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An Artist’s Cornucopia of Gorgeous, Strange and Sometimes Grotesque Artworks Featuring Edibles
Let the feasting begin. As many of us prepare for, or are already in the midst of, this season of holidays, parties and fun, we decided to feast with our eyes first with a totally binge worthy showcase of food feasts of art history! It’s an artist’s cornucopia of gorgeous, strange and sometimes a little bit gross artworks featuring edibles.
Annibale Carracci’s The Bean Eater is a depiction of a rough and tumble character sitting down to a hearty meal. With eyes looking directly outward, there’s an implied expectation that you, the viewer, are sharing his space and the dining hour, perhaps at a table across the way.
The Potato Eaters
A dark and coarse supper from the Post-Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters is unlike the painter’s colorful landscape masterworks. The artist focused on the poverty and realness of peasants at table. In a letter, Van Gogh describes:
“You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor 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 — civilized people. So I certainly don’t want everyone just to admire it or approve of it without knowing why.”
Eat Like an Egyptian
Egyptian hieroglyphs depict agriculture at its most ancient. Food was a mainstay of tomb decorations because who wants to get hangry in the afterlife? One tomb features a couple at work planting and harvesting. Other paintings show figures in similar moments of farming. Still others depict servants processing with platters of fish, fruit and game.
It also turns out grains, despite art to the contrary, made up the bulk of the Egyptian’s diet from 3500 BC to 600 AD, with little meat and surprisingly little fish as well considering, well, the Nile.
Another ancient painting from the nearby Indus River Valley shows a female figure enjoying the fruits of (likely) someone else’s labor as she accepts a beverage from a standing attendant.
Dim mood lighting almost obscures the action of Caravaggio’s 1601 painting depicting the Supper at Emmaus. The central Christ figure has just nonchalantly revealed himself to his dining followers and they — arms outflung, lurching out of chairs–start to freak. That means getting up from a table carefully set by the artist.
Notice how Caravaggio heightens the drama (and shows off his skills) of the moment by placing the fruit basket in the foreground over the edge of the table.
As one of the most prominent stories of Western Christianity, the Last Supper has been featured in hundreds of artworks throughout the ages. Visual earmarks of the subject matter usual include Christ at the center of the tableau surrounded by his apostles, but even that is subject to change with plenty of artistic license thrown in for good measure.
Early Christian mosaic depictions like those in Ravenna, Italy show a Last Supper not situated to a particular setting. The scene is simply cordoned off with a decorative border around the action. Christ is not in the center but on the far left, accentuated with a bejeweled halo and adorned in blue drapery.
Scale and perspective, obviously, were details the artists were still working on AKA wow, that’s a big fish. But having been made in the 6th century AD, we are cutting these tesserae artists some slack.
Artists like Andrea del Castagno, who painted his Last Supper in 1447, and Domenico Ghirlandaio, who did his some thirty years later in 1479, both placed Christ on the viewer’s side of the biblical dinner table, though they altered which position Christ faced.
This visual trope didn’t set any historical trends. But there’s much to note in these altarpieces including how trippy del Castagno’s backdrop of marble panels appear and wondering what Ghirlandaio meant by his inclusion of all those strangely huge birds in the background arches of his Last Supper.
It was Leonardo da Vinci’s Renaissance version of the Last Supper that really set the standard when it comes to historic iconography and presentation of the subject. He was the only Ninja Turtle to do a painting of the Last Supper that survives to date. Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael have none to their names. Leo’s visual language would influence generations of artists and plenty of 21st century memes.
And definitely not a Last Supper?!
Veronese came almost a century after Leonardo. He definitely upped the ante when it came to production value. His Last Supper appears in a much more splendid setting than Leonardo’s and also included a ton of extras…who almost got him strung up for heresy during the Inquisition.
Yup, Veronese’s “buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such scurrilities” along with apostles carving up lamb (that would be St. Peter) and picking their teeth with forks were harshly critiqued and questioned by officials.
Change it up…fast
Veronese though turns out to have been quite a pivot master. He simply made a few adjustments to the painting and asserted that the Last Supper wasn’t a Last Supper at all. No, this is a depiction of the Feast in the House of Levi. Totally different, judges. Toooooootally different. Subject closed. Neck of artist, saved.
There’s a Squash on Your Face
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose name this writer always confuses with saltimbocca (points though because that’s a food?), painted portraits of people as food. A set of eyebrows become strands of wheat. There’s a cucumber for a nose. Fish tails do the duty of a goatee. You get the gastronomic picture.
Food fetishist, a little imbalanced, or simply painting what his 16th-century Italian audience were into? It’s most likely the latter according to most scholars. Renaissance peeps loved riddles, puzzles and the strange, and Arcimboldo’s paintings are an edible array of all three.
The Most Sumptuous of All
When it comes to paintings that really put the ‘feast’ into the food, we have only to look one place: the Dutch Republic. Dutch painters in Antwerp in the 1640s developed the still life style of pronkstilleven, which is Dutch speak for hella food feast. Also, perhaps more literally translated as ostentatious, ornate or sumptuous still life.
Enter the lobsters, the meat pies, the fowl and fish, the oysters, the piles of glowing fruit, the gorgeous goblets and tankards of ale, and the stultifying curls of lemon peel. Enter the diversity of foods, vessels, gleaming glass, table settings and rich drapery.
Enter the not-so-everyday abundance as painted by dozens of Flemish artists with haute cuisine foremost in their minds including Frans Snyders, Adriaen van Utrecht, Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Nicolaes van Verendael, Alexander Coosemans, Carstian Luyckx, Jasper Geeraards, Peter Willebeeck, Abraham van Beyeren, Willem Kalf, Osias Beert, and Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts.
