“I like to have a Martini / Two at the very most / After three I’m under the table / After four I’m under the host”, Dorothy Parker allegedly quipped. Though these playful rhymes are, by all indications, misattributed, they fit right in in the life story of the American poet, who was known for her piercing, quick wit and intense love affair with alcohol.
It is Parker’s unverified remark that instantly comes to mind upon admiring Paul Cadmus’ Seeing the New Year In. The painting was actually inspired by Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 narrative poem The Wild Party. March’s poem tells the story of a raucous, orgiastic party taking place during the Roaring Twenties that doesn’t go as planned. Here’s a compelling snippet:
The noise was like great hosts at war
They shouted; they laughed;
They shrieked; they swore;
They stamped and pounded their feet on the floor;
And they clung together in fierce embraces,
And danced and lurched with savage faces
That were wet
Their eyes were glassy and set.
The complete lack of inhibitions which heavy drinking so amply provides is illustrated with a sobering realism and biting satire by Cadmus, an American artist who frequented the decadent parties of 1930s New York himself. Forget the glittering extravaganzas steeped in champagne that F. Scott Fitzgerald might have attended. Cadmus’ characters are crammed up in a decrepit one-bedroom apartment where their hedonistic celebration comes across more like a self-pity party than a New Year’s Eve festivity.
Displaying varying degrees of intoxication, from the drinking blues to utter unconsciousness, the ten figures portrayed – three women and seven men – fall short of welcoming the New Year with the cheerfulness they’re trying so desperately to exude. There is groping and dancing, and two gay men flirting in the doorway – they seem to be the most sober of the bunch. (Cadmus himself was gay and for a while he was in an open relationship with fellow artist George Tooker whom he introduced to painting with egg tempera.)
This jarring, sad scene is made to look even more grotesque by the colorful streamers unraveling like threads of fabrics amplifying the unkempt and disarrayed appearance of the bedroom. To the right, a bookcase and a crookedly hung copy of Vincent van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles reveal the hosts’ pretense to a higher intellect and sensibility. In another nod to art, we can also see a book on Cezanne and Noa Noa, Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian journal, on the bookshelf. To see more of the details you can zoom in on this black-and-white study print here.
I don’t know about you, but the more I look at this sad assembly of party-goers, partly inspired by Cadmus’ own experiences and encounters, the more I empathize with the hunched, seated man to the right, hiding his face in his hands. Now I fully believe Dorothy Parker when she wrote: “I hate Parties; They bring out the worst in me.”
I would hate to end this post and 2018 on such a dark note. I hope all your New Year’s Eve celebrations are nothing like Paul Cadmus’ painting. Here’s to a happy 2019!