As 1 July rapidly approaches, Dutch smokers view the prospect with trepidation. From that date, they will no longer be allowed to smoke in bars and restaurants, because staff working there also have a right to a smoke-free working environment. Maybe a smokers’ corner will be set up here and there, but propping up the bar with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other will most likely be a thing of the past. The Gemeentemuseum is marking this remarkable development with a small but fascinating presentation on the theme of smoking.
Christopher Columbus was the first to make contact with tobacco-smoking peoples on his travels around the world. He brought the custom back to Europe and, surely but slowly, the cigar, pipe and later the cigarette became part of daily life, including in art. The cigarette symbolised freedom, wilfulness and a touch of rebellion, cigars were generally the trademark of distinguished individuals who surrounded themselves with luxury and comfort, while the pipe generally gave the smoker an air of masculinity and intellectualism. But artists also explored the controversies that always surrounded smoking, particularly from the 1950s, when it became clear that there was a direct link between smoking and a whole array of life-threatening illnesses.
The Gemeentemuseum’s collection includes lots of paintings, objects, photographs and drawings that are in some way related to tobacco use. These works are the key focus of the presentation Smoking / No Smoking. They of course include not only pictures of smokers, but also, for example, a poster by Paul Schuitema for the ‘Miracle Ashtray’ (which promises no smoke, no bad smells), a nineteenth-century tobacco pouch and the ashtray designed by Piet Mondrian, who was himself a committed cigarette smoker.
Adolphe Mouilleron’s La Pipe du Grand-Papa features children secretly smoking, in Das Recht Marcel Broodthaers approaches smoking – or more precisely the ban on smoking – from a conceptual angle, while Theo van Hoytema shows smoking frogs blissfully floating around on a lily pad. And of course the presentation also looks at the relationship between smoking and photography, for what medium better captures the mystery of heads wreathed in a haze of tobacco smoke? Lucebert photographed a circus performer calmly exhaling smoke as she contemplates the performance she is about to make, or has perhaps just made, with the cigarette as the essential accessory, and Wally Elenbaas almost consigns Greta Foree to a supporting role alongside the cigarette in her mouth.
Smoking / No Smoking shows the role tobacco in its many forms has played in art, and how this is reflected in the Gemeentemuseum’s collection. Now that smoking seems set to gradually disappear from public life, and maybe even altogether, images of smoking in art may be all that eventually remain.