MatchArt Food Zurich, 2024, by Matteo Giovanni Gaiani

What Lies Beyond The Plate?

Eating with the eyes: the food in art

For centuries, it has been recognized that the food culture of a society is a fundamental aspect for understanding that society itself. Like a microcosm, it reflects the entirety of the society and its culture in all their peculiarities. In recent decades, with the exploration of past food cultures, we have begun to uncover what lies beyond the food we eat. What stories lie behind the ingredients that composed it, how they were consumed, what they represent in our memories and tradition? These and other essential questions help us to grasp our identity today and what future generations will inherit. But what lies beyond food cultures? What happens when food meets art?

The bond between visual and culinary arts has increasingly become a subject of study, evolving into historical investigation. In the arts, food can take on a representative value, depicting something beyond itself, whether religious or secular metaphor, including everything that surrounds it.

During the period of Imperial Rome, the symbolism of the banquet alluded to the transience of life and invited full enjoyment of the pleasures of the table. Examples include Trimalchio in Petronius' Satyricon and the numerous wall paintings and Roman mosaics such as the Treasure of Boscoreale, the Villa of Poppea or the many Pompeian scenes. In the Christian era, the banquet—most fittingly exemplified by the Last Suppers—assumes a ritual significance where each depicted food item represents a clear symbol in Christian narrative (e.g., grapes, bread, fish, apple).
In the Early Middle Ages, banquet scenes were rare, while agricultural scenes and the transformation of raw materials were abundant. Food was considered a gift from God, a necessity for nourishment, and the result of hard labor. Thus, the harvesting of wheat and its transformation into flour and then bread, grapes into wine, olives into oil, and milk into cheese are celebrated. The connection between food and labor was solidified.
Only in the Late Middle Ages do scenes of banquets, festivities, taverns, and lavishly set tables appear, and food begins to symbolize pleasure, not just nourishment. From the Renaissance onwards, food starts to become a protagonist in paintings, studied in minute detail in still lifes. Food is represented as an aesthetic model, chromatic energy, variety, and balance of forms, but also as a symbol of a new social condition and well-being.
Additionally, the places associated with food become important: the kitchen, the workshop, the market. By the 19th century, depictions of food increasingly adhere to real life, becoming realistic chronicles of the customs and the level of well-being of contemporary society. Consider, for example, Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters" and the raw depiction of the social conditions (in terms of nutrition and lack of well-being) of the peasants.
The 19th century also represents, in an idyllic and romantic way, the labor in the fields, the life of the peasants, and the wealth brought to the table. It is a celebration of technological transformations and a general increase in well-being, which would also characterize art and the representation of food throughout the 20th century. It is no coincidence that Andy Warhol transformed a can of Campbell's soup into a symbol of a new art form, Pop Art.

This strictly relationship between food and art speaks of human mastery, representing both delight, vices, religious attitudes, social values and human weaknesses, as well as the labor and virtues of creators. Moreover, this intricate bond between food and art encapsulates the mastery of creators in both culinary and artistic realms, showcasing the profound impact of cultural practices on our perception of food and artwork alike.

In essence, the intersection of food and art unveils a narrative of human ingenuity and creativity, bridging the gap between culinary delights and aesthetic appreciation. As we continue to explore this dynamic relationship, we gain deeper insights into our collective identity and the evolving nature of cultural expression.
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