The art of cooking: how artists and food have been linked throughout history

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It might seem like we live in an unprecedented age of Instagram-obsessed dinnermania, but the reality is that people have always been creatively driven and inspired by food. Our appetites are constantly affecting culture. For as long as we’ve been expressing ourselves artistically, food has featured.

While the inspiration that food provides is nothing newsworthy, art’s relationship with food is not static. The line at which food and art intersect is constantly shifting, influencing how we view creatives on both sides of the divide. Looking at how these two industries interact reveals some interesting insights into the drivers behind our current foodie obsession and how both our food and art might look in the future.

There are many reasons why food appeals as an artistic subject. As something essential to survival, it can be understood and appreciated by a wide audience. You don’t need a raft of background knowledge to recognise a bowl of fruit.

Because of this universality, food is a great metaphor for conveying all types of meaning. Artists have used it to show “real” scenes, as in Roman mosaics and frescoes, as well as the more metaphorical still-lifes of the Dutch and Flemish Masters. How an artist chooses to depict food can have a multiplicity of meaning, from showing off wealth and power to advocating abstinence. It’s this flexibility that has inspired artists to continue revisiting the subject for centuries.

Still life picture Credit: Flickr/Giammario

Some artists are not content with “traditional” depictions of food. It could be argued that the unique and often challenging work of these particular individuals has done more to influence our relationship with produce than anything else. An early example of an artist incorporating food in a totally unprecedented way is the Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

An expert in portraiture, Arcimboldo is widely known for his playful depictions of famous contemporary figures composed entirely of fruit and veg. Perhaps his most famous and daring work is of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II as the Roman god Vertumnus. Fortunately for the artist, Rudolph was blessed with a sense of humour and welcomed the slightly grotesque likeness. By pushing the boundaries, Arcimboldo showed others how boldly creative it is possible to be when working with food.

Arcimboldo portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Credit: Flickr/Taras Boychuk

The 20th century saw some truly radical steps taken by food-focused artists. At this time, hosts of challenging artistic movements were springing up around the world. Among the most enigmatic were the Italian Futurists. With a focus on modernity, the Futurists were intent on influencing every artistic medium, including food. It was this commitment that resulted in Filippo Marinetti’s 1930 publication, Manifesto of Futurist Cooking.

The “Manifesto” is an extraordinary blend of the artistic and the bizarre - and it presents some extreme views on dinnertime. Marinetti proposed that cutlery be abolished, political discussion be banned and some food be left on the table untouched, instead only “experienced by the eyes and nose”. The Manifesto also features instructions for a multi-course futurist dinner, where guests must put on a pair of specially prepared “tactile pyjamas” and be led to a darkened room to choose their dining partner by feel, all before eating a meal that involves music, caramel crusted raw meat and regular sprays in the face with perfume.

Though most of the Manifesto of Futurist Cooking seems slightly daft, the influence of its philosophy can still be felt today. The Futurist obsession with modernity meant that they adopted a scientific approach to cookery, replacing traditional technology with cutting-edge gadgetry.

While UV lamps, colloidal mills and ozonisers may have fallen out of fashion, the union of art, science and food is something that is still embodied by contemporary molecular gastronomists like Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria. This goes to show the continuing influence that art has on how we eat.

Starter at The Fat Duck Credit: Flickr/Mike_fleming

The Futurist approach to food also proved an inspiration to other 20th century artists. Perhaps the most famous was the Surrealist provocateur Salvador Dali. Creator of such famous foodie pieces as the Lobster Telephone and Self Portrait with Bacon, Dali was every inch a disciple of the dining room. He loved food so much that he published his own cookbook, Les Diners de Gala, in 1973. Featuring over 130 individual recipes as well as original illustrations from the famous artist, the book underlines the appeal that the kitchen holds for the artistically inclined.

Salvador Dalis 'Autumnal Cannibalism' Credit: Flickr/Sofia Valkanidou

As time has moved on, the line between artist and chef has become even more blurred. In the early 1990s, Rirkrit Tiravanija pioneered a series of projects centred on the communal power of food. Turning creative spaces across the world into dining rooms and feeding hundreds of people in a day, Tiravanija bridged the gap between gallery and restaurant. More recently, artists like Peter Blake and Damian Hirst have taken this approach one step further, opening their own eateries in a bid to forge an ever closer union between art and food. That we live in an age where such big names are still intent on exploring this relationship highlights food’s continuing influence in the artistic world.

Old lab equipment

Just as food has influenced art, art also affects food. In almost every modern restaurant, diners will be surrounded by walls adorned with paintings and pieces from local artisans, enhancing the experience. But it’s not just the restaurant space that showcases artistic talent. Fine dining and haute cuisine have both become increasingly dependant on precise and exquisite presentation, and the philosophy of eating with your eyes is practised in almost every top restaurant. Some chefs go even further. Grant Achatz, for example, converts guests’ tables into canvases on which he “paints” desserts. That we now have chefs prepared to take up such an artistic role shows how closely both professions are now intertwined.

Alinea chefs creating dessert on a table Credit: Flickr/Star5112

If our present is anything to go by, the future promises to bring food and art even more closely together. One look at Instagram tells you how visual modern dining has become. Eye-catching colour and presentation is now just as important as overall technique. With cinematically stunning food shows like Chef’s Table playing a larger role in pop culture, food’s artistic qualities are appreciated by an ever-larger audience. As a result, we’ve already seen ex-elBulli maestro Ferran Adria exhibit sketches of his most famous food creations at an exhibition in London's Somerset House. That chefs are coming to be appreciated as artistic talents in their own right suggests that, before too long, chefs and artists could be seen as one and the same.