Still Food in a Bowl: The History of Food in Art
Art Episode Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, looks at the history of food in art from the earliest days of ritual paintings on cave walls, right up to the modern works of artistic greats such as Picasso and Van Gogh. It’s an amazing journey that shows just how
intertwined food, its preparation and its presentation have been throughout human history.
EAT MY GLOBE – SEASON 7
STILL FOOD IN A BOWL: THE HISTORY OF FOOD IN ART
What was Salvador Dali’s favorite thing to eat for breakfast?
I don’t know, Simon. What was Salvador Dali’s favorite thing to eat for breakfast?
A bowl of surreal.
Surreal. I love that.
That’s a good one.
Yeah, that is a good one. They’re all good. They’re all good. . .
. . . but that’s an extra special one.
No, they’re not.
I’m Simon Majumdar and welcome to a brand-new episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And, on today’s episode, we’re going to continue our quest for this season of looking at the way that food has been represented in culture throughout the ages. That could be in cinema, on television, or as we are going to be discussing in this episode, in art.
As food historians, art has a vital role to play in the way we can examine societies and people of the past. Along with archaeological discoveries and the forensic examination of the literature of the time, art in all its forms is invaluable in providing us with information about these societies. We can see how they ate, what kind of food they ate, the discrimination in diets across different levels of social strata, and how food played a role both physically and spiritually.
From the earliest moments in human history when people began to develop the cognitive ability to symbolize the world around them, food – and the sources from where food was derived, such as crops and animals – have been a pivotal part of art. Indeed, one could even argue that they were fundamental in the development of art, as people used artistic means to show where food could be found and how it should be prepared.
This continued throughout history, through the classical works in ancient Persia, Egypt, Rome and Greece. Across the world in places such as India and Mesoamerica. Through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. And, into the period we might call the modern world.
This art could take many forms, be it paintings or sculpture.
It could also serve many purposes. As a guide to hunting, harvesting and preparation. As a celebration of wealth abundance. As a guide to social etiquette. Or even as a funerary symbol as a representation of a move from one realm to the next.
Now, given the limitations of time that a podcast episode allows, it would be impossible for us to cover every aspect of how food and art combine. However, I do hope that this episode, where I select some of my favorite examples from art throughout history and around the globe, will at least stir the imagination and send you off on your own exploration of the many extraordinary representations of food in art. And, don’t worry, we will put some links in the transcript to sites where you can see all of the artworks I mention so you can see if you agree with my favorite choices.
So where shall we begin?
Well, let us, as we so often do, start with a definition of what it is that we are about to discuss. There is much discussion, even controversy, about the definition of art. However, I, I do like this one from the Cambridge Dictionary, which describes art as,
“the making of objects, images and music, etc. that are beautiful or that express feelings.”
I think this is a rather useful definition as not only does it tell us what forms art can take – primarily, in our case, paintings, sculpture, metalworks and ceramics – but it also tells us that the form must also be able to express feelings.
Indeed, if one were to look at the earliest art forms we know, from what we now believe to be the period known as the Upper Paleolithic period, which stretched from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, we can see that the earliest forms of art definitely fit this definition. In fact, in her excellent book, “Food in Art: From Pre History to The Renaissance,” author Gillian Riley actually entitles her chapter on this period,
“Cave Art: Pantry or Pantheon.”
The notion being that it is very hard, or even impossible for us to know why the first cave paintings of food were produced. And, indeed, we know almost nothing about the people – or we could already say, “the artists” – that produced them, apart from the result of their artistic endeavors that are still remaining on the walls of caves around the globe. And, while it’s fun to surmise why they were created, it would be wrong to assume for a moment that we can be certain about anything of their purpose. Indeed, we can just wonder at the quality and the longevity of the work that remains.
