Food and art: The perfect couple 

Food has been instrumental to art in more ways than one since early times

Travel season is fledging so it’s taking me both hands to count the number of people I know who are embarking to Italy, London or New York, the Yucatan and Brazil. Wherever they’re going, almost all of them are hungry for some kind of art they can’t get at home. Paintings are at the top of the list.

One of the most common genres we all identify painting with, at least in the traditional sense, is still life, and a huge component of that is food. Whether it’s Cezanne’s "Still Life with Apples and Oranges", one of the Dutch masters’ portrayals of crabs and fish still wet from the boat, or a Chinese water colour of persimmons, the still life — and food — are thoroughly stuck in the canon of art.

Even today they won’t go away, though subject matter and approach have evolved. Beyond Warhol and his Cream of Mushroom soup, witness Wayne Thiebaud’s acrobatic "Display Cakes" balancing on sticks in a cartoon confectionland, or Tom Wesselmann’s "Still Life no. 24", giving Wish-Bone Italian Salad Dressing, a cob of corn and a pack of Tareyton smokes iconic status.

An ironic favorite, more to do with the everyday aftermath of eating food than with food itself, is "Odol", a two-foot homage Stuart Davis painted in 1924 to Odol mouthwash. The odd bottle with a crooked neck looks more like the contemporary "duck" toilet bowl cleaner than a bottle of mouthwash.

So where did this marriage of food and art come from?

No surprise, given how quintessential food is to life, that the earliest paintings dating back to prehistoric times some 10,000 or 15,000 years ago contain images of food — wild yams, plants and animals that were hunted and eaten.

More interesting, perhaps, is the fact that the opportunity and initiative to make art were pretty much dependent on the evolution of food procurement. Painting on the walls of caves or cliffs (and other art-making) only happened after prehistoric peoples figured out how to join forces and herd animals into pits to kill them.

Naturally, this type of methodical hunting took more effort and organization than killing animals one at a time. Making images of the hunt helped the group effort both through explanation and ritualization. Nothing like getting the buffalo, I mean people, all heading west by getting them psyched up beforehand.

In turn, collaborative hunting efforts meant larger returns to the larder. With more food stockpiled, our ancient ancestors could stay in one spot longer and, with more time, could let loose their imaginations and produce more art.

You could argue that these early paintings weren’t really still lifes, as they usually depicted animals on the run. But they were all about food — and some of them definitely look like animals that have been already rendered "still" for future dinners.

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