Hungry for art: food has always been a tasty subject for artists

Feast and famine: food grows, gives life, rots – no wonder artists see its power to reveal life’s truths

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Eve ate an apple, discovered the truth of everything, and got kicked out of Eden for her pains. It was a pomegranate that kept Persephone in the underworld for six months a year. From Cranach the Elder, to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, artists have been highly alert to, and inspired by the symbolism of certain foods. Add in the concept of feasting, whether it’s the wild excesses of strawberries, fish, blackberries and mussels in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510), to the more restrained and poignant mealtime that is Da Vinci’s Last Supper (1495-1498), and food is clearly a central staple of art, just as it is of life.

November is Food Month in The Irish Times, with food-related articles in all our sections, plus reader events, competitions and exclusive content at irishtimes.com/foodmonth
November is Food Month in The Irish Times, with food-related articles in all our sections, plus reader events, competitions and exclusive content at irishtimes.com/foodmonth

The fundamental nature of food and feasting is a tasty subject for artists. The images will be recognisable to everyone, the symbolism there to reward deeper engagement or initiation. It can also provide clues. In van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding (1434), for example, there are some oranges on the window sill. Like the dog at the couple’s feet symbolising fidelity, the oranges indicate wealth. Interestingly, they only have that connotation in northern European painting of that time. In the southern regions, where citrus fruits grow abundantly, the significance is lost.

For artists fascinated by art’s ability to hold time, food is ideal. In the still life, you can have a composition that includes food from different seasons (unthinkable in the past), and in varying stages of ripeness and decay. If anything demonstrates the painter’s power over time, and life itself, it’s this. Fascinated by contemporary connections with art history, Irish artist Geraldine O’Neill picks up on the traditions of the Dutch still lifes of the 17th century (geraldineoneill.ie).

Her Ham Sandwich (2002) shows paint brushes and paint, alongside two fish, apples and pears and, nestling on lettuce on a bun, a small pink plastic pig. The pig will be inedible, but so, of course, is everything else in the painting, being composed solely of pigment on canvas. O’Neil told me once that making paintings like these have their own problems: fish change quickly in colour and sheen as they begin to lose freshness. Inevitably, they start to smell. Badly.

Another artist alert to the potential of food in art is Conor Walton (conorwalton.com). He tells the story of Zeuxis, an artist from 5th century BC Greece, whose paintings of grapes were said to be so lifelike, the birds flew down from the trees to peck at them. Zeuxis was bested by his contemporary Parrhasius, whose painting appeared to be behind a curtain. When Zeuxis went to draw the curtain aside, he discovered that that was a painting too.

Walton’s bunches of grapes, loaves of bread and glistening portraits of butter do carry a symbolic component

None of Zeuxis’s paintings survive, but the endurance of the story proves that we’re as fascinated with the idea of art both representing, and outlasting life, as the first artists were. Walton, whose own grapes explore the subject as a test of skill, holds a slightly different opinion: “my paintings will decay too, it’s a slower process, but it’s just as inexorable”. Describing Babette’s Feast, the 1987 Gabriel Axel film, in which “this cook goes to huge trouble to produce something that is absolutely transient but which is an incredible work of art: I think that is a better model to go for. Just to put everything into what you’re doing right now, in the present. We have no idea what’s ahead of us”.

Walton’s bunches of grapes, loaves of bread and glistening portraits of butter do carry a symbolic component (“I’m always aware of it”), but he also loves the challenges they present. “Irish butter, with the gold wrapper, its mixture of warms and colds, reflected lights and shadows . . . And paint is oily, oil paint is fatty, so it’s a subject that allows me to show what oil paint can do, almost better than any other. It’s why oil paint is so perfect for painting human skin. We’re oily creatures.”

From time to time, along come artists who remake art history, or rather create new conversations within its stories. Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) were a comment on consumerism and branding. They were part of a new narrative in which anything can be art, created when Marcel Duchamp offered his urinal, Fountain (1917) to the world – an inevitable receptacle, perhaps, for too much soup? Warhol’s treatment of the Campbell’s cans is inspiration for Monika Crowley, who takes it into different realms: of nurture, nostalgia and tradition, and the Irish habit of expressing love through food (blackchurchprint.ie).

Food’s visual metaphorical uses are not lost on Crowley either, her screen-print of a duo of Tunnock’s Teacakes, Ageless (2018) invite comparisons with a pair of breasts. At another register, Abigail O’Brien and Mary Kelly’s video and installation, How to Butterfly a Leg of Lamb (2002), makes one think ferociously of sex and power, even as the artists simply follow the step-by-step instructions contained in the recipe.

Food also comes into its own when exploring issues of gender equality, economic inequality and social control

Crossing genres, I’m reminded of Francis Bacon (a meaty artist if ever there was one), and his 1954 Figure with Meat. A papal figure sits in front of two butchered sides of cow. It is bloody, earthy, and seems to roar, rather than speak, of damnation.

On the subject of bloody meat, Canadian artist Jana Sterbak’s 1987 work, Vanitas, Flesh Dress for An Albino Anorectic, was a dress made out of 22kg of raw steak. Controversial at the time, the art work was decried as a waste of food. It hit a wider audience when Lady Gaga wore a similar dress to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. Still, Sterback hadn’t actually created the raw food-as-ensemble metaphor: Salvador Dalí, a fond foodie (he gave legendary dinner parties, and wrote his own cook book, Les dîners de Gala), had shown a lobster bikini at the 1939 World’s Fair.

If food in art is used as a symbol of life and prosperity, consumption and commerce, a metaphor of time and decay, and of art’s power to transcend that; it also comes into its own when exploring issues of gender equality, economic inequality and social control. Going back in time, van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters (1885), was an attempt, according to the artist, to show “manual labour and that they have thus honestly earned their food. I wanted it to give the idea of a wholly different way of life from ours, civilised people.”

Martha Rosler, on the other hand, is out to un-civilise. Her famous 1975 short film, the Semiotics of the Kitchen, shows the American artist, in a parody of the generic cooking shows of the time, taking the viewer through an A-Z of kitchen implements, with a increasing levels of frustration and violence. In A Gourmet Experience (1974), a table is set for a feast. Alongside are a selection of cookbooks on a shelf. These include, from 1926, The Settlement Cookbook, which is subtitled “The way to a man’s heart”.

Around the walls are arrayed extracts from Rosler’s A Budding gourmet: food novel 1 (1974), which Rosler also narrates in a recording set at the dinner table. “I wish to become a gourmet,” reads one placard. “I do this because I feel it will enhance me as a human being. That is, it will better me and make me a more valuable person to myself and others”.

Symbol, metaphor, instrument of subjugation, and the very stuff of life: food in art continues to nourish, and reward. And for those who are still feeling peckish, Dalí’s recipe book is available on Amazon, for €24, while Marinetti’s 1932 Futurist Cookbook, which among other things advocates the abolition of pasta, is about €8 . Enjoy.

Recipe for Aerofood from The Futurist Cookbook by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

 The diner is served from the right with a plate containing some black olives, fennel hearts and kumquats. From the left he is served with a rectangle made of sandpaper, silk and velvet. The foods must be carried directly to the mouth with the right hand while the left hand lightly and repeatedly strokes the tactile rectangle. In the meantime the waiters spray the napes of the diners’ necks with a conprofumo (perfume) of carnations while from the kitchen comes contemporaneously a violent conrumore (music) of an aeroplane motor and some dismusica (music) by Bach.

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