That’s not to say that people have not tried to add meaning to cave art. One of the first and most well-known to find meaning was Henri Breuil, also known, as “Abbé Breuil.” He was an ordained abbot and a French archaeologist who lived from 1877 to 1961. In his paper, “The Subdivisions of the Upper Paleolithic and their Meaning,” he developed a theory to classify the cave paintings he examined in France, Spain and Southern Africa, which he described as,
The theory being that the painting of the animals that were needed for food would have an impact in multiplying the numbers of the animal that were available to hunt. It was a very strict, functional approach to art and food. Later, this theory was to become more intricate, and with added spiritual elements, including that by painting the animal, the painter may take on some of that animal’s strengths, or even come under the protection of that animal.
This theory gained some kind of a legitimacy when archaeologists determined that the bones of animals near the cave paintings were found – that is, the animals hunted or eaten – were very different from the images of animals in the paintings. This made them believe that the art was more symbolic than functional.
As we begin to move from these basic, if often very beautiful, approaches to art, to a period where larger communities and the first civilizations began to be formed, we begin to see communities far more structured in their organization and the notion of food being mentioned in the first written languages. And, through this, we begin to see food’s appearances in literature, hymns and poems, and, as Gillian Riley describes it
“backed up by humdrum book-keeping, and palace accounts.”
A perfect example of this comes in ancient Egypt. As Phyllis Pray Bober puts it in her book, “Art, Culture and Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy,”
“In Egypt we can speak of three thousand years of little fundamental change, a basic population and way of life that managed to captivate.”
Ancient Egyptians believed that there was life after death, and that human necessities, including food, would need to be provided to facilitate the after-death journey. Not only did this mean that actual food was provided – in specially sealed containers, often marked with magical incantations to make the food last forever – but also that artwork containing food and drinks lined the walls of tombs. Indeed, it is because of such artwork that we know as much as we do about what food was available in ancient Egypt. Or, at least amongst the more elevated classes. The people wealthy enough to afford lavish tombs were also wealthy enough to afford tomb paintings and sculptures to accompany them.
The largest number of wall paintings to be found by archaeological excavations tend to be the staples of bread and beer. This is not desperately surprising, as cereals were the most important crop of the region. Ancient Egyptians harvested grains, such as emmer, wheat and barley, twice a year, thanks to the flooding of the Nile. In fact, if the flooding did not happen or did not provide enough water, then a period of intense famine could follow, making the notion of harvest even more important. The wealthy Egyptians ate a considerable variety of bread and cakes that would be made using the dried fruits that were also part of their diet.
Hunting and fishing too were important pastimes for the wealthy, and many tomb wall paintings would show images of bird or game hunting, and parades of men plucking plump fish from the Nile. Some of these animals appeared to be part of their diet because, for example, we do have a tomb painting of an offspring of Pharaoh Akhenaton gorging on a whole duck.
These ancient Egyptian meals would often also involve wines and we can see that the Egyptians had a passion for these from the wall paintings, decorated amphora – which are wine containers – and the beautifully decorated chalices and other drinking vessels that also provided sustenance on the way to the afterlife.
Ancient Egyptian art not only depicted their diet but also their humour. In an ancient comment on a piece of art depicting people at a banquet – a comment that was written in hieroglyphics, by the way – it says,
“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
I suppose, that’s the ancient Egyptian speak for “carpe diem” or “seize the day.”
As we move into the classical period of ancient Greece and later ancient Rome, a great deal of what we know about how the people ate comes not only from the extant literature but also from the art that was produced to accompany such activities.
Ancient Rome, for example, was a society in which celebratory meals were an important social ritual, whether through a Convivium or banquet; or an Epulumor public feast; a Cena, a mid-afternoon meal; or a Commisatio, a drinking party. The key in all of these dining events was to impress one’s guests. The archaeological evidence that has been uncovered over the years shows us just how far the hosts sought to achieve this. This included mosaics and frescoes that depicted the types of bounty that would have been served on the ancient Roman dining table, such as a variety of seafood like octopus and lobster, and wine.
Ancient Roman art on food also included the locations in which the food was served, such as fine private houses or lavishly decorated public spaces.
