When considering the intersection of food and fine art, it would be common (and apt) to conjure images of Paul Cezanne’s apples, Egyptian tomb paintings, and Northern Renaissance still-lifes. One may even imagine Salvador Dali with a loaf of bread attached to his head in truly deranged, surrealist fashion. But the presence of food in art dates back millennia to the Upper Paleolithic period and has since assumed a multitude of purposes from symbolic and moralistic to creative and political. And even before any express tendency had come into play, there was the primordial and undeviating need to create and conduct in the name of sustenance. At the dawning of civilization when man was but an intuitional matrix of risk versus reward, ulterior motives and theoretical trappings would not have been taken into account as, say, they would have been with the more evolved classes of Dutch and Flemish societies or the subversive, tradition-bashing Futurists and feminists of the 20th century. Still, it remains challenging, if not impossible, to ascribe intent to works that predate language. And even in the midst of language, intent sometimes feels as murky as ever due to language’s intrinsic inclination to manipulate. Conjecture, it seems, is sometimes the best we could hope for. And isn’t that art’s most noble function? Placing ultimate faith in humanity’s capacity for imagination and interpretation.
Some 35,000 years ago, anatomically modern humans embarked on a pursuit that would prove to wield, at times pure and at times unjust, power for thousands of years to come. We now know it as art, the pursuit of expression and creativity, but during Paleolithic times it was virtually a biological necessity. Most prominently depicted in the grottos of Southern France (Lascaux and Chauvet) and the caves of Altamira, Spain were animals that were hunted for food. While some may believe such aerial perspective renderings connoted something akin to subjugation, many prehistorians have deduced that these paintings were realized in accordance with the concept of “sympathetic magic,” which is a type of magic based on imitation or correspondence. With this theory in mind, it is certainly possible that our cave-dwelling, bipedal ancestors believed that their primitive scratchings possessed the ability to produce an abundance of game. That, though, is a moot point. What is most significant about these cave paintings is that they are testament to food’s inextricable role in art from the onset.
American art critic for The New York Times and lecturer on contemporary art Roberta Smith wrote that “Food as subject, symbol and metaphor has been ubiquitous in visual communication since the beginning of time,” but its shape has of course changed to mirror, and sometimes subvert, the sociocultural climate from which it sprang. Take, for instance, the genre of still-life that emerged in Northern Europe in the 17th century. “In general,” according to Walter Liedtke of The Met Museum, “the rise of still-life painting in the Northern and Spanish Netherlands (mainly in the cities of Antwerp, Middelburg, Haarlem, Leiden, and Utrecht) reflects the increasing urbanization of Dutch and Flemish society, which brought with it an emphasis on the home and personal possessions, commerce, trade, learning — all the aspects and diversions of everyday life.”
Dutch still-lifes not only attested to the patron’s affluence, but their social and intellectual currency as made evident in such paintings as Abraham van Beyeren’s Still Life with Lobster and Fruit. Comestible items in still-life paintings also served as gentle reminders of, as Jennifer Meagher wrote for The Met Museum, “the transient nature of luxury, the virtue of temperance, or the perils of gluttony.” But they achieved their ultimate allegorical potency when placed in genre scenes such Jean Baptiste Greuze’s Broken Eggs in which a sullen young woman laments the broken eggs beside her. Whether alluding to barrenness or loss of chasteness and virtue, the presence of the man and the old woman looming over her in twin stances of distress indicate that she is being shamed. Whether the viewer is meant to vicariously reproach her or the people scolding her, though, remains mysterious. If this is a parable, in which eggs are at the symbolic fore, what lesson are we meant to learn? Remain virtuous or you will end up a mere handmaiden, hungry and full of shame, at the mercy of your feudal lords? It certainly raises the brow, if not significant discourse. Something that food in/as art would continue to do, though even more seditiously in the years to come.
According to Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, Zeuxis (5th century Greek painter) painted grapes so realistically that birds had swooped down to peck at the wondrous berries. The same cannot be said concerning Paul Cezanne’s “misshapen” and strangely-pigmented apples and oranges, but hyperrealism was not his aim. If it were, his name may have never been uttered after his death, let alone placed in the canon of Post-Impressionist art. Compositionally askew and rendered in spirited brushstrokes of brilliant color, Cezanne’s still-lifes were far beyond light and form studies. They were attempting to tap into a greater source of sensory absorption. They were not the apples and oranges — they were his. He made them in his image and in a style so distinct that it was inimitable. No, these fruit were and are not making any grand political statements or serving as religious symbolism (though this is contestable as fruit in Western painting are notoriously symbolic), but their primary purpose is that of individual expression and, perhaps at a stretch, they encompass the triumphant spirit of humanity and the beauty of individual perception. A few decades into the 20th century, they, alongside a whole legion of other foodstuff, would be fully comprehended in their potential to transcend the personal and channel the political.
