From the turn of the 20th century, an age of industry, tobacco became a major export and cigarettes were integrated into the artistic iconography of Modernism, having been a romantic motif during the Art Nouveau era. With the birth of cinema the cigarette was glamourised, dangling from the lips of la femme fatale and brooding masculine cowboys, gangsters and heroes.
By the 1950s and ’60s consumerism boomed in America, cigarettes became more than cigarettes, the brand you smoked was a fashion statement, and brands like Marlboro, Lucky Strike and Camel had their own narrative. In Western culture they become universal symbols of the American Dream, emblems of masculinity, sex and sophistication.
Through the ’60s and ’70s tobacco brands in America and Europe were counterpart to cultural heritage, they were products that linked generations, and signified identity. But by the 1980s the dangerous truth about smoking was mainstream news, and as such took on a cultural subversion. Smoking came to signify rebellion, something the new generation, fresh faced from the 1980s, craved.
Fast forward to the grunge era of the 1990s – a nonconformist culture of which ‘Heroin Chic’ belongs – smoking became a impassive reaction against authority, and against the media’s portrayal of fresh-faced beauty throughout the 1980s.
L.S Lowry’s Man Lying on Wall, 1957
L.S Lowry’s Man Lying On Wall from 1957 captures the grey industrial skyline that the artist is so famous for, with smoke rising from factory chimneys. Lowry’s entire oeuvre is a pervasive testament to Britain’s transition into a global industry. Ordinarily Lowry would fill the picture with crowds of matchstick figures populating grey urban settings – but this time we see one solitary character.
The artwork Man Lying On Wall show’s a Chaplin-esque figure lying down on a wall on a public street, smoking. The scene itself is based on a real-life incident witnessed by Lowry from a train window. Smoke itself is an omnipresent symbol across Lowry’s works as a product of factories and growing modern industry, as seen in the famous Fever Van or Huddersfield works. The tobacco smoke circling up to the sky from the man’s cigarette is echoed by the chimney smoke rising in the background. The idea is humorous yet suggestive – drawing parallels between man and machine.
‘People…refuse to believe me when I tell them I saw a man dressed just like that, doing just that, from the top of a bus in Haslingden, Rossendale, Lancashire. It was the umbrella propped against the wall which caught my eye and prompted the picture. The chap was well-dressed and obviously enjoying the smoke and his rest. I couldn’t resist doing him as a subject.’ – L. S. Lowry
Pablo Picasso’s Fumeur à La Cigarette Blanche, 1964
What makes Picasso’s series, Fumeur à La Cigarette Blanche especially significant is the chosen medium of sugar-lift aquatints. Picasso abandoned sugar-lift aquatints for most of his career but returned to it towards the end of his life with these artworks, created in a workshop set up near the artist’s residence in Mougins by Aldo Crommelynck.
Sugar-lift aquatints are considered rare, and are therefore valuable, due to the extra stage to the standard process; the painting is first coated with a water-sugar solution, removed before it gets placed in acid. Only after the removal of the sugary substance is the aquatint applied to the print. The final work is created by the reaction of the acid to the drawings done with the sugar mixture, dissolving these – in the case of prints from the Fumeur à La Cigarette Blanche series, the reaction brings out different shades of Picasso’s rich colours and varying depths of his typically bold brushstrokes.
The cigarette in these works stands for sophistication and masculinity – ideas that Picasso epitomised. Many say the image is a self-portrait, given the iconic striped garment that was part of the artist’s signature look.
Tom Wesselmann, From Smoker #7, 1976
Tom Wesselmann was part of the American Pop Art scene in the 1960s. Similarly to Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and other artists within the movement, he gained most of his inspiration from advertisement and consumer culture and made artworks of everyday items. These representations were infused with an ironic tone and uncanny photorealistic representation.
Formerly a cartoonist for men’s magazines, Wesselmann’s interest and influences led him to his most famous Great American Nudes series created between 1961 and 1973 depicting female figures adapted from ads and mainstream media. Many of his prints from the 1980s continue with this subject matter but subtly infuse it with tongue-in- cheek references to other artists, such as in Mixed Bouquet With Leger (1993) and Monica In Robe With Motherwell (1994). These works present female nudity and high art side-by-side, drawing together two manifestations of the same fetish.
