The relationship between food and art stretches back to the cave paintings of prehistoric days. In today’s age of food porn, ‘foodspotting,’ and food as art, it has come a long way. The Art Institute of Chicago’s current exhibition Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine explores American food culture and society spanning the last 250 years. Curated by Judith Barter, it features 110 paintings, sculptures, and decorative art items dating from the 18th to 20th centuries alongside historical cookbooks, menus, and posters.
When I visited, the galleries were filled, the atmosphere was buzzy, and I was excited to see an exhibition on one of my favorite topics. According to the its press release, “American artists have used food to both celebrate and critique their developing society; express ideas relating to politics, race, class, gender, and commerce; and investigate American identity.” An ambitious concept, but then again this is the Art Institute of Chicago. But it did leave me wondering how and to what extent the exhibition will communicate this.
After passing the large introductory wall texts in the lobby, viewers enter a red room containing four Thanksgiving-themed paintings. Two paintings in particular provide an interesting contrast. Norman Rockwell’s famous 1942 Freedom from Want is an enthusiastic celebration of the holiday inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address. Just across from it, Roy Lichtenstein’s 1961 Turkey provides a more critical view. The characteristic Ben-Day comic strip turkey in Lichtenstein’s version evokes mechanical reproduction processes that question the value of the holiday itself. The ironic vs. idealized portraits of Thanksgiving shows that ‘freedom from want’ became superfluous as cultural norms shifted. By Lichtenstein’s time, Thanksgiving had become a symbol of packaged holiday, just like food became a symbol of commercialization in pop art (as we see in the final room of the exhibition).
The next couple rooms are devoted to still lives. These are interesting for the traces of innovation and commerce that can be glimpsed from them. In Hannah Brown Skeele’s Fruit Piece, from 1860, we see bananas added to the composition. As we learn from the explanatory text, wealthy Americans had only recently been able to import bananas from South America and the West Indies. Another spin on this is William McCloskey’s 1890 Wrapped Oranges, as “Florida farmers were the first to forestall rot in oranges” by cutting off their stems and wrapping the fruits in tissue paper, which is interesting. We also learn that it was very elegant to eat oranges in in the ‘Cuban fashion’ at this time, or peeled and with a fork.
Already in the 19th century food painting was not only about showing off the latest fad, but was also used to make political points. A good example is Francis Edmond’s Epicure, from 1838, just before the start of the Civil War, where an overweight northern business man is eating beef and drinking port while a thin farmer and his wife try to sell him a suckling pig. Contemporaries would have clearly understood this as a sharp critique of the simple and rural South, traditionally associated with pigs, being bought out by the industrial and decadent north, associated with beef.
Thirty years later, pork’s popularity has swept throughout the States, according to William Emerson Baker’s 1867 Porcineograph. His paean to the pig shares each state’s pork-related culinary specialty so that Kentucky, for example, boasts pork shoulder and bourbon while Cuba is represented as a plump sausage on the map. A darker political example is De Scott Evans’ Irish Question, an 1880 trompe l’oeil painting, featuring two potatoes dangling off a piece of twine like two hung criminals [or freedom fighters?] with the label the ‘Irish Question’ next to them.
Another striking work is John Haberle’s life-sized Grandma’s Hearthstone painting, which shows that there were already hipsters in the 19th century. Painted in 1890, the almanac on the mantelpiece dates from 1804, conjuring an earlier era. The hanging animal pellets allude to hunting and living off the land while the drying corn and pepper lanyards reference food storage. This reminds me of a similar back to basics movement seen today, marked by canning, curing, and slow cooking. Here, Haberle creates an ode to the further past from a more developed, but not necessarily better, society.
The last room, entitled ‘Modernity and Art,’ focuses on mass consumption and the commercialization of food mainly through pop art [such as Andy Warhol’s soup cans and Claes Oldenburg’s gigantic egg]. Richard Estes’ 1867 Food City clearly illustrates the critic Calvin Tompkins statement ‘supermarket food is so American’. With the 1960s, the exhibition seemed to come to an abrupt end. I almost overlooked a copy of Alice Water’s first Chez Panisse cookbook, which did not pay adequate homage to her influence on modern American cooking. Molecular gastronomy, too, could have been better referenced, but the availability of art related to the subject could also be limiting. Though artifacts such as specialized culinary tools and dry ice could add an interactive element.
One big thing the exhibition is missing is race and slavery. The lack of visual reference to “soul food,” hunger, and slum culture left me feeling that an edited version of America was on display. I also wished immigrant life was represented by more than the Irish Question and historic French and Mexican cookbooks. Although it can be argued that the works on these subjects do not exist in the same volume, the exhibition proves otherwise. From my own amateur knowledge of the Art Institute’s permanent collection, Charles William White’s painting Harvest Talk and George Benjamin Luks’ The Butcher Cart, for example, provide good examples of both slavery and Manhattan’s slums.
The exhibition, however, overall succeeds in achieving its stated goals. Sometimes it offers interesting anthropological tidbits, while going deeper in other instances. It largely communicates through the extensive supplementary and sometimes distracting wall texts that give the exhibition a pedagogical tone. The quotes on the walls, that give insight into what people of the past thought, ate, and drank, are a nice touch. With each snapshot and purchase, people today continue to use food to define themselves and inform others about their values and surroundings. Food remains a prism that consumers, producers, and artists use to make various statements. This exhibition allows us to consider the meanings and interpretations of eating, as well as the brighter and darker sides of food culture.
Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine is at the Art Institute of Chicago until January 27, 2013.