Cover Story

Food & Art – the amorous liaison

By Jyotsna Sharma   1 Oct, 2016


Food and Art have always had a special relationship. Right from the 1500’s to the present-day, we see artists being seduced by food and making it a part of their practice.

During the Baroque period (c.1530 – 1720), especially in Protestant areas like Holland, genre art had become quite popular given the rise of a wealthy powerful middle class. They had become the new patrons of the Arts replacing the Church. Dutch artists sought out fresh subjects of interest for their new clientele such as scenes of everyday life (genre paintings), still life and landscapes. There was also an enormous market for portraits. Paintings of food depicting delicacies like fowl, shellfish etc. were associated with a privileged lifestyle. The patron commissioning such work was either accustomed to, or, wished to be identified with, such a lifestyle. For example, Abraham van Beyeren’s, Still Life with Lobster and Fruit (1650) depicts comestible items such as a lobster, lemon and fruit. The painting also depicts a tall, silver-gilt covered cup, which is a ceremonial or decorative vessel known as a Buckelpokal (or knobby goblet). The detail in the painting is magnificent, one feels that one can actually reach out and touch the food.

During the Impressionist period in France (19th Century), in addition to highlighting and presenting an accurate picture of light and its changing quality, artists would try to depict scenes from daily life primarily, leisure pastimes of the city and its suburbs. The representation of food became an important facet for Impressionist artists trying to depict scenes from real life.

For example, in Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881) by Renoir, we find that people are depicted enjoying their food and wine. The colours and the expressions on the faces of the people are brilliant. This artwork was a portrait of Renoir’s closest friends and was made at The Maison Fournaise of Chatou, which overlooks the Seine River. This place was frequented by people from across the classes and was a favourite of the artist and his group of friends as well. In fact, it is believed that the Hollywood actor Edward G. Robinson wanted to steal the painting. "For over thirty years I made periodic visits to Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party in a Washington museum, and stood before that magnificent masterpiece hour after hour, day after day, plotting ways to steal it."

Of course, we have all seen the image of the famous painting by Salvadore Dali titled Lobster Telephone. It was created for the English poet and collector of Surrealist art, Edward James. Dalí combined objects, which were not associated with each other and created this surrealistic marvel. He believed that such objects could reveal the secret desires of the unconscious. Lobsters and telephones had strong sexual connotations for him.

We are all aware of Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup artwork from the 1960’s, this was a key work from the Pop Art movement of the time, and it raised the status of everyday art. The soup can and its red and white label became a popular household name in the twentieth century due to the increase in mass production and advertising after the Second World War. Warhol had said, "Pop art is about liking things," “I used to drink it (Campbell’s Soup). I used to have the same lunch every day, for twenty years, I guess, the same thing over and over again.” For him, it was an archetypal American product. He also liked the fact that the soup always tasted the same and would have the same taste for a rich or a poor person. 

Art and food have also come together in performances by artists. The 1992 experiential exhibition by Rirkrit Tiravanija titled ‘untitled (free)’ at 303 gallery in New York involved the gallery being turned into a kitchen. Tiravanija cooked Thai curry & rice and the viewers / guests were invited to try it for free. Through this exhibition, the artist blurs the distance between the artist and the viewer. He is making the viewers interact with art - in fact, the viewers are the art themselves as they eat the curry & rice and talk with the other guests at the gallery.

In 2013, Subodh Gupta, the renowned Indian contemporary artist known for his larger than life metal sculptures & installations made using commonplace objects found in India such as steel utensils, was commissioned by Performa (founded in 2004 by RoseLee Goldberg) in New York to hold an exhibition titled ‘Celebration’. Celebration was an experiential event, where Gupta cooked a hot meal for approximately 60 people every night, for eight nights. This performance highlighted the idea of a feast in relation to festivities and celebration. It was based on the premise that food binds people across cultures and brings them together.

I had the opportunity to hear from him about ‘celebration’ and this is what he had to say- “Celebration was a milestone for me because it was the first time I was able to integrate my interest in cooking with my artwork. It is not just the actual act of cooking that I cherish, but also the activities that take place before and after the act such as, collecting the ingredients, serving & eating the food. To me, it is not just a functional activity; rather it is a performative dialogue.”

His sculptures adorned the space in the form of a massive chandelier made of different sized steel containers and a dazzling collection of light bulbs –the effect was stunning! The guests were greeted with sandalwood paste rubbed on their wrists, and served in steel thaalis (plates). I wanted to know the significance of the sandalwood paste. Here’s what he said-There was no significance to the act itself, which would have been far too ritualistic, and my intention was in no way to mimic a ritual. However, what I was hoping to do was to transport the guests/viewers into a different world in some way as they walked through that door. Scent is key when it comes to evoking emotion and creating an immersive experience, one that artists don't experiment with enough, so the point of the sandalwood was just that. I wanted the performance to cover all five senses, although of course, the fragrance of the food was also there, the sandalwood was just more deliberate.”

He has always been fond of eating and cooking. When asked about this fascination with food, here’s what he had to say-“Well I absolutely Iove eating, and more importantly, I love cooking and feeding my friends. On a deeper level, the kitchen was the ‘centre of the household’ while I was growing up. In fact, in most Indian households and cultures, eating and cooking are the primary methods of denoting inclusivity and exclusivity, belonging and not belonging; therefore, food in a sense is central to most Indian identities. In India, offering food to a guest is essential to making them feel welcome in your home. If you think about it, the simplest way of judging the difference between the various communities in India is by observing what they eat. In a sense, I see my fascination with the kitchen less as a compartmentalised interest and more as a lens through which I understand the world and everything around me. My art for example, is not just about the symbolism of utensils in the world, but how I believe one can see the whole world, the whole universe, within a utensil. “

When asked if he is planning another experiential exhibition like the Performa show, he said  “I hope so! I am increasingly exploring ways in which I can integrate my love for and interest in cooking with my artwork. Therefore, it would be a given, to have another exhibition on similar lines. At the moment, I am actively taking my relationship with food and cooking further in a number of different ways. I'm in the early stages of working on a book, which I hope will capture the multiple dimensions of my interest in food & cooking, both as a subject of art, and also as a subject of analysis, and of course, as a subject of consumption!

I am also exploring the option of opening a permanent space / restaurant where I can showcase various experiments with cooking. A sort of ‘restaurant meets art studio’ theme. Let's see what happens.”

I, like countless others, believe that Subodh Gupta is a true star, a performer through and through. The book and the restaurant will be eagerly awaited. In the meantime, this love affair between food and art will continue to enthral mankind.


Jyotsna Sharma is the Editor of The Wall. The Wall has been India's most well read art magazine for the last five years, subscribe and get access to premium content for free. Subscribe or read the magazine at thewallartmag.com