The Smoker series is a step further from his erotic nudes, reducing the female form to the lips, in this case sensual red painted lips blowing out smoke. The print reflects Wesselmann’s interest in highlighting and subverting fetishisation of the female body in advertising culture.
The cigarette itself in From Smoker #7 becomes a symbol of the fetish of consumerism. Many of these artworks were based on photographs and sketches of Wesselmann’s friend Daniele smoking.
Haring’s Lucky Strike, 1987
Keith Haring’s colourful figurative works draw on consumer culture, a theme that reflected the zeitgeist of the dominant Pop Art movement at the time alongside Haring’s contemporaries, including Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.
Haring‘s works first appeared on the subways, streets and buildings of New York City. The artist’s vibrant, playful linear style and commitment to activism is epitomised in his most well-known piece, the Pop Shop series (1989), which was the name of the boutique he opened in Manhattan selling his artworks for affordable prices.
Lucky Strike, the quintessential American brand for cigarettes, asked Haring to make a few designs for their campaign in 1987. Five were selected and released – these are now highly sought after artworks – Lucky Strike limited edition prints. Haring created nine designs, of which five were selected for the print and three were produced as large edition posters with painted signatures.
Lucky Strike shows three jumping and dancing figures that surround the box of Lucky Strike cigarettes in a fun and dynamic composition. Haring blurs the line between high art and commercialism by creating a print in his unique and recognisable style in the context of a poster advertisement.
Playing into Haring’s ideal of the democratisation of art, this poster was created for commercial purposes and was available for public display and consumption. This print shows Haring’s use of flattened form that mimics the mass-produced nature of the world he was critiquing. The pop of red in the Lucky Strike logo against the exclusive use of black and white, highlights the centrality of the brand name to this poster.
The artist allegedly created a separate version for his friends featuring skeletons jumping around the box of cigarettes which, unsurprisingly, the Lucky Strike brand didn’t favour.
Andy Warhol’s Muratti Ambassador Cigarettes, 1984
Consumer culture was a pivotal inspiration for the prolific printmaker Andy Warhol. From celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor, politicians like Lenin to the Dollar Sign itself, Warhol eagerly incorporated and glorified all that was mainstream in his iconic silkscreen prints.
Famously Warhol started his career in advertising, which remained a continuous influence on his subject matter and visual language through his practice. Warhol was labelled a ‘sell-out’ on more than one occasion for the overlap between his artistic output and the corporate world, but many experts would agree that this was simply a part of his inherently performative and provocative artist persona, through which he constantly challenged and overstepped the boundaries.
Muratti Ambassador Cigarettes was created by Warhol for the 1985 campaign of the Swiss brand Les Fabriques de Tabac Reunies. Ten of these limited edition prints served as prizes in a competition for the public, thrown by the tobacco company.
Julian Opie, Ruth Smoking 2
Ruth With Cigarette (2005) and Ruth Smoking (2006) are two series within the Ruth series of works commissioned by a Genevese collector, who sat for the portraits with Opie. They were created in Opie’s signature, simplistic style – the earlier series featured only a floating circle as Ruth’s head, while the later incorporated more facial characteristics, albeit still reductive ones.
Ruth Smoking speaks to Opie’s interest in Ukiyo-e, a type of 18th and 19th century Japanese woodblock print, representing female beauties not meant for display. The cigarette, which is the only distinctive accessory in these portraits, appears as a symbol of the art world and speaks of the nonchalance and elegance of his sitter.
Typically, Opie depicts individual and collective human subjects as they populate our busy urban landscapes. Some of his famous print series are Tourists (2014) and Standing People (2020) alongside numerous public commissions. He is interested in universal semiotics in his works, expressing things of nearly uncapturable complexity such as human beings in deliberately reductive forms. He is famously inspired by the simplicity of toilet signs for his iconic figures.