Food and art

Food has been the subject of painting for hundreds of years. Why is food so artistically powerful?

Joël Penkman is a contemporary artist who has made a name for herself painting food. Usually, it’s junk food: sweets, lollies, biscuits, ice creams, cakes. Her hyper-realistic painting technique lends to vivid and quite beautiful works which leave any viewer with the slightest appetite salivating.

Food has been the subject of painting for centuries, and has been painted countless times. Almost every prominent artist has set their easel in front of a fruit bowl at some point, from Caravaggio, to Monet, to Picasso.

Penkman’s art demonstrates that the tradition is alive and kicking; these modern version of the classic still life are glorious sights – don’t they just make you want to stretch your head towards the canvas and lick? But as grabbing as these paintings are, a question emerges.

Why is it that artists have always painted food? What about it gives us so much pleasure? Penkman chooses food because it is "something everyone can relate to. It can hold memories, tell stories, explore national and local identity, and make us hungry."

She continues: "It is a fun, playful subject that makes people smile."

But to have remained a central subject of art for generations, food must be having a far more tangible and concrete effect on viewers than merely holding memories and making us smile.

What is it that makes it such a resilient subject?

For art critic John Berger, food artworks perform a crucial economic and social role. This is because art has often been an ‘instrument of possession’. In the Renaissance period, artworks strayed away from depicting religious scenes for the first time and quickly found a new purpose: art allowed wealthy people to demonstrate to others and themselves their own wealth.

Berger writes, "rich Italian merchants looked upon painters as agents, who allowed them to confirm their possession of all that was beautiful and desirable in the world." Wealthy merchants wished to be surrounded by reminders that they were the owners of beautiful things, but not all beautiful things can be around us at once. Women are not always in the room; estates are not always in view; and food is not always on the table: the only way to constantly have these things in sight was to immortalise them in oil paint.

Paintings of food just like De Heem’s 'Still Life with a Lobster', c.1650 became common in the wealthiest households. John Berger describes how, in this painting, "the edible is made visible... It confirms the owner’s wealth and habitual style of living." The painting shows the lavish lifestyle of its owner; of excess, bounty and riches. There’s so much food that it can hardly fit on the table, and every morsel is ripe, luxurious and colourful.

It might seem far-fetched to say that a painting of food represents the owner’s wealth; it’s only a picture, after all. But think of this. When people go to a restaurant and have an expensive meal, they often take a photo of it. Especially if it’s an unusually expensive meal.

Berger would say that they take photographs of the food because it is a visual confirmation of their own wealth. The picture freezes the moment in which they could afford to eat this well, and they carry the souvenir of this temporary success in their pocket forever. When they are feeling defeated they can flick through photos and see this proof that they have it good. They are confirming their own wealth just like the Italian merchant who bought De Heem’s lobster.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult fitting Penkman’s paintings in with this theory. Her paintings aren’t cheap, but the food itself is by no means the reserve of the privileged few: she paints Monster Munch crisps, Fab ice lollies and boiled eggs. What kind of lifestyle might these foods tell us about the owner if we are to follow the thinking of Berger? Nutritionally lacking, at best.

Paintings like Penkman's are appealing for a different reason. The origins of Penkman’s method is not to be found in the Renaissance, but a few centuries later, when the idea that each person was victim to a set of unconscious desires became commonplace.

In the 19th century, Darwinism, psychotherapy, and theories of the unconsciousness came along. There was a new understanding that our chosen behaviours were being undercut by what our unconscious selves wanted. For philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, this unconscious desire’s main goal was to ensure we continued to live.

Its main message, therefore, was that we must eat, drink and have sex. This, Schopenhauer argues, is why we feel hunger, thirst and sexual desire. Because our ‘will’ wishes for us to continue living. These forceful bodily urges are far stronger than any thinking notion or even any emotion, and, realising this, artists started to exploit them in their work. They mixed them up into mutilated emblems of desire, and turned them back to us. Hunger, both physical and sexual, became a motif in art, and often the two were conflated.

This, in my opinion, is what Manet is doing in 'A Bar at the Foulies-Bergère'. The fruit; the champagne; the barmaid – it stirs so many instinctive notions.

Manet mixes sexual and physical appetite again in his 'Luncheon on the Grass'. The naked woman sits with the picnic basket, while the two suited and booted men chat. The affinity between the nude and the food is clear, and we’re quite sure both will have been devoured before long.

Food is a fantastic artistic subject because the sexual aspect can be created without including a directly sexual subject. Food is so coded in our culture as sexual that just food alone can stir the sexual appetite of the viewer.

Salvador Dalí, a painter and sculptor working in the 20th century, uses food in a directly sexual way, taking the lead from other cultural connections between sex and food: forbidden fruit; aphrodisiacs; the colloquialism of “popping your cherry”; the physical act of consuming something (which is, in itself, slightly sexual). His famous 'Lobster Telephone' sculpture places the sexual organs of the lobster over the mouth of the speaker; Dalí believes that food and sex are inseparable, and here he forces the point upon the viewer.

Food is a potent artistic muse because, if well chosen, it captivates audiences by their physical appetite and by their sexual fervour. The artist can exploit sexual connotations embedded within our culture and our food while also invoking the very simple desire to eat. In conjunction, these two instincts lend to a strong aesthetic result.

Penkman is tapping in to a centuries old tradition of toying with the most basic of human instincts. She seizes physical hunger, and a little sexual hunger too, to make artworks that are immensely pleasurable to look at. They are representations of the objects of our desires, preserved forever as unattainable. They make clear to us the reason that food has continued to be a prominent subject for artists throughout the ages.

Artistic representations of food, if done right, tug on our most instinctive desires for food and sex simultaneously. It is food’s connection with instincts that makes it such an enduring artistic subject, as it appeals not only to the viewer's emotions but to their biological urges. For this reason, we will continue to see food in our galleries, and, for that matter, in our adverts and instagram feeds.

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