Looks Good Enough to Eat: Salivate Over Paintings at Art Museum
If food is a metaphor for life, then still life paintings record history.
Remember the Thanksgiving turkey centering Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want?"
Paul Brown, a still life artist who, after 15 years in Europe, recently returned to Whispering Pines, -confesses, "I am transfixed by being just back from a day out hunting, with a brace of partridges or pheasants. This reflects a part of society that I like."
He likes local peaches, too, but would rather paint than eat them.
Brown calls himself a classical realist; his near-photographic fruit, cheeses, game birds and wine beg touching. A similar temptation exists at "Still Life Masterpieces: A Visual Feast," from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on display at the N.C. Museum of Art (NCMA) in Raleigh.
Go, look, but don't touch. Guards stand watch over 72 paintings and food-related objects, which lead the taste buds from a medieval -marketplace to Georges Braque's 20th century cubist apples.
Still life, the genre that depicts inanimate objects, usually arranged on a table, is hardly new. Egyptians decorated sarcophagi with paintings of funerary offerings in the same flat style applied to humans.
Greek and Roman food art -developed more dimension. Legend has birds pecking at a Greek trompe d'oeil (fool the eye) painting of grapes. Food reappeared in Renaissance religious art, often on a table spread before Jesus. By the late 16th century still life went solo - a reaction to portraiture, where he who pays the painter calls the shots.
Apples and pears don't make demands.
"You can paint in the bruises," Brown says. "Bananas look better with a few brown spots."
Mmm, banana bread.
Denise Baker, professor of visual arts at Sandhills Community College, incorporates still life into her instruction. "This is a classic form of learning how to paint," she says, adding that early European practitioners painted exotic fruits to illustrate - perhaps brag about - their travels. Baker's class will visit the Raleigh exhibit.
Still life got a boost from Dutch, Flemish and other Northern European artists who explored lighting and uber-realism with a religious subplot, usually life is sweet but, like a juicy pear, perishable. Flowers and kitchen implements enlarged the scope, as did gory paintings of slaughtered animals. After cameras, photo-realism became redundant.
The French Impressionists blurred and romanticized produce. Cezanne ruled, although today Van Gogh's simple, rather harsh depictions of potatoes, onions and crockery fetch zillions at auction. Cezanne, Matisse, Manet and Renoir are represented in the Raleigh exhibit.
"What all still life painters have in common is the need to pay close, personal attention to the stuff of this world," said John Coffey, NCMA deputy director for art during the exhibit opening. "What's painted is less important than how it's painted."
On a recent Sunday, museum goer Gloria Gomez of Raleigh took issue on style over subject.
"I just love looking at what an artist can do with food," she says. Makes me appreciate (the food) more."
v v v v v
The paintings and implements - from a priceless Sevres bone china ice cream cooler made for Josephine Bonaparte to a 1960s plastic luau pitcher - are arranged according to styles rather than chronology.
In a 1577 Flemish rendition, we recognize melon, turnips, peas, cherries, beans and, perhaps, cucumbers at a vendor's stand - not unlike local farmers markets. Baskets filled with grapes, apples, pears, berries and peaches predominate, although by 1936, red, purple and green cabbages had been deemed worthy.
Paul Brown paints onions and peppers, melting Brie and peasant bread.
Container paintings included in the exhibit are as fascinating as the food: A glass goblet embossed with berries circa 1656 could be from a Broad Street gift shop, while jugs, pitchers and bowls seem Seagrove-affiliated.
By far the most stunning container pop art (given the absence of Andy Warhol's soup can) is a collection of interlocked Chinese food boxes by Barnet Rubenstein which, at first glance, resembles a geometric abstract.
Visual bows to virtual: Rest on a bench while watching British artist San Taylor-Wood's time-lapse video of a plate of fruit molding, decaying and finally, collapsing.
Unfortunately for the subject matter, NCMA's older East Building galleries have no windows. Khaki-gray walls and spotlights aren't as conducive to food art as the light, bright space in the newer West Building.
On the exit wall hangs a delicious lagniappe called "A Life, Still," featuring student -interpretations of still life juried by N.C. -college students. A photograph of two -mushrooms by Laura Green, of Randolph Community College, comes full circle with the exquisite coloring and minute details of the best still life paintings.
Not all food art is fine art. Colorful drawings on the ends of wooden fruit crates make -attractive wall -decorations. Wine labels have an -artistic flair, as do pumpkin carvings and butter sculpture.
Fashion has long stolen color from the kitchen: aubergine, pomegranate, citron, toast, espresso, salmon, avocado. And mystery writer Diane Mott Davidson mixes crime with recipes in "Dying for Chocolate," "Cereal Murders," "Sticks and Scones" and others.
Window-shopping works up an appetite.
Iris, the sleek, white-out restaurant in the museum's West Building, complies with a menu featuring seasonal N.C. ingredients. Dishes, rivaling the paintings in beauty, are conceived and prepared by Jennifer and Andy Hicks.
Barbecue is smoked in-house, grass-fed beef comes from Hillsboro, cheese from Chapel Hill. Crab cakes containing coastal crab are to swoon for. The chef grows herbs on the premises.
But the chef keeps chicken salad and -burgers on the menu.
"We cater to a wide demographic," Andy Hicks says, since not all museum patrons opt for duck and cherry wonton in leek broth or basil ice cream with peach crumble.
During special exhibits, informal food -service is available in the East Building. Now playing: The Still Life Cafe. Even the -museum gift shops feature cuisine items: pottery, a "Feast of Music" CD, kitchen floor mats, sculpturesque mixing bowls and -measuring spoons, cookbooks and, of course, a Cezanne still life mouse pad.
Food commands attention - always has, always will. At least comestibles on canvas have no fat, no calories and no expiration dates. Because art, like wine, improves with age.
Contact Deborah Salomon at debsalomon@ nc.rr.com.
More like this story