Antonia Osgood, January 2018

Not only do our faces seek a good angle on camera, food is another model hungry to be seen on social media. It is not enough to merely eat the salad; the salad must be documented, seen and ‘liked’. Food is not only for the mouth; it is also for the eyes.  

Last autumn The Photographer’s Gallery in Soho presented ‘Food for Being Looked At', a small one-walled exhibition illustrating the ‘history of food through its image culture’. Displayed were various digital photographs of artful meals. Whilst it was an underwhelming presentation, it highlighted how food is a medium in which we profess aesthetic prowess.


Food photos are another point of conduct for which the millennial is credited and reproached. One article by Elite Daily is titled ‘Generation whY!? Stop Taking Pictures of Your Food!’. It declares the behaviour is one of many ‘illogical trends and activities that the brilliant members of our generation partake in’.

But really, this phenomenon isn’t entirely new. Food has always been integral to culture; it is a semiotic framework through which we communicate experiences, religious views and moral codes. Consider the still life: a bowl or table of fruit has been a visual stimulus for artists throughout the centuries. Could it be that our current food compositions derive from the traditional still life? If food has the power to represent individual and collective identities, perhaps the visual ritual surrounding food suggests a subconscious desire to preserve a sense of self.  


Indeed, from the earliest portraits we see luscious banquets, market-scenes and picnics. The representation of diet can be used to decipher the identities of the artist and depicted figures. Some of the most famous works of art draw upon food iconography, and from these works we can identify how the healthful or indulgent notions of food are psychologically modified. Whilst some in today’s culture may look upon bread with scorn, Christ’s hand pointing towards the loaf before him in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (c. 1498) is an iconographic image of piety. Whilst fruit is a universal symbol of health, Titian’s portrayal of Eve with the forbidden apple in The Fall of Man (c. 1550) signifies sin.

Spring Rolls for Breakfast. Photograph Credit: Faye Razzak.

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Leonardo da Vinci 

The Last Supper

1495 - 1498

Tempera on gesso, pitch and mastic

460 x 880 cm (181.1 x 346.5 in)

16th century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimbodlo is known for his portraits of individuals made entirely from fruits, vegetables and other plant matter. His composite figureheads seem painted in plain humour, but they were meant to highlight his patron’s authority. Court painter to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II, Arcimbodlo’s incorporation of exotic ingredients such as corn and eggplant suggests the ruler’s cultural and scientific learnedness.


Interestingly, “one modern critic has theorized that Arcimboldo suffered from mental illness, but others insist he had to have had his wits about him to win and retain favour in such rarefied circles”, writes Abigail Tucker for the Smithsonian magazine. His quirky, hallucinatory depictions of food were interpreted as a psychological disturbance, rather than an ingenious creation.

One article on reads, “Photographing food may be a sign of mental illness.” Whilst it could be disputed that smartphone food photography is slightly uncanny, renowned photographer Martin Parr’s garish images of World cuisine compiled in a book titled ‘Real Food’ intentionally portray food as an artistic entity and cultural construct. 


It is true, however, that the circulation of food imagery is greater now. Each moment in the process including preparing, cooking, looking and consumption is shared by more means of communication. It is not only commercial companies who groom food artificially for marketing; it is also the consumer and artist who play into the fetishized portrayal of food.


Contemporary artist Wayne Thiebaud is recognised for his paintings of pies, ice cream cones, sweets, hotdogs, fruit and pastries. You may have had a chance to view his work at the White Cube in Masons Yard last year (24 May – 2 July).

Whilst some critics suggest his work fits neatly into the Pop Art movement, Theibaud protests that he’s “just an old-fashioned painter.” Though his paintings seem a far cry from the subtly modulated pears and apples of typical still life, his rendering of food can be likened to Paul Cézanne, who attempted to render the material properties of objects in “harmony parallel to nature”. Theibaud’s canvases are extremely sensory; thick impasto mimics cupcake icing, bright pastel pigments recall sweets. His method of rendering is akin to the objects depicted. Theibaud calls it ‘object transference’. This raises an interesting conception of food as a material or medium.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Portrait with Vegetables (The Greengrocer)


Claes Oldenburg’s sculptures investigate food arousal and fabrication. His Dropped Cone (2001) involves a 39ft realistic ice cream cone seemingly smushed onto the corner of a busy shopping mall building in Cologne. Other works by Claes include giant furry ice-lollies and a spongy latex Floor Cake (1962).


Food is also a component of performance works by Sophie Calle and Sarah Lucas. Calle’s The Chromatic Diet (1997) involved a strict regime of eating meals of the same colour each day of the week. As environmental historian Jane Dusselier notes, food throughout history reaches beyond the ‘nutritional and physiological’; it is a ‘language with rules not unlike grammar.’ It seems Calle draws upon this sentiment.

Lucas’s Self Portrait with Fried Eggs (1996) is a well-known feminist image. In the photograph, Lucas poses in a chair with fried eggs on her t-shirt, challenging notions of the female body. The Tate Modern elucidates that Lucas changed her “perception of her 'masculine' appearance from being a disadvantage to being something she could use in her art.”

Food is not a mundane matter, nor is it a contemporary obsession. Sustenance is given many resonances through image culture. The composition and voyeurism of food can be described as an attempt to interweave artistic and sociological expression.

Queued for 45 minutes for the best bagel. Photograph Credit: Faye Razzak.

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