The walls of the houses would’ve been covered with frescoes or wall coverings showing food, often fruits and vegetables. While the floors of these houses and public spaces would be covered with inlaid mosaics, representing luxury ingredients often depicted to represent a floor that had not been swept. And, as the guests reclined to eat their meal, they would find their food served on tableware that was made to be decorative as well as functional. It could be made of precious metals such as gold, silver and bronze or expensive semi-precious stones such as onyx or agate. They might even be made of silver, which would include silver for eating, platters and silver for drinking vessels, particularly for the purposes of toasting.
The drinking vessels and other drinking accessories too may have contained references to Dionysius – the god of wine – and there are examples at the Metropolitan Museum of two silver cups that bear reliefs of two cupids dancing and playing instruments, which would be known to everybody as representing the god of intoxication and revelry.
By the Middle Ages, or the Medieval period, which was the period from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the start of the Renaissance, the images that we see of the food retain some of the informational benefit that we see in earlier years, but we also begin to see a moralistic tone to paintings representing the impact of the Christian church on art forms.
In an excellent 2015 article in Zocalo, Christine Sciacca writes about paintings of feasts from the Medieval and early Renaissance periods, and points out something that I had never noticed. The paintings are often fabulously detailed, showing the lavish contents of each plate and the buzzing energy of the servers as they run around serving the wealthy, but on closer examination she points out one remarkable fact – that none of the participants is actually eating.
This, she claims, touches on that moralistic tone that I mentioned earlier and the relationship of people of the period with food that she calls,
In that, while food was essential for survival and also a great source of pleasure, an overindulgence in the finer aspects of food could bring one very close to the sin of gluttony. Gluttony, which challenged drunkenness and overeating, was one of the Seven Deadly Sins first identified by Pope Gregory in the 6th century and which St. Thomas Aquinas expounded upon in the 13th century.
Along with the six other deadly sins, this impacted art considerably during the Medieval period. Particularly at a time when few people could read, and the visual representations were a key element in transmitting Christian values to the wider population.
One of the most well-known paintings to display the perils of gluttony is known as “The Feast of Dives,” also known as, “Spinola Hours,” which is attributed to the “Master of James IV of Scotland” and depicts a cutaway that shows both a wealthy man – known at the time as a Dive – and his family in front of a lavish feast, as well as a poor man who begs for food while knocking plaintively at the front of the house. He is chased away by a pack of dogs that are set upon him by the family. At the bottom of the painting, in a separate panel, the poor man is seen as being physically dead, but being raised to heaven by the angels for his piety. The implication being that the rich man, by now associated with the sin of gluttony, will not be selected in the same way.
As Sciacca says in her summary to the article,
“Images of feasting that appear in medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts illustrate the types of foods consumed by people at that time, elegant food presentation, and proper table manners. More importantly, they reveal medieval attitudes toward food.”
That attitude towards food was to walk along a tightrope of eating enough food to survive but not indulging or eating to excess and by doing so, breaking one of the cardinal sins of the Christian Church.
Before we move on to look at the depiction of food in the Renaissance, it would be very easy when talking about the history of food in art that we fall into a trap of concentrating all of our attentions on Europe.
Before we make that mistake, however, I think it would be only fair to quickly hop across to my father’s homeland to mention one of my favorite and one of the most beautiful pieces of food connected art that I am aware of. And that is the “Nimatnama” or the “Book of Delights,” which was created in India in the 1400s. It is written in a mixture of the Urdu and Farsi languages. It was compiled by a food obsessed ruler known as Sultan Ghyiath Shah of Malwah – and completed after his death by his son, Nassirudin. The book contains an interesting dedication that says,
“O King of Cockroaches please do not eat this, my offering to the culinary world.”
The odd dedication is believed not to refer to a person but to a belief in Malwa that cockroaches would leave books alone if the name of their king was mentioned.
So, I guess I should not have dedicated my last book to my wife but to a cockroach. She’s looking at me, and shaking her head, and mouthing, “no.”
The author of the Nimatnama, Sultan Gyiath, was an aesthete who loved the arts. But, most famously, he was known for his love and knowledge about food.
The script of the book is written in the exquisite form of Naskh calligraphy and contains not only information about food, but also about perfumes and aphrodisiacs. It is the food, however, for which it is best remembered. And the stunning use of Malwa art in its fifty miniatures are considered some of the finest of that period to have remained.
