Last week I finally made my way over to the Chicago Art Institute, which felt like the largest art museum I have been to in the States. It had long, daunting hallways filled with strange dead ends and tons of works of art that could be easily overlooked. Feeling slightly overwhelmed by the scale of the place I decided to focus my visit on the current temporary exhibit; Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine.
The exhibit is only at the museum for a few more days (until January 27th, 2014), so in that sense I’m glad I made the effort to see it, but art of food isn’t generally something that piques my interest much. After trying to interpret the map and making a few wrong turns I found the special exhibit hall near the back of the Museum. Like many special exhibits I’ve visited the first room explained the purpose of the exhibition with two paragraphs printed on a huge scale onto the wall. Two reproductions of works within the exhibit flanked the text on either side, and gave a promising taste of the art to come.
American artists have used food to both celebrate and critique their developing society; express ideas relating to politics, race, class, gender, and commerce; and investigate American identity. This exhibition brings together over 100 paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts from the 18th through the 20th century, along with a selection of period cookbooks, menus, trade cards, and posters, to explore the art and culture of food and examine the many meanings and interpretations of eating in America. (artic.edu)
My favorite room in the gallery was next. It was my favorite for a number of reasons. It had works from various periods of time, and instead of focusing on one style of art, focused on a theme everyone could relate to- Thanksgiving. It encouraged me to make my own connections about the pieces, instead of simply providing historical information, which I appreciated. The four works allowed viewers to experience the scope of food art, including a still life, pop art print, portrait, and comic scene of a Thanksgiving dinner being prepared. The remainder of the exhibition was a chronological history of food and art in America through the 1960’s. And the majority of the works were still life’s.
Although artistic leaders ranked still life beneath supposedly superior genres of history painting, portraiture, and landscapes Raphaelle spent the majority of his career producing delicate compositions of fruit, veggies, nuts, and the like. (Quote from the exhibition, Curated by Judith Barter)
Apart from a very interesting teapot molded to look like a cauliflower, the following room was filled with still life’s by Raphaelle Peele, mentioned above. Descriptions next to the images pointed out the political significances of the various compositions of fruits and vegetables, and they were exquisitely crafted with rich colors. In the end I still agreed with the supposed “artistic leaders” who felt still life’s are lesser than other art forms. By the fourth room of still life’s I was pretty bored. Maybe I’m simply not cultured enough, but I have never been drawn to realistic representations of things I would rather be eating.
Despite the overwhelming number of still life paintings, there were still some works that captured my attention. The first were the series of vintage menus, cookbooks, and recipe cards scattered throughout the exhibition. Unlike other works that I have seen in art history books or recreated as posters, I had never seen old menus or cookbooks. To me they captured the change of Americans regard towards food better than anything else. They were also exceptionally beautiful, many of them hand crafted with colorful inks and gold filigree.
Another interesting room was filled with Trompe L’oeil Paintings. This style of painting was around as early as the Baroque period and uses forced perspective to trick the viewer into seeing a three dimensional image. Trompe L’oeil also means “Trick of the Eye.” These works were so intriguing because rather than portraying outdated politics they touched on an issue in the art world that is still hot today. What is good art? Works like Trophy of the Hunt by William Michael Harnett and Free Sample Take One by De Scott Evans at the time they were made tended to be enjoyed by the lower classes, and because of their visual illusion were considered lesser by critics. But what is the point of art if no one is looking at it? Not only were these works meticulously crafted but they were entertaining. It really made me think about the value of art. Should it entertain? Should it create discussion? Should is be beautiful or not? Should it capture a moment in History. All of these questions were brought up by the Trompe L’oeil room.
the final rooms of the exhibition touched on modern and pop art. Even though the works moved away from classical painting they were still mostly still life’s.
Although Modernism rejected traditional modes of painting the still life was central to avante garde exploration. The very features that caused it to be considered lesser in earlier decades- lack of overt narrative and focus on mundane objects- made it an ideal vehicle for radicalism and aggressive deconstruction of space, form, and surface. (Quote from the exhibition, Curated by Judith Barter)
Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s soup made an appearance and the final piece I saw as I wandered into the gift shop was a giant fabric egg by Claes Oldenburg. I was disappointed that there was nothing to propel the viewer into a discussion of contemporary interactions between food and artists, but as one individual pointed out to me, the Art Institute doesn’t maintain collections beyond the modern period.
It took me the whole exhibition to realize this but I’m simply frustrated with the institution of the museum as a whole. Educating about Art History is all good and well but without making a connection with contemporary issues it fall’s short. The Art Institute’s mission states that “The Art Institute of Chicago collects, preserves, and interprets works of art of the highest quality, representing the world’s diverse artistic traditions, for the inspiration and education of the public and in accordance with our profession’s highest ethical standards and practices.” And I suppose Art and Appetite did a good job of representing the institutes mission. I simply wanted more out of the experience. Despite my frustrations I plan to visit the Art Institute again and take advantage of their expansive galleries from around the world. Even if their passions for art don’t line up with my own I’m sure I can find inspiration around the corner.