Food Art (A Brief History)

The subject of food has always played a central role in the art-making process. This has been the case for artists across cultures, spanning all of recorded human history. Why might it be that artists have been so consistently infatuated with food? Could it be that what we eat helps to define our collective "humanity"? The fact that we cook, or even prepare our food separates us from all other creatures on this planet. That makes us pretty special in my book! Below is a brief history of how food has been incorporated into art-making over the last 30,000 years...give or take.

Some of the earliest known examples of human creativity can be found in Chauvet Cave in the South of France. This cave, which was only discovered in 1994, contains paintings from around 30,000 years ago. That coincides with the end of the last Ice Age! These paintings depict animals that our ancient ancestors would have potentially hunted and eaten. Here is a link to a movie trailer for Werner Herzog's recent documentary about Chauvet Caves, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams":

Chauvet Cave, France, "Cave Paintings", ca. 32,00 -30,000 BCE

The tradition of depicting food in art has been continued through the centuries. The Dutch perfected the art of still life painting in the 17th century. Artists like Willem Kalf, made paintings that depicted opulent and sumptuous table settings. These paintings were intended to titillate our senses and to show off the presumed wealth of the painting's owner. The 16th century Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo represents a specific still life painting tradition, in which the artist arranges edible fruits and vegetables to create strange, human portraits. I guess he believed that "You are what you eat!"

Willem Kalf, "Still Life with Drinking Horn", 1653

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, "Vertumnus", 1590-1591

The Pop Artists of the 1960's-70's were also uniquely infatuated with food as their subject matter. These artists were interested in making work that mirrored the values of the American consumer economy that dominated their time. Claus Oldenburg is one such artist who created large, vinyl sculptures of American food staples like hamburgers, hot dogs and ice cream cones. Andy Warhol's series of screen-printed Campbell's soup cans and Wayne Thiebaud's paintings of cake counters embodied an optimistic spirit of never-ending prosperity. However, these same works have a darker connotation that this very prosperity results in a homogenized culture that stifles individualism.

Claus Oldenburg, "Floor Burger", 1962

Andy Warhol, "Campbell's Soup Cans", 1962

Wayne Thiebaud, "Pies, Pies, Pies", 1961

Some more recent artists have moved beyond the idea of merely depicting food. Contemporary artists like Vik Muniz and Jana Sterbak have used real food as an art-making material! Muniz, a Brazilian artist, often borrows images from classical European paintings and meticulously renders them (pardon the pun), out of materials like chocolate sauce, caviar, and, pictured below, cooked spaghetti. He then takes photos of his creations, because the originals works cannot last forever. Sterbak is best known for a dress that she created out of actual flank steak (Lady Gaga, eat your heart out!). Unlike Muniz's photos, Sterbak's dress was intended to sit on a tailor's dummy in a gallery, as it naturally decayed (Yuck).

Vik Muniz, "Medusa Marinara", 1998

Jana Sterbak, "Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic", 1991

Finally, the Thai artist Rikrit Tiravanija has used food in a more performative sense. He was known in the 1990's for staging happenings, or performance events, at galleries during which he would make home-cooked Thai meals and feed everyone who attended. These events were free and open to the public. In these pieces, the food became a medium for social interaction. When the attendees ate and socialized, they became active participants in the artwork. The ability of food to create cross-cultural dialog and to foster community is a similar goal to that of our Food Art Blog. Have fun, and bon appetit!

Rikrit Tiravanija, Untitled (Free), 1992