I think we can all agree that sensational food is an art form. It excites our senses, and producing it requires immense talent. However, food also spoils easily, so you can forget about exhibiting a perfectly medium-rare steak au poivre at the Louvre. Instead, we try to immortalize food by taking pictures of it. It’s arguably the most effective way to appreciate a memorable dish, long after it has satisfied our tummies.

I hate to admit it, but I’m one of those people who can’t devour food without snapping an obligatory photo. It’s just my way of paying homage to the artistry and architecture behind every skilfully-arranged plate.  But apparently, exalting food through the visual arts is a practice that greatly predates Instagram. As you’ll observe, food has been a favorite subject for artists throughout history (and even before such).

Paul Cézanne was one of the popular foodstagrammers in the 19th century.

Stone Age

Food doesn’t get any fresher than this.

When it comes to merging food and art, we are indebted to the French. Their taste for the finer things in life goes as far back as the Paleolithic Era. Our French Cro-Magnon brothers were the first to celebrate their food through art, as seen on the walls of the Lascaux Caves. This work is roughly 17,300 years old. It shows how our obsession with foodstagramming dates all the way back to prehistoric times, when food was highly prized as the hard-won result of life-threatening hunting trips (as opposed to midnight runs to the nearest convenience store).

Things changed a lot when our cave-dwelling ancestors discovered fire, and learned how to cook their food in the process. Once they no longer needed to digest tough animal proteins and stringy plant nutrients, they were able to divert their energies towards loftier activities (such as growing their brains, working their way to the top of the food chain, and setting up legendary civilizations.)

Ancient Egyptian Period

I don’t understand why there are naked men on the lower right though.

The Ancient Egyptians were just as hip with their food fetish. The photo above is a painting, which dates back to 1400 B.C., at the Tomb of Nakht in Thebes, Egypt. This massive mural on the walls of the priest’s tomb depicts several food-generating activities such as wine-making, hunting, and fishing. Tomb paintings usually illustrated activities that the deceased wished to carry on doing in the afterlife (which is said to be overflowing with food, whether you cultivate it or not). That pretty much tells you how hardcore the Ancient Egyptians were about their gustatory fixation.

Renaissance Period

That pumpkin head makes him look more distinguished, yes?

There’s a reason why the Dark Ages is called such. Apparently, there is a huge lack of historical data available for that period. I guess people were so depressed about the Fall of the Roman Empire that they decided to hide into obscurity (thus putting a momentary halt to foodstagramming).

The Renaissance period, however, was a complete turnaround. It was characterized by a revival of culture under the influence of Classical models. Their renewed fascination with Greek and Roman antiquity was evident in their leanings towards art realism and the use of perspective. Food was elevated to new levels of refinement and sophistication, as large and elaborate banquets were often celebrated by the nobility.

In the 16th century, Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. And in line with the Renaissance fascination for both classical mythology and food as an entertaining art form, Arcimboldo painted fruits and flowers to form the features of his subject as Vertumnus, the Roman god of the seasons.

Just imagine sitting for an artist for hours, only to find that he painted you as vegetation. Rudolf II must have had a good sense of humor.

Of course, we cannot talk about food in art without mentioning the most celebrated supper there ever was. And Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th century mural about Jesus’ final repast is the most iconic. The legendary artist toiled over the fresco from dusk till dawn (ironically, without even stopping to eat), and constantly agonized over his inability to accurately portray the faces of Jesus and Judas.

Is that an animal’s skull on the table?

Also worth noting is Jacopo Bassano’s interpretation of the biblical meal, which was painted in 1542. Following Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, this rendition is more dynamic because of the stylized poses and hyperbolic facial expressions. Other remarkable aspects of this work are the inclusion of various dishes (including an animal’s head) on the table, the oblivious dog lying down, and the devious cat slinking around the chairs: factors of a meal that I have yet to find in any biblical record.

Baroque Period

Because nothing says opulence more than a lobster, and a totally unnecessary drinking vessel.

Moving on to the secular (and more obvious) food depictions, we have the work of 17th century Dutch painter Willem Kalf. His body of work was known as pronkstilleven, which is Dutch for “opulent still life painting.” He wasn’t content with simply painting fruit in a bowl, so he often featured food amidst gold and silver serving dishes, ornately-designed cloths, and intricate table settings. Such style is distinctive of the Baroque aesthetic (which was characterized by intense drama in composition and subject matter, rich and deep colors, and a strong contrast between light and shadow, or chiaroscuro). The term Baroque was originally a derogatory term used to emphasize the excesses of the time. And looking at the art (and the food) from that period, you would be hard-pressed to disagree with that description.

Impressionist Period

Of all the artists, I think it was Claude Monet who enjoyed his food the most. He was renowned not only for his Impressionist works of art, but also for his epicurean palate. He had several published cooking journals, which chronicled his lavish lunches with his artist friends (Cézanne and Renoir, to name a few). Monet’s dining table must have been the pinnacle of culinary and artistic hipsterdom during his time.

One of the more controversial pieces of this era was Luncheon on the Grass by Édouard Manet. It features two men having a picnic with a naked woman. The stark contrast between the clothing of the painting’s subjects sparked a great debate about what Manet was trying to demonstrate. But frankly, I’m more interested in what they were having for lunch.

Vincent van Gogh’s Potato Eaters is a stark contrast to the extravagant depictions of the Impressionists.

This painting is one of his early works, hence its grim subject matter and drab use of colors (both of which might indicate his early timidity with composition and the use of color). Still Life with Mackerel, Lemon, and Tomato is more typical of van Gogh’s famed style (and his tight budget as a starving artist who never sold a painting in his lifetime). Colorful and vibrant, the painting elevates the European version of tuyo at kamatis.

Cubist Period

Because cat and lobster go together like milk and eggplant.

The Cubist technique in Still Life with Cheese and Still Life with Cat and Lobster is unmistakeably Pablo Picasso’s. The simplification of natural forms into geometric shapes was a novel idea, as it veered away from the tradition of perspective. The idea behind Cubism is to show multiple views of a subject matter. And when it comes to food, isn’t multiplicity what we all want?

Pop Art Period

One of the most famous food depictions in art is Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup series. His work seemed to represent the modern era of commercialization, and the indiscriminate “sameness” (or tedious lack of variety) that accompanied it. Others viewed the paintings as a subversive critique of American capitalism, but Warhol himself asserted that they are devoid of emotional or social commentary. Honestly, I think he just liked Campbell Soup.

Contemporary Period

This looks better than most cheeseburgers out there.

The tradition of glorifying food through art continues to this day. Tjalf Sparnaay is a 21st century Dutch artist who paints everyday food with painstakingly accurate detail. His paintings look so real that they make your mouth water. Just look at the painting above!

Needless to say, the visual commemoration of food has a rich and diverse history, one which transcends civilizations, religions, and social classes. So the next time someone pokes fun at your foodstagramming ways, tell them you’re merely continuing the legacy left behind by the great masters of art. Who knows? With your intensive knowledge of filters and hashtags, you might very well become the Warhol of our time.

Or you might get featured in Pepper.ph’s Fap-Worthy Food (which is so much cooler).

[Image sources:  LOL Snaps / Tumblr / Egyptiana Emporium / Wikimedia / Paul Riedel / Ibiblio / Azerbaijanrugs / Framing Painting / Wikipaintings / Terminartors / Monet Painting / Wikipaintings / Comoj / Fineart-China / Pablo Ruiz Picasso / Wikipaintings / Wichita / Tate / Thirsty Reader / Museum Syndicate / News.com.au]

11 Responses

  1. Hi there. I love the premise of this article, how it links a contemporary phenomenon with historical practices and the playful, relevant approach to it. I do think however that there are a few misconceptions and oversights in this piece, the inclusion of which would perhaps impart, in my humble opinion, more context and social relevance to this article’s inquiry.

    I think it’s important to acknowledge that apart from its evident functional and pleasure-enabling aspects, food, even to this day, is loaded with a myriad of associations. Key facets of culture–folklore, religious beliefs, wealth, social status, trade relations–confer symbolic meaning upon food and all its permutations. Before the later half of the 19th century, before manipulation of the artistic medium started to gain more precedence over subject matter (Cézanne’s fruit for example were more a study in the sculptural qualities of paint rather than the palatability of the food itself), food depicted in art was fraught with symbolic potency. These paintings were often commissioned by patrons, often wealthy, often upper middle class. As such, a lot of the food included in artistic representation most often added layers of symbolic meaning to the work’s subject rather than simply exulting the visceral and pleasurable qualities of food.

