Review: "Art and Appetite" at the Art Institute of Chicago
Last Friday, Amina and I had the opportunity to join a press preview of the exhibition “Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine,” which opened Tuesday at the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition showcases over 100 paintings, sculptures, and other decorative arts from the 18th through the 20th centuries that explore the various representations and meanings of food and feasting in American art. Given my art history background, I couldn't wait to attend.
Needless to say, it was an exciting afternoon for a food enthusiast. For starters, we were treated to a three-course meal carefully selected by exhibition curator Judith Barter to contain American food staples ranging from butternut squash and sweet potatoes to chicken and bread pudding. Next up were remarks from Barter and a preview of the exhibit.
It surprised me that this exhibition is the first of its kind, given the ubiquitous nature of food in our lives. I found that it provides welcome context at a critical juncture in American food culture. The exhibit opens with a timely ode to what is perhaps the most food-centric holiday in American culture: Thanksgiving. Here, the oft-seen Norman Rockwell painting Freedom from Want (left) occupies pride of place in a testament to the American values of abundance and prosperity in a postwar era.
Barter takes viewers on a journey across two centuries of culinary pictorial history in the following galleries. On display are paintings by the pioneering American artist Raphaelle Peale, whose still lifes reflect the bounties of the earth and the native beauty of the new Republic. While the moral overtones in his work are few, relative to his European counterparts, Peale nonetheless imbues his paintings with allusions to the themes of self-sustainment and Republican virtue. It is worth a visit to the exhibition for the sole purpose of viewing the still lifes, since the highly realistic depictions are enough to make your mouth water.
The exhibit also showcases new ways of eating as a reflection of the changing times. On view are several representations of picnic parties set in nature. At a time when urban centers saw marked growth, the pastoral repast represented a retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life. As the urban population grew, so too did the culture of dining out. In Renganeschi’s Saturday Night (right), John Sloan offers a look at the new restaurant culture that offered the newly affluent the chance to see and be seen and the changing role of women in the early twentieth century.
Other galleries in the exhibit also convey moral, political, and social messages. Paintings from the late nineteenth century Gilded Age reflect a conscious shift towards modest subject matter through an emphasis on formal concerns at a time of widespread consumption. Modern and contemporary depictions of food reflect changing national values in the aftermath of wars, the Great Depression and a culture of mass production and consumption that stemmed from the commercialization of food after the Second World War. The final gallery is a testament to the massive changes in American food culture from the 18th to the 20th centuries.
Two favorites: A gallery featuring vintage recipes printed on posters and recipe cards and a so-called gehography of the 48 contiguous states in the shape of a hog handed out by sewing machine magnate William Emerson Baker at a party to promote hygienic facilities for hog-rearing. Talk about a creative marketing ploy.
The Art Institute is offering a host of related programming with “Art and Appetite,” which runs through January 27, 2014, including an online cookbook (as well as a hard copy version, pictured above) featuring classic American recipes and offerings from renowned local chefs. For food and culture enthusiasts like us, this is one exhibit not to be missed.