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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Food Still-lifes

Still-Life with Fruit, Nuts and Cheese (1613), Floris van Dyck (circa 1575–1651),
what you might have had for breakfast 500 years ago. 
What did you have for breakfast this morning? Cereal, bacon and eggs, Pop Tarts? I had a flatbread sandwich of Egg Beaters, low-fat Swiss cheese, with two turkey sausage patties. On the side I had grapefruit, and strawberry yogurt with (more or less) fresh strawberries added, topped with granola. I had café mocha to drink. I'm a believer in big breakfasts. What's the point in all this? The chances are, a good deal of what you had for breakfast today would have been highly unlikely five-hundred years ago. Much of your menu simply hadn't been invented yet in its present day, highly-manufactured form. It's not that the food is new. There were ham and eggs, breads and pastries, fruit and yogurt back then though we might have been ill-advised in eating them in the days before refrigeration. How do we know so much about food from the past? Art--still-lifes, particularly Dutch still-lifes, like the one above.
Copyright, Jim Lane
Seafood Buffet, 1991, Jim Lane, my own contribution to the cause
--a tantalizing feast if you love seafood. Dead fish if you don't.
Not long ago, chefs and historians were combing through their history books and their cookbooks trying to replicate the dinner menu from the Titanic on it's final night afloat. They were chagrined to realize how little they knew about many of the items served a mere hundred years ago. Some were simply incomprehensible. There was no one painting a still-life of the food that last night on the Titanic. (Jack Dawson was too busy painting his nude girlfriend.) Sex and food...two of the most persistent subjects in the history of painting. Man paints what's important to him. As far back as the ancient Greeks artists painted bowls of fruit. Legend has it they were so realistic they drew flies (it's unclear whether they meant the images or the artists). The Romans, being Roman, copied and tried to outdo the Greeks. Apparently, the flies were not impressed.

Fruit Basket, 1590, Giuseppe
Fruit Basket, 1590, Giuseppe
During the Middle Ages there was very little food painted--perhaps because there was very little food. God, war, and the gods of war were seemingly all artists cared much about. The wine culture of the Italian Renaissance fostered some of the first food still-lifes. Like little children, the Italians, such as Giuseppe Arcimboldo, sometimes played with their food as seen in his funny little Fruit Basket (above), from around 1590. When you invert the painting (as seen on the right), it becomes a funny little Italian. However, it was the Dutch who really pulled out all the stops when it came to painting food. One wonders if they ate half as much food as they painted. Of course, being such meticulous artists, by the time they were done painting, the food probably wasn't very appetizing (or even edible).

Un Coin de Table, 1895-1990, Paul Cezanne
Cezanne (above) was said to have painted apples until they rotted. For the Dutch there was a lot of meat, seafood, fruits, nuts, and veggies--quite the balanced diet. Like myself, breakfast seems to have been their favorite meal as might be guessed in seeing Still-Life with Fruit, Nuts and Cheese (top, 1613), by Floris van Dyck (no relation to Anthony). 

Still Life with Fruit and Ham, 1648-49, Jan Davidszoon de Heem.
I like my lobster better.
Cakes, 1963, Wayne Thiebaud,
Jan Davidszoon de Heem's, Still Life with Fruit and Ham, 1648-49 (above) appears quite sumptuous until the Dutch flies arise. The Dutch artist, Peter Aertsen, even managed to combine food and religion with his ghastly 1551 Butcher’s Stall With the Flight into Egypt (below). I like Dutch realism as much as anyone, but Aertsen's brand is enough to make me a vegan. The Holy Family must have longed for some Golden Arches, even if they were a mirage. Wayne Thiebaud's, Pop Art (that's Pop Art, not Pop Tart) Cakes, (left) from 1963, are more my speed.

Butcher’s Stall With the Flight into Egypt, 1551, Peter Aertsen.
The smell must have been quite...robust...on a slow day.
Though Thiebaud's cakes, individually and together, were and are works of the baker's art, Pamela Michelle Johnson's Cupcakes (below) most certainly are not. An entire nation nearly went into panic mode when it appeared Hostess would cease manufacturing this delicious little dietary nightmare. Pamela paints them with a hyper-realistic style which Dutch artists would, no doubt, approve, even if they might be somewhat mystified by the curlicues on top. However, the scale of this food still-life far exceeds that of even the most diet-busting, waist wasting, preservative packed, crème-filled, chocolate-iced, cupcake creation Hostess ever dreamed of.

Cupcakes, 2007. Pamela Michelle Johnson. I'm off to raid the pantry, now. 


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