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Wine, Trangression and Excess

Cultures far and wide have discovered the practicalities and pleasures of fermented fruit or grain, particularly in producing alcoholic beverages. Echoes of these beverages can be seen in the vessels on display in this gallery: the small sake cup for Japanese rice wine; the ancient Greek lacquer-ware kylix for shared consumption of grape wine; the German glass Pilsner Stein for drinking beer; the Kiddush cup for the communal consumption of sanctified grape wine during the Jewish Shabbat; and from China, both the porcelain tankard made for European beer consumption as well as the much older porcelain wine vessel used domestically for pouring rice wine into smaller vessels.

Leon Kass describes the attraction of these kindred beverages: “Wine gladdens the heart, loosens the tongue, and enlivens the soul. Under its influence, we forget our troubles, lose our inhibitions, speak our minds: In vino veritas. A psychic midwife, wine delivers us of hidden insights and new affections” (The Hungry Soul, 125). In our readings, particularly Plato’s Symposium and T.S. Eliot’s response to Plato in his play The Cocktail Party, we can see that alcohol is associated with insight and can function as a psychic medicine at times.

And yet, Plato’s Symposium also witnesses the drunken and unmeasured behavior of two of its guests. To quote again from Leon Kass’ The Hungry Soul: “wine, like other human foods … partakes of the moral ambiguity of the human. […] It can enhance and it can destroy [our] humanity” (127). No object could testify better to the excesses associated with the culture of alcohol consumption than the porcelain “vomit pot” in our exhibition. Wine also suggests the insatiable aspects of human curiosity and hunger. Historically, this insatiability reveals itself in the (establishment of and) transgression of cultural taboos. This kind of food transgression is depicted in both the lithographs on display here, violating the taboo against eating horsemeat on the one hand, and a variety of religious and other taboos in the Lord Mayor’s Day Nightmare.

Similarly, tea and its kindred, caffeine-bearing beverages (including coffee and chocolate), also manifest themselves differently across material cultures, while simultaneously pointing to the human needs that unite these cultures. Both the German glass cup and saucer and the albumen print of the simulated Japanese tea gathering attest to the lasting and sophisticated associations with tea, a drink whose attraction originated in its power to overcome (or at least delay) the need to sleep.

Finally, two of the pieces on display relate to specific religious connections between food and sin, as understood in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Rose Piper’s depiction of Eve and the serpent from the Book of Genesis depicts fallen human nature through an act of temptation and eating. La Ultima Cena poster depicts not only the Christian notion of the Last Supper where Christ establishes the commemoration of his redemption of sin through another act of eating, drinking, and remembrance, and by emphasizing the connection between blood and wine. We have come full circle, and once again, wine like culture, can enlighten us or reveal an inhumanity suppressed beneath the surface of our polished surroundings.


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