A new exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art tracks how American artists have portrayed food through history, from early scenes of taverns and farms to Edward Hopper’s diner to Andy Warhol’s soup cans. The museum’s Deputy Director of Arts and Research, Margi Conrads tells me that the show won’t just make us hungry. It also teaches us about our changing culture.
Here’s a longer, leisurely version of the edited interview that aired on KERA FM:
Highlights from our interview:
Why focus on food and art?
“Well, food has been a subject in art throughout its whole history. Food appears in our visual culture. And it’s been an interesting subject matter for artists because it not only allows them to express their aesthetic concerns but also it is full of symbols and meanings that just permeate all of the works.”
Let’s talk about the symbols. To contemporary eyes, a still life may look like just a bunch of pretty fruit. But a 19th century audience may have detected much more meaning.
“There’s lots of messages that can appear in paintings, and it’s not that any one painting can include them all, but that an artist would hone in on different messages that they might want to send, or the messages their patrons would have want included. So there are those pictures that are status symbols. But there are many politically charged images.
“One of my favorites is by the artist William Michael Harnett. In the late 19th century, tromp l’oeil, or fool the eye painting, was very popular. These works sometimes hung in people’s homes, but more often found their places in establishments, like saloons or department stores. And Harnett painted an image called ‘For Sunday’s Dinner.’ It is a freshly plucked chicken, so freshly plucked that if you look carefully, you can see the little last bit of feathers hanging in the air. And it is hanging by a string from the top of the painting and if you’re looking across the bar or in a store, you might think it was real.
“That title, ‘For Sunday’s Dinner,’ refers to the fact that if you could have a chicken in your pot for Sunday’s dinner, it meant that then you’ve made it. You’re surviving. And that was very much the immgrant’s dream.”
You can also track the role of women changing through these paintings.
“Since, really, the beginning of time, women and food preparation have been synonymous. And so it’s charted throughout the exhibition. And you have wonderful examples in the mid 19th century of someone like the artist Lilly Martin Spencer, who was the primary breadwinner in her her household, making her living as a painter, at the same time she was bearing 13 children. So her work life balance was very complicated.
“But she used humor and she used also a direct look, of a female figure in the painting, just looking right at you the viewer, to challenge some of those notions of gender roles and etiquette.
“And then there are paintings from the late 1920s, like Peter Blume’s “Vegetable Dinner.” The canvis is almost divided in half. One woman is looking very cosmopoliton, with a cigarette hanging off her fingers. And the other one is peeling vegetables. That dichotomy of women’s roles and how they were changing — they were changing throughout our history of course, but particularly in the 1920s — That picture speaks not only to the more national thinking about changing roles, but Blume’s relationship to his girlfriend at the time.
I’m not sure I’ve seen an exhibition catalogue with recipes:
“It’s hard to think about food without thinking about how we prepare it. One of the great things about that catalogue is that you get that historical view of recipes. There are recipes to hash a calf’s head, to make a sheep’s tongue pie.
“Macaroni pudding was actually one of the most popular dishes and was found in every social class. And that’s something that’s basically our macaroni and cheese today.”