate Britain hosted a popular exhibition under the title Art and Alcohol and while scholars had a field day in delving drunk art making, it wasn’t clear whether this show made a difference to the wave of weekend binging in London pubs at the time.

“The Drunken Artist” – Abraham Bloemaert (1566 – 1651).

There are famous paintings of intoxicated characters and there are artworks made by drunkards.

Apparently of the greats who combined the doing and the drinking was the Dutch master Frans Hals (1582–1666) whose sozzled reputation was well-known among the arty crowd of Haarlem. His testament is the rather jolly painting of Een schutter die een berkenmeier vasthoudt, better known as ‘The Merry Drinker’, in the Rijks Museum. The military character is clearly somewhat under the weather. Hals’ painterly genius seems to have activated a certain vibrancy and movement in the way he holds forth the chalice for a happy toast. “Cheers!”

(By the way, South Africa owns a fine Hals. It is in the Iziko Museums of SA collection and currently locked away due to the Old Town House on Green Market Square being shut.)

The great Irish-born painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992) too was a pretty drunk chap and together with his friend that other great artist Lucian Freud (1922-2011) they hung out at the famous drinking spot in London, the Colony Room Club. Bacon loved champagne, but both drank whatever got into their wine glasses.

Freud’s unique, meticulous persona-driven paintings don’t give any indication of a tipsy artist at work, but with Bacon’s aggressive, masterful sweeps on dramatic canvases one is not so sure. (The second part of William Feaver’s magnificent biography, The Lives of Lucian Freud has just been published.)

A next generation of British artists frequented the Colony Room Club, but the place ran out of steam in 2008, which does not mean the legend of arty, clubby sozzledness doesn’t live on. Right now the Dellapossa Gallery in London is having an exhibition Tales from the Colony Rooms: Art and Bohemia featuring some very famous artists. The name says it all.

Cape Town’s version is the now-closed JoBurg Bar in Long Street, run by the very arty Bruce Gordon  – who became an “art work” himself at some foolish nonsense years ago. The place collected artists at the binge as much as it did their work for services delivered. Watering hole for local Bohemia. 

For many of the Michaelis School of Art crowd of the past decade or so, the Victorian face of the once stately Kimberley Hotel on Roeland Street welcomed them for jollies in the bar. For reasons which are not always easy to understand, the drink du jour/nuit has been Jägermeister – as chaser, or not.

Sozzled art students, talented artists or inebriated wine judges may not say it out loud, but there’s something about alcohol…

  • Melvyn Minnaar has written about art and wine for various local and international publications over the years. The creativity that underpins these subjects is an enduring personal passion. He has served on a few “cultural committees”.

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