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Blue Absinthe and Blue Laws
By Karen Green
Friday April 4, 2008 10:00:00 am
Our columnists are independent writers who choose subjects and write without editorial input from comiXology. The opinions expressed are the columnist's, and do not represent the opinion of comiXology.
Sometimes, the decision to add a book to Columbia's collection is as much about its context as its content. No one disputes, to pick an example at random, whether James Joyce's Ulysses belongs in a research library, but in addition to being a prime exemplar of the Modernist novel—a text to be explored for its story, its style, its influences and influence—it is also a locus for legal history and social history. Soon after its publication in serial form (from 1914-1921) Ulysses was banned for obscenity in both the United Kingdom and the United States, a state of affairs that remained in place, in the U.S., at least, until 1933.

While I make no similar claims for the monumental and influential nature of Nick Bertozzi's The Salon, it serves a similar double function in our collection. Not only is it a fascinating romp through one particular, singular, Modernist circle, it also has served as a bellwether for modern legal attitudes towards obscenity—at least in one community in the American south.

The book sweeps us back to Paris in 1907, where Gertude Stein and her brother Leo preside over one of the most notorious salons in western cultural history (well, truthfully, I don't know much about Madame de Staël's salons in 18th-century France and England, but we'll just take it as read, shall we?). Gertrude embraced the avant-garde movement in art and literature, and she and Leo collected most of the great Modernist painters of their era: Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne, Braque, Gauguin, Bonnard… the list simply goes on and on. Stein was something of a monument of Modernism herself: a prolific writer of poems, novels, plays, and essays, whom you've actually quoted if you've ever said, of a place that hadn't much to say for itself, "There's no there there." (Gertrude was referring to Oakland, California, which has since made great strides.)

The tale that Bertozzi spins is part art history, part biography, part tale of the supernatural, and part acid trip. A mysterious bluish woman is serial-killing her way across Paris; her victims are all either artists or artists' hangers-on, and she manages to rip their heads from their bodies (as my best friend noted, this is as good a metaphor for modern art as any he's heard). In the midst of all this, Georges Braque meets Picasso, who introduces him to the Steins at their salon, where a host of modernists, including the writer Guillaume Apollinaire, are experimenting with a unique blue absinthe. This absinthe, distilled from a root found only in an obscure Hungarian mountain village, called Lysurgia (get it?), allows those who drink it actually to enter into any painting onto which they concentrate their gaze. The effects are disorienting and sometimes dangerous: in fact, I found myself reminded of a particularly terrifying Mary Poppins story from Mary Poppins Comes Back, called "Bad Wednesday," in which Jane finds herself inside a pastoral scene painted on a Royal Doulton bowl, and very nearly ends up imprisoned there for good…but I digress. The salonistes believe that the mysterious blue murderess is Gauguin's Tahitian mistress, Annah, who is escaping from his paintings and killing off all those who were in his circle.

Well, that's the plot, but the plot's almost—though not quite—a Macguffin that sets the stage for a survey of the personalities in the Steins' salon, and for topics such as the birth of Cubism (John Hodgman claims, "I've never understood Cubism as well as when Bertozzi's Braque and Picasso are first discussing it on a train"), not to mention hot-blooded artistic rivalries (notably between Picasso and Matisse), the relationship between comics and modern art (Picasso appears to take the Katzenjammer Kids as inspiration for the strange, dark dots of eyes in his portrait of Gertude Stein), and sibling rivalry (Gertude's and Leo's differences come to a head with the introduction of Alice B Toklas, who would become Gertude's life-long companion). Picasso is the dominant figure here, as much for the force of his personality as for his artistic stature, despite the plot putatively revolving around the Steins. The little Spanish fireplug is depicted as arrogant, priapic, violent, and passionate, by turns, but your attention never strays while he's on the page. The color palette of the panels changes from section to section and sometimes page to page, but blue and pink feel predominant, as if in homage to Picasso's Blue and Rose Periods.

While Modernism turned its back on traditional influences in an attempt to create something wholly new, Bertozzi seems to dip into a post-Modernist pool of predecessors, whether intentionally or not. It's unlikely, perhaps, that Bertozzi knew of that Mary Poppins story, never having been a 10-year-old girl with an Anglophilic bent, but there are other echoes. At one point, for example, the Scooby Salonistes track down the addresses of other customers of the blue absinthe, hoping to locate the painting from which the suspect, Annah, is emerging. Trying to pry away the absinthe from one Parisian, they capitalize on the Gallic inclination towards anti-Semitism, implying that drinking the absinthe makes one want to convert to Judaism. That same inclination was exploited by the Baroness Orczy in her 1905 novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel, when her 18th-century hero, a master of disguise risking all for one last rescue, masquerades as a Jew, knowing that no gendarme will thus come near enough to detect his fakery. (This crucial scene, unsurprisingly, is not included in the 1934 film starring Leslie Howard, who was himself Jewish.)

So this is the content. What about the context? Well, in 2002 an excerpt from The Salon was included in an anthology comic that was handed out on Free Comic Book Day by a comics store in Rome, Georgia, where the comic ended up in the hands of a young boy. The store owner, Gordon Lee, was arrested and charged with two felony counts and five misdemeanor counts of distributing material containing sexual conduct and distributing said material to a minor (interesting that the distribution to the minor is actually the lesser charge). The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund came to Lee's aid, and the case ended in a mistrial, but the threat of prosecution still hangs over Lee's head. (You can watch Bertozzi and Charles Brownstein of the CBLDF discuss the incident here, from the recent graphic novel symposium, SPLAT!)

The offending panels, which you can see in the video above—I won't jeopardize the good folks at Comixology by reproducing them—show Picasso with full frontal nudity. He has been interrupted while masturbating, which forms another commonality with the Ulysses case, since it was a passage about masturbation that led to that kerfuffle as well. The Rome D.A.'s office believed Picasso was shown with an erection, which, upon close examination, seems quite the insult to Picasso.

Nudity in art has become a more and more contested subject. When I was about 12, my parents took me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see an exhibit of Picasso drawings, many of which featured detailed examinations of female genitalia. My mother hurried me past these, but chose not to prosecute the Met for distributing obscenity to minors. Just two years ago, however, a teacher in Texas lost her job for taking her students to an art museum, where they were exposed to an ancient Greek nude statue.

What is obscene? What is age appropriate? These are issues that plague the comics industry, as publishers claim both that comics aren't just for kids any more and also that comics are great for kids. Obscenity runs like a sly blue theme through The Salon, where Eadweard Muybridge is glimpsed trying to sell a motion study of a fairly decorous striptease, Apollinaire solicits saucy French postcard porn from Braque on their first meeting, and brothels play a fairly prominent role.

So, The Salon manages to comment on both Modernist society and our own society, while itself representing a commentary on contemporary social and legal mores. That's a feat of triple perspective worthy of the creators of Cubism themselves.

Previous article: My Comic History, part one
Next article: ...Mea Maxima Culpa

Karen Green is Columbia University's Ancient/Medieval Studies Librarian and Graphic Novel selector.

Comic Adventures in Academia is © Karen Green, 2010

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klg19 (3 weeks ago)
Happy Update: as Neil Gaiman announced at his CBLDF event on April 18th, a judge in Georgia has dismissed the case against Gordon Lee, and all charges are now dropped.
gajderowhat (1 month ago)
More often than not, Nick's drawings are strangely obsessed with the blue palette.
Just kidding. I'm rally sorry; I couldn't resist. Wow, they gave out an anthology with part of Salon in it on Free Comics Day 2002? Sorry I missed that one.

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