Summon some Flemish yokels. Send for some Venetian aristocrats. Then open the ale and party to the sound of bagpipes … if you can’t get to a Christmas bash this year, come to art’s best knees-ups instead
Last modified on Fri 17 Dec 2021 07.42 EST
H as your Christmas party been cancelled? Or perhaps you never got an invitation in the first place. Fear not. However socially distanced this festive season becomes, you can always soak up some fun from the great party scenes in art.
Would you rather dance in the village square with beered-up peasants from the paintbrush of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, or glug red wine and get your clothes off with Titian’s boozy revellers? They are not so different. After all, everyone’s the same after a few drinks. Although painted nearly 50 years apart, at different ends of Europe, Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians and Bruegel’s Peasant Dance both depict large crowds united in a wild yet graceful rite in which there’s room for many telling details: two villagers snogging to the sound of bagpipes, a youth balancing a pitcher of wine at a dangerous angle, a rustic couple dancing hand in hand, a woman lying back in satisfaction.
What you really need to get a great art party going is a good group – it doesn’t matter if they’re Flemish yokels or Venetian aristocrats. Add to this a nice space, indoors or outdoors, and plenty of liquid refreshment. At this time of year, a cosy inn or kitchen is best. In their paintings of Twelfth Night revels, the Dutch masters David Teniers and Jan Steen take us into half-timbered interiors to see Christmas parties in full swing. The time to open bottles 500 years ago was at the end of the holiday season. In Teniers’s Peasants Celebrating Twelfth Night, a man in a wooden crown drinks deep, while another parades in a jester’s hat. The lord of misrule who has his glass in Jan Steen’s painting A Twelfth Night Feast: The King Drinks looks like he’s prepared for the part by taking a few drops earlier. His features are already dulled by alcohol and the party’s just getting going.
Steen is one of art’s party throwers. It doesn’t really matter in his paintings if it’s a Christmas bash, or one to celebrate a new baby, or just lads and lasses hanging out at a tavern, so long as the beer flows, the waffles are warm and plenty of eggs get broken. He actually owned a tavern, full of drunks to observe: he is often detectable among them, grinning, smoking, raising a glass.
It was Bruegel who started this Dutch and Flemish tradition of depicting drunken get togethers, in his great works of the 1560s. It was said he also sampled the beer himself. The painter and his friends would dress as peasants, visit weddings and fetes claiming to be on the guest list, guzzle beer and stuff themselves with pancakes. In The Peasant Wedding, the pancakes are brought on wooden platters to seated guests in a barn. And in his greatest party picture, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, he includes so many manic details you seem never to quite finish taking it all in. Bruegel depicts the lord of misrule sitting on a giant beer barrel jousting with an emaciated figure who embodies Lent. In the carnival half of the painting, revellers, some wearing masks, booze at an inn, dance, get street food, play games, dangle from windows: the fun never ends. Except it will, when Lent comes.
In Renaissance Venice, however, the old rituals got confused by artists who didn’t care what time of the year it was. They, and their rich clients, just wanted to party. In Titian’s early painting Le Concert Champêtre, (the title’s French because it’s a treasure of the Louvre), two men and two women are doing just that. The women have got their clothes off, yet the men are looking deeply into each other’s eyes. Titian may be mourning his friend Giorgione, who not only painted party scenes but led a reveller’s life, it was said, playing the lute under ladies’ balconies and getting invited to every party going. Which was quite a few in Renaissance Italy.
Titian’s younger friend Veronese took Venetian partying to provocative extremes. Commissioned to paint an enormous canvas of The Last Supper for a Venetian monastery, he appears to have said to himself: “Wait a minute – that evening meal for 13 in the specially hired upper room of an inn wasn’t The Last Supper, it was a farewell bash!”
So he painted a Last Supper with wine waiters, jesters, dwarfs and fancily dressed disciples. This depiction of one of the holiest New Testament moments as a boozy party did not please the Inquisition. Veronese was called before the religious court to explain why he put “Germans” – known for their drinking – and other unseemly types in his Last Supper. He answered that an artist should have a fool’s licence. Instead of changing the scene he simply renamed it Supper in the House of Levi, a less sensitive subject.
Venetian banquets belong to a world we still inhabit, where the party can get going anywhere, any time, unless there’s a lockdown. The orgiasts in Thomas Couture’s 1847 painting The Romans in Their Decadence won’t stop until the empire falls. And in The Death of Sardanapalus by his contemporary Delacroix, people cavort in sensual abandon while they wait for the poison they have drunk to take effect. Couture’s pupil Manet turns a disabused modern eye on Renaissance partying in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, which revisits Titian’s pastoral frolics with two men in suits accompanied by two undressed sex workers. It’s a cold and clinical observation of 19th-century good times.
At Andy Warhol’s Factory in the 1960s the party never seemed to stop. Warhol famously turned his Manhattan studio into a playground with silver foil on the walls and balloons and cameras. A mixture of studio employees, celebrity guests, uptown visitors and house band The Velvet Underground made it an endless Bacchanal that for many defines the 1960s.
Photographs of the Factory, however, suggest a constant, low-key dissolute atmosphere rather than the gogo party film-makers love to imagine. There’s a sadness to these party snaps. A photograph by Stephen Shore captures Edie Sedgwick looking alone and lost in the crowd. Another shows a very young looking Lou Reed out of it in a corner among the empties.
What a shame, people say, that Warhol himself never painted the Factory (although it is the setting of his films). And yet he did. Warhol’s late series The Last Supper, silkscreen paintings based on Leonardo da Vinci’s famous fresco, show a farewell party as a fading hand-me-down image. He captures the flickering memory of the Factory, and sees something sacred in it. Warhol’s Last Supper is the most deathly party in art. Well, almost.
The Young British Artists in the 1990s were as notorious for their partying as the hangers-on at the Factory were. It was doubtless with a rueful grin that Sam Taylor-Johnson staged her 1996 image Wrecked, in which the Last Supper is a chic urban party. In a 2016 work recreating those days called The Memory of Your Touch, Tracey Emin found an old snapshot of herself lying face down semi-naked on a bed at a party and blew it up to a monumental scale. But the definitive image of the hangover this article has been headed for all along has to be Damien Hirst’s Party Time. This 1995 sculpture is a giant ashtray containing a thick layer of fag butts and ash collected from parties. It’s so disgusting, it sobers you completely.
The drink has run out. The music’s over. Fancy a night in?