The Significance of Food in Art

Food not only provides needed sustenance but like fine art, provides immense pleasure. Also, food helps define a culture and allow expression in preparation, making the presentation of foods a creative outlet. Foodstuffs have even been used to create art, like juices and animal fats used in creating paints since the Stone Age. Therefore, it is no surprise that food has been depicted in art for centuries.

Still Life—Food in Art as the Subject

When one considers the connection between food and art, the painting of “still life” often comes to mind. Not confined to just edible items, still life allows viewers to reconsider common everyday items when presented in art. The beauty of still life arises from the reality recreated in the painting. The realistic look of the shiny fruit, the juicy meat, or the decadent roasted duck, all demonstrate the skill of the artist. Still life art has been used throughout time and continues to be a method for aspiring artists to focus on their artistic abilities.

Dining as an Experience-Eating as the Subject

Eating has always been a social occasion, for rich and poor alike. However, the Romans took this activity to a whole new level, leaving behind the evidence (and waste) of their gatherings afterward. This was exacerbated by their tradition of collecting foodstuffs for their gods. Since this was socially acceptable, paintings in various forms show this demonstration of the experience, both in exhibiting sacred and everyday occurrences. Works of art show the contentment of wealthy diners, celebrating the experience of eating, socializing, and playing games–along with the mess left behind! However, food in art wasn’t used just to showcase wealth; the lives and experiences of average families were also exhibited in art. Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters combines the presence of poor food and the perceived reality of being poor in dark colors, adding to the gloomy feeling.

Food as a Demonstration of Social & Economic Status-Particular Foods as Subject

Although one can view artworks of foods as simply food images, the subjects are truly thought-provoking. Food items featured in many painting often represented more about life at that time than a modern viewer may realize. Paintings depicting bottles of wine and fresh fruits tells about the diet of royalty or a wealthy family, while those showcasing bread and fish may tell the story of a people amid difficult times, where diets were limited to those items which could be gathered from the sea and made from stored grain.

Through the 19th century, food in art was also used to depict the concept of gluttony, and works were creating representing both the Christian view of gluttony as a sin, as well as the representation of what wealth could provide. Wealthy patrons even displayed work which would remind them of what privilege they had, even calling attention to the other vices the wealthy were known for (and perhaps proud of)! Jan Steen’s The Dissolute Household draws attention to several of these common behaviors.

Food Used Symbolically—Food in Art Depicting Something Else

There are several ways that fruit has been used symbolically in art. For example, in the Christian religion, the apple is linked to temptation in the story of the Garden of Eden. It is used in this manner throughout history, proven again in language, where the Latin word for apple “malum” is identical to the word for evil “malum.” In Greek mythology, the pomegranate equates to temptation and sin, especially in women, due to its depiction in The Rape of Persephone. In modern art, feminist artists began to use food in art to depict the restraint of being a wife and mother, while men were free to pursue careers and other activities. Feminist artists like Elizabeth Murray used art to propose that women were able to handle both domestic life and a career. Murray’s work in 1985, “Kitchen Painting” is an outstanding example of this feministic thread.

Food Used in the Artistic Experience—Edible Food in Art

The idea of the preparation and consumption of food as an artistic event is a more recent theory. However, artists use this activity, also known as the artist-orchestrated meal, to drawn attention to the social and cultural expression which occurs when people gather over food. Artist Rirkrit Tiavanija prepared a curry dish in his art gallery, serving it to gallery visitors in 1992. Due to its success MoMA has partnered with him to recreate this experience, and designed a similar kitchen used in the original event, serving curry daily during 2012.

Food as Pleasure….and Aesthetic

Whether one considers food as a subject for art by itself, as a representation of culture and social status, as an experience to be commemorated, to tell a story of its use (or misuse), or to be experienced in itself, it remains a beloved subject for artists everywhere. Perhaps adding food to an art collection can tell viewers something about the owner as well as the artist.

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