What is also interesting to us here on Eat My Globe, is just how many of the recipes listed in the book would be very familiar to fans of Indian cookery today. They include vadas, dals and raitas, as well as a recipe for the continuingly popular samosas.
The book was “lost” until 1959 when it was rediscovered in the British Library. It is now online and I would really recommend that if you have the chance, you go and have a look at it, not only for its eminently usable recipes, but also to see some of the most beautiful examples of Persian Indian art.
In Mesoamerica, food also appeared in different art forms to show how important it is in their daily lives. For example, the Aztecs sculpted their revered goddess of maize, Chicomecoatl. She is seen holding two ears of corn in each hand. She is also depicted wearing beautiful and sometimes, elaborate headdresses. Her sculptures could be found in homes and in temples, which emphasized her importance and patronage over a food staple.
Food also appeared in art created by colonizers in Mesoamerica. In our episode on the history of the chili pepper and hot sauce, we talked about the Florentine Codex and its creator, the Spanish friar, Bernardino de Sahagún. The Codex, which Sahagún created from 1575 to 1577, not only contains texts – both in Spanish and in the Nahuatl language – describing many facets of Aztec life, but it also contains over 2,400 exquisite visual representations of their lives, including their food. In one illustration from the Codex, a woman wearing a colorful tunic drops a basket of corn into a pot. And in another, a group of women wearing colorful skirts knelt as they held bowls while a group of men wearing colorful capes stood behind them while holding corn stalks. They all faced three whole corns with the husks partly removed. These images, which look remarkably similar to the corn that we eat today, conveyed the importance of corn in Aztec daily life. While the Codex was meant to provide the Spanish with guidance to allow them to facilitate the introduction of their religion to the Aztecs, the Codex has also provided an understanding of the Aztec relationships to their food.
And it wasn’t just corn that was important. Chocolate also appears prominently in Aztec and Maya art. According to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,
“Chocolate was so valuable to them that they produced many fine ceramic vessels with painted images and inscriptions naming them as vessels for drinking chocolate.”
In an example of Maya art, one of these decorated vessels vividly shows a god giving birth to a cacao tree, where the tree, filled with numerous cacao pods, shoots out of the god’s body. Another shows a ruler sitting behind a basket of tamales topped with mole and next to him is a foamed cacao drink.
These striking depictions of chocolate certainly show its importance in these communities. And it also makes me think that frothy chocolate drinks have been invented long before chocolate made it to the Old World and the rest of the world.
So, let’s return to the Old World to discuss art as we move into the Renaissance. That was a period that stretched from the 14th century to the end of the 17th century. The notion that the Middle Ages – often, I think, foolishly referred to as the “dark ages” – was nothing more than a period of war, pestilence and famine, coupled with ignorance from which the world emerged in the 14th century, is. . . is a malign one and does the Medieval period a real disservice. However, there is no doubt that, from the 14thcentury, we do begin to see an explosion of cultural, economic and political rebirth.
We can particularly see this in the development of the arts, particularly when new artists were patronized by noble families, such as the Medici family of Florence in Italy. Other families in Italy followed suit and from Italy we begin to see the support of artists spreading throughout Europe.
The importance of art to noble and royal families throughout Europe can be seen in the fact that just about every noble house would have at their employ a court painter – someone whose role it was to paint members of the high-born family and their surroundings. And this brings me to the first of the paintings and artists from the period that I wanted to touch upon.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo was an Italian painter who lived from 1526 to 1593. During his life, he was a court painter for two Hapsburg Emperors, Maximilian II and Rudolph II. While much of his more conventional work, which consisted of portraits, stained glass work and costume design, has been forgotten, it’s his paintings of human heads made almost entirely out of fruits, vegetables and flowers that have remained some of the most mysterious and most discussed in art history.
