The almost ritualistic behavior of capturing images of photogenic food and sharing with social connections didn’t begin with the digital age. Well before the “camera eats first” phenomenon, depictions of food were the main theme for artwork.
Recalling the primitive roots of food art, the subgenre is anything but bitesize, but rather, a banquet that spans millennia. With a rich history tracing back to ancient Egypt and the Roman period, food has been represented as sculptures and featured in paintings. The Middle Ages gave us The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci along with Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s series composed of four masterpieces, entitled The Four Seasons. And by the 16th century, food art was a subgenre of Baroque still lifes — executed technically and skillfully to portray hyper-realistic images of food and drink.
In the same vein as we indulge in “food porn” today and post on social media for consummate self-representation of our lifestyles, Roman artists chose food as themes for their work to not only demonstrate their painting skills but to emphasize wealth — choosing to depict indulgent foods such as fruits that were considered exotic at the time.
The Forebears of Food Art, Ancient to Recent
The Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli houses one of the most famous examples of food-themed ancient still life, Still Life Painting with Peaches and Glass Jar. The painting was discovered in the House of the Stags in Herculaneum, one of the fanciest houses in the once affluent town before it was destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E. As a fruit unfamiliar to the masses and unattainable by common folk, peaches were a representation of social status and privilege. We see the same theme of indulgence in Still Life with Cheese (1615) by Floris Claesz. van Dijck and A Still-life with Fruit and Lobster (1650) by Jan Davidsz. de Heem.
But as the saga of food art has revealed, not all food art has been created to arouse envy or spur cravings. In Figure with Meat (1954) by Francis Bacon, a celebrated British painter who favored a distinctive and disturbing realism, we see the blurred figure of a pope flanked by two bisected halves of a slaughtered cow. Serving as allegories, food would also be used as art topics to expose societal disparities, gender constraints, and political instability. And in the centuries that have passed, food and edible objects as a subgenre of art has evolved. Food art now encompasses a wide spectrum of representation, expressed through visuals, performance, and installations inviting viewer participation.
Food as a Subject Matter, Social Metaphor, and Medium
Perhaps the fascination with food is rooted in our transience. Food, like human existence, is fragile and evanescent. Just as we age and deteriorate as time passes, food — if not consumed — perishes. Using food as a subject for a painting, photograph, or sculpture then becomes a means to immortalize a fleeting moment or represent the harsh realities of passing time.
When food is used as a medium and invites viewer interaction, food art surpasses visual culinary curiosities to entice all the senses and evoke emotion. In 1991, Cuban-born American visual artist Felix Gonzalez Torres invited the public to participate in completing Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), an interactive piece dedicated to Torres’ life partner who had succumbed to AIDS the same year. The installation started as an eccentric pile of Fruit Flasher Candy weighing the combined weight of the lovers. Asking the audience to “take responsibility,” Torres invited people to eat the candy — slowly changing the pile’s shape and weight as if to represent the precarious state of our mortality.
Also in 1991, Torres expressed his activism against America’s pervasive censorship and aggressive military policy through Untitled (Public Opinion). The medium, 700 pounds of individually wrapped black rod licorice candies. And in 1997, Sarah Lucas confronted issues of sexual objectification and challenged traditional feminine identities with Chicken Knickers. The photograph presents Lucas’ lower body dressed in white underwear to which a plucked chicken is attached and positioned to represent genitals.
Interested in “extreme acts that pull you in, as unconventional as they may be,” contemporary artist Janine Antoni used chocolate and lard to empower feminism and sensationalize consumer obsessions. Gnaw (1992) featured two enormous 600-pound blocks; one made of chocolate and the other made of lard. And if food was the medium, Antoni would use her own teeth as her tools. Antoni “carved” by chewing away at the pieces herself — leaving behind teeth marks and chin and nose impressions. The bitten and spit out pieces of chocolate were gathered and reproduced into heart-shaped packages — reminiscent of Valentine’s candies. The lard would be mixed with beeswax and pigment to produce lipstick.
Most Famous, Daring, and Iconic
Arcimboldo’s Vertumnus (1591), a whimsical portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, is one of the most memorable works of food art in history. The oil painting was meant to encapsulate the emperor’s power and wealth, yet consisted of flora, vegetables, and fruits — including plums, cherries, apples, pears, grapes, and pomegranates. However, the collection of produce was not portrayed as food normally would for a painting of that time, such as spread lavishly on a banquet table. Instead, the quirky portrait depicted the food itself to represent the Roman emperor’s features — peapods as eyelids, gourds comprising the neck, a pear for the nose, and apples as the cheeks.
But of all the examples of food art, one of the most iconic and recognizable in recent times is Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) by Andy Warhol. A product of the pop art era, the Warhol painting featured 32 variants of Campbell’s condensed soup, from a can of Green Pea to a can of Chili Beef. At the time, the concept baffled some while blowing others away. Over the decades, stories have swirled to rationalize Warhol’s choice to paint soup cans. But perhaps the most plausible explanation was Warhol’s simple intention to paint something recognizable and therefore, relatable. Food, after all, is a basic and universal language that connects us all.