Wine and the Vine in Fine Art Photography
WINE, A NATURAL SUBJECT FOR NIÉPCE
1. Although the ‘inventor’ of photography, Nicéphore Niépce only took two photographs himself. Some believe La Table servie to have been the first of these (1823-5); recently, however, it has been argued that the image may in fact have been his second work (1832-3). The plate was lost among the collections of the Société Française de Photographie at the start of the 20th century.
What could have been a more natural subject for Niépce’s still life than a table set with wine? Like many painters of the period, he photographed the things he saw around him. This is true of Point de vue du Gras (1927), a photograph taken from the window of his house in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, near Chalon-sur-Saône. Aside from the fact that drinking wine at the table was an everyday activity in the 19th century, it is worth remembering that Niépce came from Burgundy!
WITH CIRCE, PRAMNIAN WINE BECOMES A WICKED POTION
2. Julia Margaret Cameron is known for portraits of celebrities of her era. However, she also created photographic illustrations inspired by the English Pre-Raphaelites. She spent time with Dante Gabriel Rosetti, one of the founders of the movement. Pre-Raphaelite women tend to be represented either as redeeming angels or dangerous seductresses; their value in such paintings tends to be symbolic and rooted in Bible stories or mythology.
This photograph is a study for a portrait of the goddess Circe (known to the Greeks as Demeter). The young girl has long, loose hair – a feature of many Pre-Raphaelite women. Nor is it rare for such female figures to be crowned with laurel leaves, flowers or stars. But why is Circe crowned with bunches of grapes here?
The fruit is meant to remind the viewer of the episode in Homer’s Odyssey, where Circe offers a potion, laced with Pramnian* wine, to Ulysses’ shipmates; the drink transforms the crew into pigs, trapping them on the island of Aeaea: “She brought them in and made them sit on chairs and seats, and made for them a potion of cheese and barley meal and yellow honey with Pramnian wine; but in the food she mixed baneful drugs, that they might utterly forget their native land. Now when she had given them the potion, and they had drunk it off, then she presently smote them with her wand, and penned them in the sties. And they had the heads, and voice, and bristles, and shape of swine, but their minds remained unchanged even as before. So they were penned there weeping, and before them Circe flung mast and acorns, and the fruit of the cornel tree, to eat, such things as wallowing swine are wont to feed upon.” (The Odyssey, Book 10, ll. 230-43)
Circe lives on a deserted island, in a forest of wild beasts who seem domesticated. These animals are, of course, men that she has transformed with the help of her wine-based potion. Thus she changes Ulysses’ crew into pigs when they arrive on her island. Eurylochus is the only one of the party to escape the spell.
Hermes had given Ulysses a magic plant – the holy ‘moly’ – which has black roots and milky white flowers. Ulysses uses the herb to resist Circe’s magic, then pulls out his sword; frightened, Circe invites the hero into her bed. Still mindful of Hermes’ warnings, Ulysses makes the witch swear ‘by the Gods’ not to harm him. This done, the pair unite and Circe undoes the spell, giving Ulysses’ shipmates back their human appearance. A year goes by before Circe helps the crew to leave the island, advising them to visit Tiresias in the Underworld.
We can add to these explanations, given in Homer’s original text, by noting that Pramnian wine is produced on the hillsides of the mountain of the same name, situated on the island of Icaria in the Aegean Sea, not far from Samos. It is here that Zeus is said to have ‘given birth’ to Dionysus, the ‘twice-born’ (see below). Circe also shared her bed with Bacchus/Dionysus, with whom she had a son, Cornus.
The pairing of these two divinities seems quite natural: together, they symbolically ensure man’s survival, one of the pair providing staple foodstuffs and the other providing wine. This being the case, it is no surprise that Julia Margaret Cameron chose this particular hairstyle for her subject!
* Pramnian wine was “a rude, austere wine, black in the shade and purple in the light. Hippocrates recommended it for hemorrhages” (Charles-Joseph Panckoucke).
DIONYSUS, THE ‘TWICE-BORN’
3. Iconography dealing directly with the ‘second birth’ of Dionysus is very limited. Dionysus is the only god to be born of a mortal mother: according to Homer, he is the son of Zeuz and Semele, the daughter of Cadmos, King of Thebes, and Harmonia. Zeus was the lover of Semele for so long that, of her own initiative or persuaded by a jealous Hera, the princess wished to see him as a god – as his lover, the pregnant Semele only ever saw Zeus in the dark.
Zeus, who had promised to carry out her wish, was forced to reveal himself. Struck by his lightning, Semele died on the spot. Zeus removed the baby from her womb, sewing it into his thigh – centre of life-force in Indo-European culture – until Dionysus came to term, ‘born from the thigh of Jupiter’. Dionysus (‘the twice-born’) is therefore twice the son of Zeus in two ways.
BACCHUS OR CHRIST?
4. This work of Caravaggio can be seen as a self-portrait of the artist as Bacchus/Christ, who is shown offering himself as a communion Eucharist – ‘Eucharist’ means ‘good flesh’ – to the libertine cardinals of Rome; he holds to his lips a bunch of golden, juicy grapes, in an admittedly sensual manner.