Perhaps his most famous work is known as “Vertumnus” and if you have never yet had chance to look at it, perhaps now would be a good time to go and look it up and then come right back to us. It really is one of the most extraordinary portraits ever committed to canvas. It is a portrait of Arcimboldo’s then-patron, Rudolph II. Now, while most court painters would have done their duty to make their employers look as good as possible, Arcimboldo chose to construct Rudolph’s face out of apple for cheeks, peapods for eyelids, and gourds for a forehead and for a chest.
An article in 2007 discussing an exhibition of his work even questioned his sanity. However, Arcimboldo was known for his love of what the Italians call, “capricciosa” or whimsy, and it is probably this that inspired Vertumnus and his other similar works.
As well as his inclination for whimsy, according to Princeton art professor, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, the images were supposed to symbolize,
“the majesty of the ruler, the copiousness of creation and the power of the ruling family over everything.”
In a way, showing that everything, including what the citizens ate, was a gift of their ruler.
Other paintings of the Renaissance were perhaps not of such odd disposition, but that does not mean that there was not a great deal to admire. The Renaissance period was the era when we begin to see the emergence of what is known as “still life” painting. That is, as Britannica puts it,
“depiction of inanimate objects for the sake of their qualities of form, colour, texture, and composition.”
That is not to say that there were no still life paintings before this period, but it is during the Renaissance that we begin to see it being recognized as an independent genre of painting. The “golden age” of still life painting is considered to be from the Lowlands – that is, Dutch and Flemish painters – during the 17th century. Although, as we shall see, the genre stretched across Europe and for a longer period than just this century and even into the world of modern art.
One of my favorites of these earlier still lives is known as, “Still life with Cheese.” It was painted in 1615 by one of the pioneers of still life painting, Floris Van Dijck, and depicts a table that can almost be heard groaning under the weight of cheese, and fruit, nuts, and bread and olives. The wheels of cheese show the marks that have been left by a small knife that has been discarded against the plate, and the half empty wine glass and half eaten chunk of bread look as if the diner has just been called away to more important business. As if there is any more important business than eating cheese and drinking wine. Heaven forfend. It is a painting that is so real that one can imagine reaching in and tearing a lump of bread and cutting a slice of cheese. Seriously, check it out. Like so many paintings of the time, there’s also a moral message. In this case, it looks to me like the unfinished food displays that a life is indeed fleeting.
Another one, or collection, of my favorites comes from a woman painter from the 17thcentury, French artist Louise Moillon, who was born in 1610, and who during her 86-year life created some of the most beautiful food still lives in art history.
She was a practitioner of the style of painting known as, “trompe l’oeil,” which literally means in French “to fool the eye” and refers to using a technique such as texture and perspective to bring the viewer into the painting adding a sense of genuine realism. Her skill at this technique can be found in such paintings as “Bowl of Lemons and Oranges on a Box of Wood Shavings and Pomegranates” and “Still Life with Cherries, Strawberries and Gooseberries,” the latter being so perfect you could almost imagine reaching into the picture and the juices of the cherries dribbling down your cheek as you stole them from the plate.
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began over two years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can get out and about to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you’ve enjoyed the episodes of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So, thank you very much, and keep listening.
By the 19th century, we begin to see the move of art away from being primarily focused on the grand people and places towards more of a focus on modern life. The primary exponents of this form of art were a group known as the Impressionists. This was a movement in 19th century Europe that depicted leisure activities, working life, village life and other aspects of their lives, which they represented using short, broken strokes of the brush, and using intense colors while being less concerned with the details of what they were painting.
The movement contained some names that, even today, are as well-known even to those who don’t particularly pay attention to the art world. Names such as Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas to name just a few.
Food, inevitably, played a significant part not just in the paintings of the Impressionists but also in their regular lives. Hardly surprising, one can imagine, particularly given the location where Impressionist art was first launched – in France. Perhaps of all Impressionists, the biggest food lover was Claude Monet, who lived from 1840 to 1926, and who was known to be a great gourmand. He would invite other artists to join him for lunch at his home in Giverny, the setting for his famous water lilies paintings, and where he served them,
“hors d’oeuvres with ‘the best Norman butter,’ succulent sweetbreads with spinach, two chickens for five people, then a fruit tart.”