Eat and Learn
The pronkstilleven isn’t just about the eating extravaganza. There’s a moral to the story. It goes something like “you’ll never fill that hole in your life, no matter how much you stuff yourself.”
It could possibly be put a bit more eloquently in terms of the high genre of vanitas paintings, in which the empty or overturned glasses depicted speak to the vacant feelings inside that only moderation and temperance — not displays of wealth — can satisfy. The ostentatious spreads you see serve as warnings to not put your life in service to material things…despite inclusion of all the material things.
Pronkstillevens with a Side of Weird
But leave it to the artists to go a little off the rails with a theme. So from fancy snacks and highbrow eats, we go to:
Food feast, the menagerie edition! Also ew…who would eat a peacock?!
Food feast, the strange pets edition! Also ew…why is your dog smaller than the lobster on the table?!
Food feast, the put-the-turkey-back-together edition! Also ew…why did you put the turkey back together and put it on the table on top of his own parts-made-into-pie self?! We know Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII did a swan version of this in The Tudors (super bootleg clip if you want to see for yourself) and we still don’t care.
Food feast, the monkeys-need-to-eat edition! Also yay…the monkeys-need-to-eat edition? Did you know there is an entire painting genre called singerie devoted to depicting monkeys dressed up and doing human things…like having parties and feasting? The Dutchman Nicolaes van Verendael made several including the one you see here.
The Butcher and the Baker
Less look at my bling and more men and women at work, there are several Dutch masterworks riffing on the historic “pre-processing” of comestibles. That includes depictions of market stalls and butchers and food mongers prepping their wares.
Raid the Pantry
The Spanish have a food-in-art genre going strong as well, dating back to the 1600s. The bodegón tradition hit its stride with Baroque painters like Velazquez, Juan Sanchez Cotan, Zurbaran and Luis Melendez. It encompasses still life paintings depicting kitchen items plus food and drink, found in pantries or wine cellars, which is where the term derives.
In contrast to the Dutch tradition, bodegóns are presented simply, almost austerely. It is about the everyday, not the exceptional. There’s no banquet table set. These bleak “meals” are displaed on spare wood blocks or stone shelves. This is the cook’s prep table, with animals waiting to be skinned and fruits and vegetables in the raw.
But the vanitas thread loops these two still life genres together, with the Dutch cautioning the excess and the Spanish evoking mindfulness of the meager or lean times, when inner faith and fortitude must do the heavy lifting.
What cannot be denied is the surreal look of the bodegón, which are often cast in shadows and set in peculiar places, but that simply serves to make them all the more notable.
Diego Velazquez vibes with the bodegon tradition on several canvases including Old Woman Frying Eggs and The Lunch. Though the vibes are at different ends of the spectrum. The latter painting is way up and the former piece is way down. But food is the thing that unites them.
Wholesome Orchard Bounty
From a handful to a basketful, Post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne displayed apples and oranges in numerous ways in his equally numerous still life paintings. A jelly maker’s dream, Cezanne’s fruity canvases also bridge two -isms of art (Impressionism and Cubism) with their often disorienting lines of perspective and emphasis on planes.
Cake, Cake and More Cake…Also Pie
For close to fifty years Wayne Thiebaud has taken edibles as a painting subject. Certainly not his only subject but cakes, pies, gumballs, hot dogs and ice cream cones do grace more than several of his brightly colored canvases.
The compositions mostly echo the neat rows of a food counter or assembly line, perhaps harking back to Thiebaud’s teenage experience working at Mile High and Red Hot, a Long Beach, California cafeteria in the 1930s.
Will Cotton’s career as a painter is all about exploiting food cravings. His works depict landscapes of cupcakes, candies and melting ice cream and skies of cotton candy. He ups the sexy quotient by sometimes including nude and semi-nude figures — including celebs like Katy Perry — frolicking and lounging in his candy lands or adorned with the sticky foodstuffs itself.
Carolee Schneemann’s 1964 performance “Meat Joy” featured choreographed dance, scantily clad men and women participants, much writhing, body paint, and raw meat. Schneemann, a leading feminist artist known for her provocative, somewhat brutish works, performed the modern masterwork in London and New York to agog audiences.
Canned Food Drive
Andy Warhol first presented these 32 individual canvases in 1962, putting the works side by side just as if they were actual cans of soup on a grocery store’s shelves. Each canvas represents a different flavor of Campbell’s soup that Warhol hand-painted and hand-stamped with an eye toward the mass-produced ads the artist was inspired by.
In corners, around columns, in stairwells–Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ untitled candy performance-cum-changeable-sculpture pieces have been placed in humble settings across numerous museum floors worldwide. Visitors to the installations are invited to take a piece of the work…and the rest is up to them. Consume the candy. Keep it forever. Throw it away or pass it to a friend. The underlying message of the work harks back to the dark days the AIDS epidemic and the diminishing pile of candy represents those lost (or forsaken) to the disease.
Squeeze My Citrus
Artist Michael Parker, best known for his Cali land art installations, prompted visitors at his 2015 Juiceworks show to squeeze piles of gorgeously arranged citrus fruits using dozens of ceramic tools he’d made.
Salad for President
Artist and salad activist Julia Sherman, author of the blog Salad for President, created rooftop garden installations at the Getty Center in Los Angeles and MoMA PS1 in New York in 2014 and 2015. Guest artists were asked to make salads from the produce Sherman grew, which included more than 50 heirloom herbs, vegetables and edible flowers.
No binge-worthy food feast art history round-up would be complete without the Floor Burger by Claes Oldenburg. It is the epitome of modern art in food…or would that be modern food in art? You can’t eat it but you could definitely jump on this supersized junk food. Though the risk is museum banning you for life. #tradeoffs #worthit