The Desire to Fill: Addiction and British Visual Culture, 1751-1919
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In “The Desire to Fill” I examine visual culture, including paintings, graphic art, advertisements and architecture, in relation to the lived experience of addiction. My study begins in 1751, the year that William Hogarth produced his engravings Gin Lane and Beer Street, and it ends in 1919, the year that Alfred Priest exhibited his painting Cocaine at the Royal Academy’s annual Summer Exhibition. There are four underlying arguments in this text. First, that addiction to drugs and alcohol is a manifestation of a desire to “fill a void.” Second, that addiction has long been thought to be legible from the body. Third, that addiction cannot be reliably read from the body, whether in life or an image. Fourth, any project that is concerned with addiction and visual culture is therefore a paradoxical one, and must, by necessity, be a speculative one. My methodological approach in this text is influenced by feminist theory and queer theory, and I explore the history of addiction using a continuist framework. In other words, I suggest that, although the identities of the “addict” and “alcoholic” as we know them today were discursively constructed at the end of the nineteenth century, people experienced addiction before these identities came into being. In that vein, I suggest that the woman in Hogarth’s Gin Lane is an alcoholic, and I show how anxieties about alcoholic mothers have remained remarkably consistent over the last three hundred years. I also discuss graphic artist George Cruikshank’s experiences as a temperance advocate after he stopped drinking, gin palaces and women’s desire for alcohol, the social and legal ramifications of addiction, and, finally, cocaine and tobacco addiction after the First World War. Ultimately, I examine the visual culture of addiction in order to destabilize stereotypes and myths about alcoholics and drug addicts that are still circulating today.