Visual Art – Food as the Medium, Past and Present

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Gustave Courbet's still life images portray the stark reality of life's fragility.

Gustave Courbet’s, “Still Life with Apples, Pear, and Pomegranates” (c1871/2), like all his other still life images, portrays the stark reality of life’s fragility. Credit: Dallas Museum of Art, The Wendy and Emery Reves Collection.

All living creatures consume nutrients in order to survive. All humans eat food; in fact, most of us even enjoy it. Historically, food is a part of our biological makeup. It defines who we are, our cultural background (historically and in the contemporary sense) and our physical makeup. Consequently, it stands to reason that food should (and does) appear in the visual arts throughout the centuries. After all, art is about life and so is food. But food as medium?

Why not? Just about everything else appears as artistic medium. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) used a urinal for a work he called Fountain. Found art, collages using objects from real life, has defined the complex fragility, as well as the wastefulness of humanity. Why just represent something when you can use the actual object as the medium, to enhance the message?

Visual Art – The Medium

“The medium is the message,” wrote Canadian philosopher of communication theory and art/literary theorist, Marshall McLuhan in 1964. This famous quote has been used repeatedly since the 1960s to define the theorist’s conception of a work of art: literary, visual, theatrical – anything created by humans. When food becomes the medium in the visual arts, what is the message? Art relays some sort of message, doesn’t it?

Is the artist commenting on the the contemporary human diet, or ridiculing mass-production of processed foods? Is the artist providing us with social commentary on human desecration of the natural world, using drama and stagecraft to create a lasting impression of the destructive side of humanity? Perhaps the artist simply admires food, as both subject and medium.

Nineteenth – Century Realism

Stark realism? Certainly food as the message can be blunt, sometimes brutally so. But “stark realism” was an art history label long before twentieth and twenty-first century artists started using ‘found’ and real objects as the medium. Gustave Courbet’s (1819-1877) work was sometimes defined as stark realism.


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As Jonathon Jones wrote in an article for the Guardian, Courbet’s “stark realist masterpieces foretold the alienation of the modern age” (“The Master of Menace”). Certainly, his still life images of food, like his Still Life with Apples, Pear, and Pomegranates (c1871/2), provide a vivid re-creation of all the blemishes and realism of the subject itself.

The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists of the nineteenth century favoured still life imagery in their works. Édouard Manet (1832-1883) preferred still life’s as subjects for his paintings. The artist once said that “a painter can express all that he wants with fruit or flowers.” 

Manet’s choice of still life reflects his view on the fragility of life and how brief it is. Manet viewed life with joy and excitement, and he reflected this in his still life paintings as well as other subjects. After all, food, the very essence of a still life painting, is metaphorically what we see and feel about life. It is more than what we enjoy in the culinary exercise of preparing and eating.

Manet’s Still Life With Fish (c1864/1868) depicts the raw essence of food awaiting preparation. The fish lies on the table, limp, its life depleted. Both eyes and mouth gape open, and the tail is turned upwards in an awkward death stance. Manet is telling the viewer that all life is fragile; all life is brief. In the end, we all lie with a vacant look, our mouths gaping.

Manet's "Still Life with Fish" (1864) at the Art Institute of Chicago depicts life's raw fragility.

Manet’s “Still Life with Fish” (1864) at the Art Institute of Chicago depicts life’s raw fragility.

Historical Metaphor or Political Metaphor?

Metaphor of life, or politics of life? Food as an artistic medium can represent both and much more. Food speaks about who we are, when we live, and how we live our lives. Yes, there is definitely politics in food. The artist chooses food as arts medium, as its message, for obvious reasons.

Still life images have often depicted recently killed animals – carcasses, bloodied, sometimes dripping blood over the surface on which they were posed. Paolo Uccello’s (1397-1475) The Hunt in the Forest (c1470) shows the brutality of the masses as throngs of hunters descend on their single prey.

Paolo Uccello's "The Hunt in the Forest" (c1470) in the Ashmolean Museium, depicts the aggressive brutality of man on the hunt for helpless prey.

Paolo Uccello’s “The Hunt in the Forest” (c1470) depicts the aggressive brutality of man on the hunt for helpless prey. Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum.

Courbet also painted the hunting image. The Quarry (1857) is one of his many hunt-related paintings. Courbet loved to hunt and loved to paint images of his hunt. Often, as in The Quarry, he featured himself as the hunter – a blatant message of his power over his prey, of humanity’s power over other life forms. It’s almost pompous in the artist’s crude, cruel, imagery.

