PASADENA, California — Few things are so wonderful, and so wonderfully political, as food. The very act of going to a grocery store contains within it the story of globalization — from garlic grown in China to mangos from Mexico (which in turn are native to India) to peppers from Southeast Asia (which in turn are native to Mexico).

While a trip to the grocery store is now a mundane act, in 17th-century Europe, accessing global foods was still a new concept. “Still Life with Fruit and Vegetables” (1625–35), a painting by Flemish artists Frans Snyders and Cornelis de Vos, is one such example. In this rich, intricate work, a maid plays with a lovebird imported from the African continent. Many of the fruits and vegetables on display come not just from the Netherlands but from around the world — gooseberries and tomatoes from the Americas, radish from the eastern Mediterranean, and garlic from Asia. It was an artwork for an aspirational urban class, and as such contained within it the story of colonization.

“Still Life with Fruit and Vegetables” appears in All Consuming: Art and the Essence of Food, on view at the Norton Simon Museum. The show is a journey through food as imagined and depicted by European artists from 1500 to 1900, all pulled from the museum’s collections. With themes like Hunger, Excess, and Sustenance, the exhibition delves into the structural inequalities exacerbated by shifts in food culture and production during this time. “Europeans dealt with famine,” notes the exhibition text, “revolutionized their agricultural methods and imported goods from non-European countries and colonized lands.”

Jacques Callot, three plates from Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre (The Miseries of War) (1633), etchings

Consider, for instance, Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre (The Miseries of War), a triptych of panoramic etchings by French artist Jacques Callot that depict pillaging a village and a farm. The misery shown is not battle but the violence the war normalized among underpaid and hungry soldiers. “In the 17th century,” the exhibition text states, “plundering was considered a legitimate wartime practice, as controlling resources, especially food, was essential to military success.”

Contrast this act of violence with “Twelve Plates from a Calendar Set” (1739–75), a collection from ‘de Porceleine Bijl’ Shop and Hugo or Justus Brouwer. These 12 beautiful plates, made in blue-and-white porcelain fashionable in the 18th century, and meant to mimic Chinese porcelain, show idyllic activities themed for each month, such as harvesting fruit in September and supervising gardening in March. The plates, like “Still Life with Fruit and Vegetables,” display scenes that were made possible by significant colonization abroad.

The show carries us home to 20th-century California, the US’s largest food-producing state, with photographs by Manuel Álvarez Bravo and Edward Weston displayed on a single wall. On one side are Weston’s aesthetic depictions of farming, like a gorgeous black and white pepper curled up as if in a yoga pose and a Chinese cabbage with yonic qualities. On the other side are Álvarez Bravo’s portrayals of farmworkers and their families, such as “Public Thirst (Sed pública)” (1934), where a child drinks water from a fountain, and “The Crouched Ones (Los agachados)” (1934), which shows farmworkers taking a break during the day to eat.

I do wish the show dove more deeply into the inequalities that enabled global food culture to begin with, including a more direct engagement with slavery, conflict and colonization. That said, it’s a solid reminder that the diversity of the food we have access to is beautiful, and how we got there is considerably more complicated.

Frans Snyders and Cornelis de Vos, ““Still Life with Fruit and Vegetables” (1625–35), oil on canvas
Manuel Álvarez Bravo, “Public Thirst (Sed pública)” (1934), gelatin silver print
Visitor responses to questions about food
‘de Porceleijne Bijl’ Shop and Hugo or Justus Brouwer, “Twelve Plates from a Calendar Set” (1739–75), glazed earthenware (delftware)
Jean-Baptiste Chardin, “Still Life with Fowl” (c. 1728–30), oil on canvas

All Consuming: Art and the Essence of Food continues at the Norton Simon Museum (411 West Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena, California) through August 14. The exhibition was organized by Maggie Bell, assistant curator at the museum.

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice. 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *