Food and Art: A Weighty Matter

MFAH Art Bite Tour (Courtesy MFAH.org)

Centuries ago, when southern European artists were creating masterful religious pieces to worship God, northern European artists were using food in still life paintings to create Christian meditation pieces. Thus began the relationship between food and art.

The symbiotic merger continues in a Museum of Fine Arts Houston art event that was birthed from a foodie sub-movement. In 2009, Slow Art Day was the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s response to the slow food movement that encourages people to savor meals as life moments. MFA Houston participated in the April 2015 event.

To prepare, the Houston museum started with a “bite tour,” or a 15-minute tour that whets the patron’s appetite to explore its permanent collection. It served as a prelude to Slow Art Day where the museum asked patrons to grab stools, sit in front of an art piece and contemplate it.

The “Healthy Food in Art” bite tour focused on still life masterpieces to describe how artists used food to challenge cultural notions. MFA Houston, at least, believes that art married food and both are bigger for it.

The tour begins on the first floor of the Audrey Jones Beck Building. One cannot call the Beck museum a jewelry box. The Rafael Moneo-designed Beck Building is a vault designed, like Houston itself, to throw its airy exuberance in your face. Its gray stone walls are so high the ceiling disappears. Its floors are shiny, marble and modern. Its lobbies, walkways and even its art cases are oversized.

That means during the tour you almost jog to every painting, including the tiny corner where an influential William Merritt Chase portrait hangs.

Chase was known for his New York sensibilities, but those traits belied his strong Midwestern values. In the early 1900s he navigated those two worlds to become one of the most influential artists of the time. The Apprentice (Boy with Apple) from 1905 was one of his pivotal paintings.

Where John Singer Sargent was Sir Elton John, Chase was Beck. The painters were friends. Sargent positioned himself in the popular Impressionist movement and became a celebrity. By contrast, Chase built a respectable career through a lifetime of dedicated study.

Sargent captured fame through commissioned portrait painting in Britain. Like John, he used his fine arts skill to gain the love of American high society and Britain’s most powerful aristocrats.

Chase once said Sargent inspired him to paint parks and tackle Impressionism. But Chase also studied the technique, style and methods of Manet, Giuseppe de Nittis, James McNeill Whistler and many others. He was an eclectic artist, much like Beck who infuses many music styles in his oeuvre.

Also like Beck, Chase had critics who thought his work was not worthy of admiration. Whistler once charged Chase with being a “masterful lampoon,” just like Kayne West threw Beck some shade during the 2015 Grammy’s.

On one of these study excursions Chase headed to Germany where he produced a series of working-class portraits. In The Apprentice (Boy with Apple), a youngster wears a brown cap, white shirt, dark vest and a dirty putty-colored work apron. He props one arm underneath it like he’s scratching his belly. Chase adopts a dashing brushwork that provides instant motion. The dark, heavy, vertical strokes send a bravura noses‐up to the delicate Impressionists. Red-blooded commoners are as worthy of portraits as celebrated blue bloods. The boy reveals defiance and strength while he gazes at the viewer and chomps into a big red apple. Chase dares his colleagues to follow his lead.

To find a another artist who challenged his culture’s economic prosperity, head to Gallery 217 where 300 hundred years of art is presented in a showcase to replicate the home of a wealthy art collector. In a far corner hangs Jean Simeon Chardin’s Still Life with Leg of Lamb.

In the midst of 1730 and the luxurious Rococo period, Chardin treats daily objects like they are grand subjects. A dark pottery pitcher sits under a suspended lamb leg. They are in front of a basket filled with lowly root vegetables, leeks and a head of cabbage.

A dark background juxtaposes light that spreads over the subjects. Red pottery shines like a garnet when Chardin casts it under a glow. The cabbage and vegetables are healthy and large. They shine so bright, they could have been polished with olive oil.

He uses gentle touches and soft strokes to speak humility and dignity to items that would have been handled by the common workers for the benefit of the wealthy employer.

To further his point, the items sit on a hard stone table. Chardin painted after the 17th Century banquet piece movement. His still life borrows from that period which assigns a specific meaning to each subject in a painting. Here, his choices tell French elitists that the working man’s world is lush and full like theirs.

Take a look around Gallery 217 to find Flemish painter Pieter von Boucle celebrated with the Carp & Pike. This 1652 banquet piece is bright, a stark contrast to the dark background of Chardin. But like Chardin’s piece, it is restrained, simple and rustic.

Carp & Pike is a large vanitas, or banquet still life that uses morality to oppose world vanities. It depicts two fish that bask in a stream of natural sunlight. Two heads of garlic, which symbolize stench, are inches away. The eyes of the full-bodied fish face the viewer. A large round uncut bread loaf sits next to them. On the other side, a hefty plate of shucked fresh oysters symbolize sexual temptation. Behind the plate is a full basket of un-shucked oysters.

A bronze kitchen pot hangs from the top of a shelf and a skillet emerges from the dark background. Boucle makes a clanging moral statement instead of a dignified social one like Chardin. Boucle screams that promiscuity will cause a person to boil or burn in hell.

Move back to the main hall to find the incredible Dutch Golden Age banquet painting by Pieter Claesz. The oil‐on‐wood Still Life with a Basket of Grapes was completed in 1661 during a time of rising economic prosperity when class boundaries were falling in the Netherlands.

This vanitas depicts a white tablecloth to resemble the shroud of Christ. A deliberate choice to prop grapes in a basket with the vines still attached tells us that our lives are connected to each other and a greater power. Nuts are cracked open. Lemons are sliced. A half-eaten, messy mince pie spills onto the table. In the far corner, olives begin to spoil. Apples in a front corner have worm holes. A pewter and glass mug sits half-full.

Claesz has a bright and light tone. The realism is clean, fresh and still seems modern. The background is a flat dark neutral. He uses yellows, whites and neutrals against color accents of green and purple to highlight his message that time is passing so use it well. Don’t let it go to ruins.

During their era, Rubens and Rembrandt dominated the Dutch art world with their focus on movement, people and religious objects. Claesz and Boucle, as austerity painters, replaced those subjects, and they did it with intense reasoning.

A few feet away hangs a larger vanitas painted by Willem Heda, a contemporary to Claesz and Boucle. Heda completed the large Banquet with a Piece of Ham in 1656. It depicts a sumptuous table that guests have abandoned. Crumpled linens surround piled up plates. A silver pitcher head remains open. Spices are rolled in paper. Bread is sliced and mold grows on the ends. Utensils are strewn about and an oversized champagne flute looks like it still has one drink left in it.

Heda creates an amazing glow that astonishes. It resembles the diagonal glow effect often used today in computer-generated art. The glow extends the length of the painting and highlights the flute and pitcher.

A lemon is peeled into a corkscrews that winds its way along the front of the painting. It is a common element in Heda’s still lifes to symbolize that while all looks well, life has a bitter taste.

Another telling statement is the tablecloth. In Claesz’s painting it sits on the table. Heda sits it on a thick brown cloth to symbolize separation. Heda’s message is that earthly riches are left behind when we die.

Food and art continue to provoke us. We were reminded of it in 2010 when Lady Gaga wore a meat dress to an MTV awards show. Inspired by Jana Sterbak’s 1980’s meat-wrapped dress, Gaga used food to force a response like each of the masters.

Gaga commanded the spotlight like Heda used a diagonal glow and threw up a finger at her contemporaries like Chase.

A few days later, she wore the smelly dress on a TV talk. She told Ellen DeGeneres, a vegetarian, that she wanted to remind us to stand up for our beliefs or become nothing more than meat on bones.

From Claesz to Gaga, the age-old marriage of food and art tells us each is great alone, but together, they will always challenge the world.

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