As Fred Leeman writes in “The Painter as Prey” (DBNL), Courbet’s hunting scenes “are full of pathos, showing vulnerable, wild animals entirely at the mercy of their attackers. … in The Quarry, the slaughtered roe deer is shown hanging by its hind leg from a tree while, under the watchful eye of the hunter, the hounds wait to be thrown the entrails…”

The artist’s message: the brutality of the kill, for one, but also the wasteful side of the hunt, which metaphorically and categorically documents humanity’s wastefulness. The carcass would be left on the artist’s table for days, its composition not to be disrupted until the painting was complete. Consequently, the dead animal would serve no further purpose than to be an object in a painting.

Israel Hershberg's image of a single cow's tongue on a bare table in an empty space speaks volumes of life's brutality and fragility.

Israel Hershberg’s image of a single cow’s tongue on a bare table in an empty space speaks volumes of life’s brutality and fragility. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem Collection; Purchase, Boxenbaum Fund for Israeli Art; Artwork copyright of the artist ; Photo copyright The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Contemporary Artists and Food as Art

The carcass as still life is a medium with a message in much the same way as twenty-first-century artists have used rotting meat dumped on a gallery floor as a message to convey the wasteful aspects of our society. Similarly, artists have created real life objects using raw meat, as in the Meat After Meat Joy exhibition at the Daneyal Mahmood Gallery in New York in 2008, where meat artists like Betty Hirst used raw meat and lard to create dishes, shoes, and even the flag of the United States of America.

Exhibition curator Heide Hatry, quoted in the Meat Art Gallery Show exhibition review, stated that meat artwork challenges both the artist and the viewer “to investigate the paradoxical relationship meat has to the body.”

Food as medium? Or food as message? What about culinary artists? A true chef doesn’t just create a masterpiece to tempt the palette: his/her display of the masterpiece is, in itself, a creative exercise. The food is the medium. The message is self-indulgence – pure pleasure to the tastebuds.

But as art? As Mark Federman writes in “What is the Meaning of the Medium is the Message?,” we “know the nature and characteristics of anything we conceive or create (medium) by virtue of the changes – often unnoticed and non-obvious changes – that they effect (message).”

Israel Hershberg (born 1948) placed a cow’s tongue on a table, positioned it in an empty space, painted the image, and gave it the title Cow’s Tongue #74. The message? For Hershberg, his art defines himself. He is quoted in an interview with Larry Groff (Painting Perceptions), supporting

“the idea that a work of art should be a time capsule in which a painter deposits his most cherished, formative painterly desires – in the Joycean sense, of being forged in the smithy of one’s soul – the direct, unmediated experiences and communions we have had with great works of art.” What is he “depositing” in images such as Cow’s Tongue #74?

Food, be it subject matter or the medium itself, provides the viewer with a message that is culturally affected by the time period in which it was created as well as the time period in which it is viewed. It makes us wonder what the art historian will think hundreds of years from now when she or he looks at images of rotting carcasses, actual rotting carcasses, like Jan Sterbak’s Vanitas: Flesh Dress for An Albino Anorectic, that have been used as the medium and not just the image.

Resources

Federman, Mark. What is the Meaning of The Meaning is the Message? (2004).  Accessed July 25, 2013.

Gauvreau, Donovan. The Long History of Food in Art. (1999). Empty Easel. Accessed June 26, 2013

Groff, Larry. Interview with Israel Hershberg. (February 1, 2011) Painting Perceptions. Accessed July 26, 2013.

Jones, Jonathon. The Master of Menace. (Oct 30, 2007). The Guardian. Accessed July 25, 2013.

Leeman, Fred. The Painter as Prey: Courbet’s Hanging Roe Deer in the Museum of Mesdag.(1999). Stichting Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren. Accessed July 25, 2013.

Liedtke, Walter. Still-Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600-1800. (2003). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed June 28, 2013.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (1964). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Meat Art Gallery Show: ‘Meat After Meat Joy’ [Food Art]. (2008) Eat Me Daily. Accessed July 26. 2013.

Meat-dress Sculptor Wins Governor General’s Art Award. (Feb 28, 2012). CBC News. Accessed June 30, 2013.

Smith, Roberta. Art Review; Food: Subject, Symbol, Metaphor. (Sept 16, 1994). The New York Times. Accessed June 26, 2013.

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