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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Nouvelle Cuisine

Food artist, Paul Bocuse
One of the staple subjects of still-lifes from about as far back as still-lifes go (at least to the Renaissance), has been food. We've all seen and grown tired of the traditional bowl of fruit, that amateur artists today still find a respectable challenge without the intimidation found in many more complex subjects. The thinking seems to be, if it was good enough for Cezanne, it's good enough for me. Growing tired of fruit, artists long ago moved on to vegetables, followed by meats and game (some cooked, some raw, some just merely dead). This favorite still-life subject probably sparked the old phrase, "Looks good enough to eat." However, in the 1970s, Paul Bocuse gave a whole new meaning to that phrase with his still-lifes which were meant to be eaten.

A Bocuse still-life work of art
Bocuse coined the term, "Nouvelle Cuisine" (basically just "new cooking,") to stand for a whole new way of looking and thinking of food. Bocuse wasn't a painter, he was a chef, but there were elements of both painting and sculpture in his art. In the kitchen, portions became smaller, sauces became lighter, herbs and spices were carefully tested to tweak old recipes, bringing out new flavors and aromas. But there was a difference in the dining room as well. Starting with just the right plate to serve as a sort of "canvas," food was presented with careful consideration to it's size, shape, color, and texture, basically all the elements of design in painting, but now applied to the creation of a still-life meant to be eaten, and according to some, to pretty to be consumed. The dishes were presented with all the aesthetic attention to arrangement and composition a painter might envy.

A window display featuring noodles of various nationalities--all plastic
In fact, Nouvelle Cuisine, apart from being sort of an art in itself, actually inspired yet another art, that of photographing foods for the glossy gourmet food magazines sold beside the tabloids on the check-out lines of supermarkets. Photographers even began to specialize in the highly technical art. They quickly discovered that some foods simply don't photograph well, or can't stand up to the heat of studio lights. (Imagine, for instance, trying to photograph an ice cream confection.) In due time, substitutions were found (lard came to be used for ice cream) and eventually, there evolved yet another art form, the development of fake, plastic food that not only photographed well, but could set in a restaurant showcase and look pretty (and delectable) for months on end with only an occasional dusting. The movement had come in full circle, from painted food still-lifes, to the real thing, and then back to still-lifes imitating the real thing in plastic. And the one thing they all have in common is they still look "good enough to eat."

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