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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Food Art

Hamburger, Claes Oldenburg
For as long as there has been art, man has used it to depict that which was most important to him at the time. Throughout the history of art three subjects have been consistently present through every era--religion, sex, and food.  Food? Yes, from the very first cave paintings to Claes Oldenburg's giant, vinyl, hamburger sculpture, whether it was still on the hoof or hot off the grill, the subject of food has always been as popular with artists as those who drool over their subject matter. Leonardo combined food and religion in his Last Supper while Michelangelo did so with his sculpture of Bacchus (aka. Adam). The Flemish painters used it in still-lifes that still make our mouths water while Andy Warhol silk-screened our favorite beverage (or at least the bottle) all over some of his paintings. And, in many of his paintings/illustrations, Norman Rockwell seems almost obsessed with food.

Still-life Plucked: Turkey with a Pan of Fish,
1808-12, Francisco deGoya
 Several years ago in San Francisco, there opened an art exhibit at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park that is also obsessed with food. "A Feast for the Eye: Food in Art" is a smorgasbord of some 250 pieces of art. Few of them were the traditional still-lifes we might expect. There were photos, films, paintings, cartoons, sculpture, dishes, silver, crystal stemware, a spread fit for a king, yet not one morsel if it was edible (to avoid the turnout of tiny art connoisseurs with six or more legs). Fittingly, the catalog for the exhibit was in the form of a cookbook and the curator was a self-described amateur chef. Dagwood's sandwich was there, as was a coat that looked like a cabbage, a purse that looked like a loaf of bread, and (bowing to Warhol) Pop Art silk-screen prints of Ritz cracker boxes and Perrier bottles straight from the supermarket.

There was also a serious side to the show, a photograph from 1949 of a British family eating in squalor and an Italian POWs book of recipes compiled of prisoners' recollections of their mothers' cooking. There was a painting from turn-of-the-century France which depicts two starving men boiling shoe leather. The show delved into food as a symbol of wealth and power and commented on those who are powerless without it. The decorative arts were not slighted. Displays in this area included a silver spice box with lock and key from Peru and an intricately crafted silver gravy boat with indications that it has been used over the years as something more than just an art object. The show kind of gave a whole new meaning to the phrase, "food for thought."

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