Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, London

Art, Identity, Migration

The tradition of painting food – From Still Life to Food Art

Still Life with Wine by Avigdor ArikhaStill Life with Wine by Avigdor Arikha

Sabina is a social media intern and is particularly interested in the subject of food in art. She regularly puts up beautiful examples of this from our collection on twitter and is trying to get people to use the hashtag #coffeeatthegallery. The more she has she has looked for examples of food in art, the more she has begun muse about this connection…

As an essential element in daily life, food has always played a central role in every culture. Its importance for human beings becomes clear when you look at its visual representations in art through the centuries.

Minoan people traditionally decorated their pottery with seafood motives before 1500 BC and today we know that seafood was a staple in their diet. In Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, food was often related to religion.  In fact, we can find cereals, fruits and vegetables with images of fecundity goddesses (like Demetra and Igea), grapes and wine on almost all Dionysus representations, fruit garlands on early sarcophagi decorations, and still life in Egyptian tombs. Wall paintings and mosaics in Pompeii, Herculaneum and in the Villa Boscoreale, show that still lives were a common decoration motive in houses too, but with a few exceptions, they remained related to religious pictures until the 15-16th century, when they finally developed into their own art genre. Since then, food reproduction as well as pictures of people moving in an environment that relates to food and cookery (like a kitchen, a restaurant or a market), multiplied exponentially in Europe. For example, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s The Grape and Melon Eaters (1645/1646), John George Brown’s Eating the Profits (1878), Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters (1885), but there are also many artists in the Ben Uri Collection. There I found Avigdor Arikha’s Still Life with Wine, Mark Gertler’s Still Life with Guitar, Ben Levene’s Still Life (I), Frederick Feigl’s The Restaurant, Julie Held’s Commemoration, Ben Tobias’s Café Zeus, Berlin, Alfred Wolmark’s The Grey Wig and many others.

The Restaurant by Frederick Fiegl

The Restaurant by Frederick Fiegl

Why does food still continue to fascinate artists today? Is it still a kind of celebration for this basic element that allows us to live or has it become a traditional subject to paint? I think it is a great mix of both, but it probably also depends on the historical and social context in which it was painted.

What I like about this subject is its incapability of becoming old-fashioned. Actually, if we think about it, nowadays we are constantly in touch with still lives: every day we see advertisements for restaurants and Big Macs around the city, both amateurs and chefs photograph their best dishes and publish them on the web, modern artists haven’t forgotten this subject (e.g Florian Bühler’s Fleischstillleben or Küchenstück) and the name “Food Art” has become common. Some people may think: “Those picture’s aren’t art!”, and I ask: “Why not?” Do you think they won’t be considered part of an art movement 50 years from now? Isn’t publicity considered contemporary art today? Aren’t the chocolate clothes in the annual Salon du Chocolat modern food art? Are you shocked now? The audience who first saw the paintings in the Salon des Réfusés in Paris in 1874 were shocked too, but where are all those pictures today? They’re seen as the highest art examples of specific art movements and tourists come from all over the world to see them in museums.

I believe that we can see a continuity between and an evolution from the ancient still lives of the Greek and Minoan Era and food representations in contemporary art. As George Ellwanger once said: “Cookery is naturally the most ancient of the arts, as of all arts it is the most important.”

By Sabina Lutiger

Follow us on twitter @benurigallery. All images are of paintings in our collection.




This entry was posted on August 4, 2013 by in art, Food, Paintings, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , .

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