Mmmmm… sweetbreads. [Smacking sound] I do love me a sweetbread.
In Giverny, he had a 2.5 acre garden that not only displayed the famous water lilies but also grew vegetables for his meals. He also had chickens that provided the eggs he ate. Monet also had his own recipe for preparing cepes or wild mushrooms – apparently using much garlic, olive oil and parsley. He was, by all accounts, a fan of truffles and lobsters, all of which he liked to wash down with wines and plum brandy.
Unsurprisingly, then, food plays a significant part in Monet’s repertoire of paintings, particularly in his early years as a painter because depicting food was, as author Bee Wilson puts it,
“ ‘Nature morte’ was a good bet for a penniless artist: cheap to paint, needing no expensive model, and easy to sell.”
These pictures ranged from the stark and formal “Quarter of Beef” painting in 1864, which depicts a hunk of beef, a half head of garlic, and a wooden mug full of beer.
To the lively and beautiful “Le Dejeuner sur L’herbe” or “Luncheon on the Grass,” Monet’s tribute to Edouard Manet’s more controversial painting of the same title. Monet painted his version between 1865 and 1866. Monet’s version depicts a jolly picnic in the woods where men and women enjoy the conversation with their fellow guests, the dappled sunlight seeping through the trees and a simple but delicious looking meal of roast chicken, pies, fruits and wine.
Perhaps the most famous artist of all, even though both the Americans and the British murderously ruin the pronunciation of his name, was the post-impressionist Dutch artist, Vincent Van Gogh. While my fellow British say, Vincent Van Goth, and my fellow Americans say, Vincent Van Go, I’m told that the Dutch actually pronounce it, forgive me, Vincent Van Hoh. I hope I got that right.
Vincent was born in 1853 in the village of Zundert in Holland. During his all too short life, which lasted only until 1890 when he was just 37, he produced a number of food related paintings. These included classic still lives he painted in 1882, such as a “Plate of Peaches,” and in 1884, such as “Still Life with Vegetables and Fruit,” and in 1887, such as “Carafe and Dish with Citrus Fruit,” “Grapes,” and “Apples.” These are all vivid with color and show his innate skill. However, it’s another paintings, one from earlier in his life, that really shows me how important food was in his paintings. Even if food itself was not that important to him, as we shall see in a moment.
In 1885, he painted a dark, and austere work known as, “The Potato Eaters,” which depicts a family sharing a very, very modest meal of potatoes and coffee. Unlike some other of Van Gogh’s work that are so bright and filled with color, this painting is almost gloomy in its use of greens, browns and gray. Although this image is now one of his most celebrated, it was not well received at the time, which is easy with hindsight to understand why. The people are, well to put it quite frankly, rather ugly, and painted by the artist to have, as the Van Gogh Museum puts it,
“something like the colour of a really dusty potato, unpeeled of course.”
His aim was to show the honesty of the workers and their farmer’s hands that they had earned the simple meal they were enjoying. It remains one of my favorite paintings involving food of all. Although I am glad that I don’t have to exist on a diet of potatoes and coffee. Van Gogh, however, easily could and did survive on a diet that was not much more than that shared by the potato eaters, and indeed, he once wrote, while cash-strapped, that he had lived for five days on no more than bread and 23 cups of coffee.
As we move from the 19th century to the 20th century, we begin to see some of the most iconic artistic images. Many of which will be familiar to all of you listening to this episode of the podcast. And there is probably no other place in which to start other than the one and only, Mr. Pablo Picasso.
Pablo Picasso was a Spanish artist who was born in one of my favorite cities in Spain – Málaga – in 1881, and who died in 1973. During his life, he produced an enormous body of work across a number of artistic genres, including painting, sculpture and photography, many of which touched on food as an inspiration. So much so that in 2018, the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, Spain held an exhibition entitled, “Picasso’s Kitchen.”
The exhibition contained nearly 200 works and drew from all the many genres that Picasso worked within, from all periods of his career and drawn from collections around the globe. It also tied in with a number of excellent restaurants around this famous city at which visitors could experience meals inspired by Picasso’s works. The curators also brought in Chef Ferran Adria, formerly of the acclaimed restaurant El Bulli, to cooperate with them on the exhibition. The venture was a huge success and over 200,000 visitors came to the Museu to see the event.
