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Psychedelic Art

The rock art that researchers believe may represent the pinwheel-shaped Datura flower. Photo by Devlin Gandy

When we think of psychedelic art, we might immediately imagine the neon colours, kaleidoscopic patterns and swirling fonts of the posters and protest art that grew out of hippie movements in the 1960s. However, psychedelic art - meaning art created under the influence of psychedelics - has a much longer history.

David Allan Peters
Untitled #17 , 2017
Acrylic on panel
121.9 x 91.4 cm (48 x 36 in.)
Courtesy of the artist and Miles McEnery Gallery, New York

The earliest form of recorded art is cave painting, and while these creations often simply depict animals and scenery, examples of non-figurative mark-making have also been discovered: radiating spheres, red dots, splashes of colour. Shamanism or herbal healing was fundamental to most early societies, and some ethnographers believe that these abstract drawings document visions brought on by psychoactive plants like the Datura flower.

Fast-forward to the late 18th century and the rise of Romanticism in British arts and literature, which emphasized the subjective world of the individual and the beauty of nature. This imaginative movement was deeply influenced by the Orient, and by the opium that came from it – imported from China, Egypt and Persia – which was legal at the time, and used widely and medicinally.

Not only can opium be detected in the sublime paintings of the Romantics, but in the works that sprung out later from the 20th century Parisian avant-garde. La nuit d’opium was a routine part of life at Le Bateau-Lavoir, a dilapidated artists’ residence in Montmartre and home to artists and poets such as Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Gargallo and Guillaume Apollinaire.

Opium has been said to be responsible for the dreamy mood of Picasso’s Rose Period, the trancelike expressionless faces in Modigliani’s works, and even the surreal approaches of Max Ernst, Man Ray, and Jean Cocteau – yet, as Cocteau once wrote in a moment of lucidity, “with opium, euphoria leads the way to death, so beware.”

Max Ernst
Men Shall Know Nothing of This, 1923
Oil on canvas
80.3 × 63.8 cm (31.6 x 25.1 in.)
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021

Keunmin Lee
Refining Hallucinations , 2019
Oil on canvas
281.94 x 226.06 cm (111 x 89 in.)
Courtesy the artist and Shin Gallery, New York

The psychedelic art of the 1960s is interwoven with LSD, a hallucinogenic drug which is said to transform the perception of reality. However, LSD leaked into counterculture in the USA not via artists, but the CIA’s Project MKUltra: an experimental programme exploring the use of psychological weapons to fight the Cold War.

Ken Kesey, who later wrote One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), was one of thousands who volunteered to take part in MKUltra – and he extended its work through bringing the drug home to his apartment in San Francisco Bay, to host ‘Acid Tests’. These were in fact LSD-fuelled parties, combining drug use with musical performance, fluorescent paint and strobe lights, from which the 1960s hippie counterculture movement grew.

Related categories

Light/Lightings

Optical Illusion

Symbolic Images/Objects

Perception

Repetition/Patterns

Image Production/Reproduction/Transformation

Introspection / Meditation

Reality and Fantasy / Illusion / Imagination

Abstract/Figurative

Geometric Abstraction

Abstraction

Art of the 1960s

The Grotesque

Art after World War II

Dreamlike Imagery

Surrealism

Neon/Fluorescent Light

Different Perspectives

Gestural Abstraction

Figurative Art