When food is wed to art as masterfully as in the case of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s The Futurist Cookbook, something so revolutionary happens that it has the promise to permeate culture in such a way that it is almost imperceptible. British journalist, historian, and travel writer Lesley Chamberlain called it “a provocative work of art disguised as easy-to-read cookbook,” and that it was. A set of recipes meant to “radically change the eating habits of our race,” it took the act of cooking, historically associated with tradition and domesticity, and twisted it into social critique and performance art. But the cookbook, or rather manifesto, was not simply created for the sake of masturbatory avant-gardism. Marinetti believed that “men think, dream and act according to what they eat and drink,” and so his whole artistic creed was predicated upon this. If people comport themselves according to what they eat and drink, then logic would dictate that people also create art according to what they eat and drink. Stemming from this, and galvanized into action by the malaise that plagued modern man, many artists began to see the merits of depicting food as social metaphor and using real food as art material.
During the pop art era, at a time when mass-consumerism, media, and abundance had reached an apotheosis, many artists saw food as the perfect vessel for social commentary. One such artist was Wayne Thiebaud whose impasto paintings of frosty pastel cupcakes, thick-crust pies, and a host of other tactically-rendered foods attest to the very excess that had come to define American life. These paintings were also a confluence of two symbiotic schools of thought. While the sickly foodstuff seems indicative of the inevitability of rotting and degeneration, much like food in Dutch still-lifes served as a reminder of the ephemerality of existence, Thiebaud’s pastries also seemed to glorify and immortalize the ordinary. His depictions are not entirely dissimilar from the way food is presented in the vitrines of diners: visually stimulating from afar and upon closer inspection, a decaying heap. The food’s luminescent shadows deftly portrayed as though they were the ominous underbelly of suburbia.
If Thiebaud’s paintings were suggestive of decomposition, of foodstuffs on display well past their prime, Dieter Roth’s Literaturwurst and Daniel Spoerri’s Tableaux-Pièges (picture-traps) were the physical embodiments of this sentiment. In both, consumption was firmly placed in the theoretical center. Food, susceptible to rot and decay, was frozen, recontextualized, and intended to induce visual discomfort. In Spoerri’s Prose Poems and Repas Hongrois, for instance, the remains of a meal are preserved on wooden boards/tables and mounted on walls. And in the case of Literaturwurst, books were made into sausages. Yes, sausages. “From time to time I take books I can’t stand,” wrote Roth to friend Hanns Sohm, “or from authors I want to annoy and make: sausages c. 40 cm long, 8 cm thick, should end up as an edition of 50, titled on the outside, signed, numbered, DM100.” But Roth took his interest in food even further with his Staple Cheese (A Race) in which he filled 37 suitcases with cheese and left them to rot in the summer of 1970. What better way to bid farewell to the ‘60s and herald a new decade. And beyond that, what better way to intimate that art, like food, is transformable and transient and should be regarded as such.
Food, like art, can also be repurposed to serve one’s political agenda. Though actual food was not used in feminist artist Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, the symbolic value of its ceramic and porcelain equivalent was evident. Housed in Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, The Dinner Party “comprises a massive ceremonial banquet, arranged on a triangular table with a total of thirty-nine place settings, each commemorating an important woman from history.” And though its sheer scale and ornateness are certainly impressive, they are not what make the piece so unprecedented and significant. Rather, it is the ideology behind its inception that leaves the viewer, especially the female viewer, awestruck. Chicago was giving women of Western civilization a seat at the once androcentric table. Female achievement, in The Dinner Party, is not only noticed, but elevated to heroic and large space-taking proportions. No longer would women be relegated to the kitchen. They would be praised for their professional pursuits outside the kitchen. And if they so happened to choose to inhabit the kitchen, they would do so willingly and not out of servitude. Food would no longer constrain and shackle — it would liberate and bond.
One such instance of food’s ability to bond was Nouveaux Réaliste Spoerri’s Restaurant Spoerri and Eat-Art Gallery where one could eat a meal and subsequently have the remains fixed, mounted, and taken home. This operation would later prove to be one of the prototypes of the social sculptures of the ‘90s. Concerned by the proliferation and ensuing alienation of screen-based activities, artists of the ‘90s began to explore the realm of relational aesthetics. Coined by French art critic Nicholas Bourriaud, it is defined as “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” This concept is also not entirely dissimilar from Marinetti’s aim with Futurist cooking. As anomie was on the ascent, certain artists felt a pressing need to return to the public space where spontaneity and community was alive, if only barely. One such artist is Buenos Aires-born Rirkrit Tiravanija whose installations commemorated human interaction. In one of his best-known series of Untitled performances, gallery-goers would participate in the cooking and consumption of traditional Southeast Asian meals such as curry or pad thai. If ever there was a movement in art that lauded sustenance as food, sustenance as art, and sustenance as socializing, it was relational aesthetics.
Today, emerging artists continue in the millennia-old tradition of depicting food, but seek alternate mediums. If they are to remain both relevant and singular, approaches must constantly change whether that means making bread bags or hand-embroidering Hot Cheetos bags. No matter, food’s role in art remains as inextricable as ever. And just as was the case with our cave-dwelling ancestors, the need for sustenance is ultimately what drives us, both as artists and as humans.