Art and Appetite

Yesterday, I went to the Art Institute to check out its special exhibition: “Art and Appetite.” It closes January 27th. As a rule, the AIC puts on lovely exhibitions. They may not all be to my taste in subject but I always get something out of them. I make it a point to always go.

For instance, there was the exhibit on Benin bronzes. It’s not something I knew a lot about but I went and was extremely pleasantly surprised. Not only did I go multiple times, I encouraged others to go. I learned a lot about Benin history and their relationship trading with the Portuguese. I was blown away by the bronzes themselves, including a roof statue of an alligator.

Benin bronzes also have a special place in the controversy of antiquities. The British conquered the country in 1877 and when there was a massacre of a British delegation, the British took hundreds of the bronzes. These were religious items that were associated with rituals that cannot take place until they are returned to Benin, which is now south-west Nigeria. Many of them ended up in the British Museum and some are on display in the Africa exhibit. There have been controversies when the British Museum tried to sell them. This AIC exhibition was a collaboration with Nigeria and the royal family.

So the moral of the story is to check out the AIC exhibitions. They really have their finger on the pulse of art and history in the world.

“Art and Appetite” was worth checking out. It’s not their best exhibition in recent years but it had its good points. It basically covers food in art in American history. The first room was well worth the visit. It focused on Thanksgiving (probably prominently placed because the exhibition started a few weeks before Thanksgiving). It had Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want,” a bright, joyful picture of a family about to share a plump golden turkey. Recently, it was reported by news outlets that this vision of the turkey has impacted the turkey trade in the US where people now insist on similarly looking turkeys.  It was lovely seeing the painting in person.

However, that’s not what made the exhibition for me. Next to it was a painting of a simple turkey in a pan by Roy Lichtenstein. It is a turkey in bold colors with large pixels that he is so famous for. The turkey is not inviting; it looks like a blown up cartoon. It’s a brilliant contrast to Norman Rockwell’s. Roy Lichtenstein has reduced the bird to mass-produced and packaged state, It doesn’t symbolize “freedom from want” and family like the Norman Rockwell painting. And next to that is a painting by Alice Neal of an even less appetizing bird. A carcass sits draining in a sink. It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come from killing the animals we eat to buying them at the store. We don’t want to see the mess that is the meat. The combination of these three is simply brilliant.

The rest of the exhibition was pretty good but I don’t think it quite lived up to this three painting combination. There were a lot of still lives, which aren’t to my taste. I think that the modern painting side was a little bare compared to the 18th and 19th century sections.

However, I did become acquainted with Raphaelle Peale, a 18th century American still life painter, who did some exquisite pieces. There is one of a melon split open with vines that really made me want watermelon. Also, his pieces showcased more exotic fruit, like pineapples and oranges. At the time, these fruits were considered real luxuries and the wealthy would have them as special occasions. It’s quite a contrast to our present day situation where all fruit is available all the time (expect peaches.)

There were some fascinating works by Claes Oldenburg, a contemporary artist who had two pieces In the exhibition. One was a 10 foot fried egg sculpture. Another was larger than life cut green beans. According to the curator, the artist suggesting, “everyday American life was an artistic happening.” It was delightfully playful. It points out the awkwardness of still life painting. It takes the ephemeral nature of food and makes it into something more permanent.

And Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” was in it, which is my favorite painting at the AIC. The painting captures the beauty of the city at night, how we can find a place to serve our needs whether a moment alone or with a stranger. The painting was started after Pearl Harbor required mandatory blackouts in NY. Mr. Hopper was imaging the bright places in the city at night. Moreover, I found out that Archibald John Motley Jr.’s “Nightlife,” another of my favorite paintings, was inspired by Mr. Motley seeing “Nighthawks” in the Art Institute in the 1940s. I love when my favorite artists are friends or connected in a substantial way (like Rex Stout and PG Wodehouse).

That’s all for now!

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