Crowned with ivy and dressed in an Antique-style toga which reveals a muscular shoulder, he holds the bunch of green grapes to his chest, seemingly wishing to squeeze the juice from the divine fruit. We can draw two conclusions from this: either that the Greek wine takes the guise of Eucharistic wine in order to bring ever more people to the feast; or that the wine of Christ transforms the bacchanalia into a kind of ‘universal Mass’.
SICK BACCHUS MALADE
Caravaggio, 1593 - Oil on canvas, Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy
Cindy Sherman recreates this image, putting herself at the heart of it both as model and photographer. In this self-portrait as Bacchus, she reinterprets Caravaggio’s work. The pose, framing and light are the same, but the metamorphosis of the model’s body forces us to revisit this otherwise-familiar image. This photo accentuates the Christian character of the original work: Sherman attaches herself, body and soul, to the ‘grapes of the Lord’, which she holds ostentatiously in her hand.
KIKI OF MONTPARNASSE
5. In his memoires, Man Ray recounts that Alice Prin, known as Kiki of Montparnasse, refused to pose for him, protesting that “photographers can only record reality”. Remembering his response to Kiki, he writes: “Not me...I photographed as I painted, transforming the subject as a painter might do. Like a painter, I idealised or deformed my subject”. During the années folles of the 1920s, society converged around art exhibitions and wild parties: the soirées of the Baroness of Oettingen, the minstrel balls featuring Youki and especially Kiki, queen of such events. Her beauty and kindness made her the darling of penniless artists and the very essence of a ‘bohemian’. She had her break as a singer, singing on the terrace of the Rotonde and in the Jockey, a fashionable nightclub. Numerous painters used her as a model: Modigliani, Soutine, Picasso, Foujita, Derain... One of her many lovers, Man Ray immortalized her in numerous photos. People came from far and wide to see and hear her; her image was on the cover of magazines; she had everything: money, jewelry, furs and cars. The Second World War marked the end of Kiki’s golden years. The socialite was eventually reduced to palm-reading in cafes; addicted to drugs and alcohol, she died in 1953. Adding to the composition an egg and a glass of wine, here Man Ray writes a surrealist love poem to his mistress, his favorite model and the woman of his dreams – of whom only the hand and the profile are visible.
THE WINE MARKET ON THE QUAY SAINT BERNARD
7. The Paris wine market, found along the river Seine on the Quai Saint Bernard, has been the domain of the capital’s wine merchants since the mid-17th century. The Paris wine market was created by the Cardinal Mazarin and first opened its doors in 1665.
Previously occupied by the monks of the Abbaye Saint-Victor, the site may have been used for growing vines for the church’s wine. The market was open to all wine merchants, including foreigners, on payment of a fee. Enjoying a better layout and better location on the Seine, the market replaced the nearby Port de la Tournelle, previously the main site of the Paris wine trade.
INSIDE THE WINE MARKET
Pierre Francois Leonard Fontaineubois, 1815 - Colored engraving - Carnavalet Museum, Paris
Parisian wine consumption began to rise from the start of the 19th century, going from 1 million hectolitres in 1800 to 3.550 in 1865. In order to deal with this trend, in 1808 city planners decided to build a new wine market, which was finally completed in 1845. However, the building had insufficient storage space and could not cope with the changes brought by the arrival of the railway. In 1869 the government decided to build new warehouses in Bercy, on the other side of the Seine. In 1905, the French parliament obliged large wine merchants to open branches on both the Bercy site and the Paris market.
Until the start of the 20th century, the two Parisian warehouses were equally important. However, the Saint Bernard market’s gradual specialization into fine wines and spirits and the extension of the Bercy site in 1910 meant that the latter soon gained precedence. In 1930, the Bercy site hosted 70 per cent of wine stock and trade, while the Saint Bernard market had the remaining 30 per cent. The traders of the Saint Bernard wine market finally moved off the site in 1964.
SCENES OF DAILY LIFE WITH BRASSAÏ, BILL BRANDT, HENRI-CARTIER BRESSON, AND ROBERT DOISNEAU
From left to right - Brassaï : La Môme Bijou au Bar de la lune, Montmartre (1933), Lulu de Montparnasse (1933), Soirée de gala chez Maxim's (1949), Vin d'honneur au Palais des ducs, Djon (1936)
Bill Brandt : Ivrogne s'appuyant contre un lampadaire, un jour de brouillards à l'aube, Londres (1934), Le personnel est prêt à servir le dîner, nord de l'Angleterre (1936) - Henri-Cartier Bresson : Un dimanche sur les bords de la Marne (1936-1938), Rue Mouffetard, Paris (1954)
Henri-Cartier Bresson : Vigneron Champenois (1960) - Robert Doisneau : Les auvergnats de la rue Coulmiers (1950), Coco, Paris (1952), Jacques Prévert au guéridon (1955)
WINE AND THE ARTS