    In a world that was still very much god-fearing, food was very often simply an indicator to bolster Christian or Catholic narratives all the way from the Romanesque era to Neoclassicism. Apples, fish, grapes, bread, wine. In secular Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassic, and Romantic depictions, food was often an emblem of classical deities, used primarily to fortify such concepts as fertility (Venus) and folly (Bacchus).

    The Dutch Golden Age (separate from the Baroque period – these two exclusive movements were conflated in the piece) is an interesting one. Yes they were one of the first to depict the sheer opulence of gastronomy, most notably in their still lives. 17th century Dutch painters were famous for imbuing symbolic detail in every aspect of their work. They even had books of symbols detailing what they represented. Why are these still lives so lavish? Artistic patrons were loaded as fuck. The Netherlands was the epicentre of trade and economic domination during that era and these commissioned still lives acted as vessels to portray the patrons’ monetary prowess but also certain virtuous aspects of their personality. The sheer realism of many of these still lives added to the palpability of the bounty to which these patrons had access. Interesting too were the genre paintings of this era which used depictions of food and communal dining habits as indications and boundaries between social classes, but also as tongue-in-cheek jabs that denoted a variety of themes such as philandering, sloth, level of education, deception, and overindulgence.

    Right after Manet, representations of food had almost entirely lost their symbolic potency. I think it is important that Impressionism and post-impressionism (Van Gogh era) be treated as separate entities. The Impressionists were hugely influenced by developments in technology (cameras were a novelty so paintings followed suit by using cropping techniques and capturing ‘stills’ of moments as opposed to full-blown narratives) and were obsessed with the fleeting qualities of light and atmosphere. Food depicted in this manner was simply treated as more of a sketch, focusing rather on the optical qualities of a fugitive instance. As with Post-Impressionism and the successive Cubism movement, food was used more as subjects to study technique, partly because they were recognisable objects. Art for art’s sake was a key ethos of Modernism.

    Food then regained its symbolic connotations with the advent of pop art. As was mentioned in this piece, depictions of food imitated and subverted the language of early advertising. Also true was that these manifestations of food were not intended to be celebratory but parodies of burgeoning capitalist culture. Early documentary photography and film, conceptual art, and the contentiously termed post-modernism continued the tendency of using food as socio-political indicators.

    I guess what I am trying to say that it is rare for any representation of food to exist as a plain and simple celebration of gastronomy. Amidst our current landscape, the gastronomically saturated world of social media, contemporary depictions of food are still very much cling to the genealogy of its historical predecessors.

    Why do we post photos of food? The very fact that they are intended for public viewing plays a crucial factor: Look what I ate at this trendy new restaurant. I have enough leisure time and spending power to be able to consume this meal. I am culturally relevant. My tastes and aesthetic sensibilities are refined. I am skilled at cooking. I live a fulfilling, interesting life. I take good photos.

    It’s a mechanism of identity formation unsurprisingly similar to those manifest in historical works of art, particularly in the still lives of the Dutch Golden Age. A more recent technology-driven innovation that I believe contributes to this mentality is the evolution of film and photographic techniques as appropriated by modern advertising and televised and digital food programming. The contemporary notion of food porn hit us with full force. It was democratised, accessible to everyone albeit behind the obstacle of a screen. Food is more drool-worthy, more hyperbolised. Food is still as aspirational as ever and it still always pertains to an agenda external to the representation of the food itself.

    I think this piece is well advised in its recognition of the clear links between representations of food now and then, but perhaps for different reasons than what were stated.

    I like this article and am genuinely excited to read more like this, especially from a local publication. This conceptual pathway is fun and I think it has a lot of potential, but in all honesty I would be thrilled with a bit more cultural context.

  2. Wonderful thesis, nay, dissertation-worthy subject! Your article definitely makes pepper.ph not only a more mouthwatering website, but a scholarly one too.

  3. With this, I guess everyone feels like an Andy Warhol every time they munch on something (including me). Another one, Stone age was NOT appetizing. 😛 Interesting read and I love the food timeline! Please consider making a yummy maki article! 😉

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