Now, I was not able to find my way to Barcelona when this exhibition was underway, which is a great shame. Particularly as so many of my favorite works of Picasso almost inevitably involve food or are related to gastronomy.
As I said, the exhibition spread across a number of genres.
Just as Manet inspired Monet, Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur L’herbe” also inspired Picasso in the late 1950s. Picasso began his own series of colored drawings that continued until 1962. Manet’s work had caused a stir when it was first presented because of the free and liberated appearance of its subjects. Picasso’s drawings did too, with the subjects in the post-1961 drawings all being presented in their nude forms.
The exhibition also featured menu covers and posters for the dish of the day that Picasso painted for a short-lived restaurant known as Quatre Gats. The Barcelona restaurant was open for around six years from 1897 to 1903, and by all accounts the food was not that spectacular. According to writer Josep Pla,
“The portions were a triumph of hope over substance. More than a restaurant, it was an exhibition of painted dishes, miniature cooking more suited to a kindergarten. The servings were tiny, bordering on the ethereal.”
But obviously, Picasso went there often enough that he was called upon to help with its publicity while it lasted.
Finally, and perhaps my favorite of all of the works in this exhibition are the sculptures made by Picasso using kitchen utensils and metamorphosizing them to represent other things because of their shape, appearance or texture. Most famous, perhaps, is a sculpture called “Head of a Woman,” which Picasso completed in 1930, where he used the round shape of a colander to represent the female head.
Now, I’d like to finish this episode by talking about an image, or series of images that have arguably become the most recognizable in all of the history of art. Not just about food, but maybe all of art history. And, those are the 32 paintings by a then relatively unknown artist, Andy Warhol, that were inspired by all of the different flavors of Campbell’s Soup.
The exhibition took place in 1962 and began Warhol’s transition from being a respected graphic artist who had worked for Tiffany & Co and Dior to becoming one of, if not, the leading exponent of an artistic genre known as, “Pop Art.” This was a movement that developed in the 1950s and 60s, primarily in the United States and Britain, that used popular and commercial culture in art.
Warhol created the paintings by projecting an image of the soup cans on to his canvas, tracing them to form an outline and then filling this outline in with traditional brushes and paint. This approach meant that each can, while representing something commercial and regular, was also slightly different in each painting.
There are a number of reasons offered up as to why Warhol chose the Campbell’s soup can as a subject for his art. The main ones being that it was an object that was instantly recognizable and would be found in most homes. And, because of the fact that it had been a part of Warhol’s own upbringing. When asked he said,
“I used to drink it…. I used to have the same lunch every day for 20 years.”
Which is about as good an excuse to paint something as you could wish for.
Now, there are, of course, so many artists that we could have touched upon for this episode, and I know that I have left out some rather major names – sorry, Rembrandt and sorry, Cezanne – but what I hope I have done is used some of my own personal favorites to show you how food and art have interacted through history.
Along the way, we have seen how food art developed as instructional and symbolic in pre-history. How it became an aid to passage to the afterlife in ancient Egypt, and a way to impress friends in ancient Rome. How it was a form of moral teaching in Medieval Europe, as it cautioned about the sin of gluttony. How it emphasized the importance of particular foods in Mesoamerica. How the Renaissance artists loved to paint food in detail and how the Impressionists did any thing but. How Picasso used culinary inspiration throughout his artistic life and how Warhol painted the lunch he had eaten for twenty years.
I hope that this has provided you with your own inspiration and that you will go and accept a small, but hopefully enjoyable homework assignment and go and check out at least some of the images I have mentioned today. We have provided links to some of the art on the website. And, hopefully you will find some of your own that will inspire you too. If you do, please let me know.
In the meantime, see you next week folks.
Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www dot Eat My Globe dot com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, and we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
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and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
I was struggling through it because I’m such a brave little soldier.
Published Date: November 15, 2021
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.