RA Magazine Autumn 2008
Issue Number: 100
When they are not starving in a garret, artists are founding movements in cafés. As the Royal Academy prepares for a festival of contemporary art, complete with its own art restaurant, Darra Goldstein chews over the relationship between art and food.
When FLASH - a temporary installation at the Royal Academy that will be housed within one of the GSK Contemporary galleries - opens, it is bound to attract a crowd. However, FLASH is a not an artwork but a restaurant - an offshoot of young London artists’ favourite eatery, Bistrotheque, and very much designed to stimulate the palate as well as the eye.
That the Royal Academy’s bold new Contemporary Season should boast at least one avant-garde restaurant ought not to come as too much of a surprise. In fact, food and art have a long history together, and not only because artists have depicted food or used it as a medium in their work.
One of the most elaborate connections was made by Daniel Spoerri in 1963, when he set up an impromptu restaurant at Galerie J in Paris. For two weeks, the Swiss artist prepared meals, with art critics acting as waiters and the artist himself as chef. Each night, he captured the leftovers from one of the tables to create his 'tableaux-pièges', or 'trap pictures', which then became part of an ongoing art show, the meals themselves offering commentary on the way art is served up to the public. Spoerri later opened Restaurant Spoerri in Düsseldorf and, in 1970, the Eat Art Gallery, for which he commissioned works made of food from the likes of Joseph Beuys and Dieter Roth, whose Shit Hare shows the end result of consumption. But then café culture has always been daring.
The modern art café had its beginnings in late nineteenth-century Paris and Vienna, when the artists who gathered over coffee or spirits began to attract the public - a fan base aspiring to the bohemian and, later, avant-garde style of life. Because such visibility enhanced the artists’ public image, they consciously circulated among the fashionable spots of the moment, and their presence could make or break a business.
In 1905,after the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire introduced Picasso to the Closeries des Lilas, that Paris café became his artistic headquarters of sorts, but he later shifted his allegiance to Café du Dôme, then Café les Deux Magots, to be among the Surrealists.
Elsewhere on the Continent the scene was equally lively. In 1907, the Cabaret Fledermaus opened in a Vienna cellar. Its interior boasted a grand bar designed by Josef Hoffmann, who also created striking tables and chairs. Cabaret life reached its apogee in Weimar Germany, where it became associated with the 1920s artistic culture of anything goes. Several ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ (New Objectivity) paintings by Christian Schad depict the eroticism and sensuality of the clientele he encountered there, as in his portraits Lotte and Sonja.
In Florence, Giubbe Rosse - named after the waiters’ red jackets - attracted a diverse group of artists and writers, including the English painter and poet Mina Loy. Here the Florentine Futurist group met, in a back room that had previously been a chess club for a more staid clientele. Like other cafés, Giubbe Rosse served the dual function of catering to impoverished artists and creating a stir, supplying the kind of charged atmosphere that encouraged creative thought.
Some of the most important artistic movements of the twentieth century were fomented over cups of coffee or goblets of wine, not to mention absinthe. The cafés provided a stage for the artists’ performances - often little more than posturing before an avid public.
A stage was what Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Tristan Tzara and Jean Arp had in mind when they founded the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916. Here they organised cutting-edge performances, readings, and exhibitions of work by such artists as Kandinsky, Klee, de Chirico and Ernst. And it was here that Ball read out the Dada Manifesto. Years later, Arp claimed he had been present at Dada’s birth in Zurich’s Café de la Terrace, wearing, he insisted, ‘a brioche in my left nostril’, when the word ‘dada’ was first pronounced.
Artistic cafés also shaped the lives of the Russian avant-garde. In 1917, Café Pittoresque opened in Moscow, in a space designed by Alexander Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin and Georgy Yakulov, and filled with abstract constructivist paintings, furniture and light fixtures. A few years earlier, a Moscow dining room had been the site of a drinking bout between the Russian Futurists and F. T. Marinetti, the founder of Italian Futurism, who, against all odds, had managed to drink the Russians under the table.
As Futurism evolved, Marinetti turned to food. Having liberated the word from the Russians, he sought to liberate Italians from pasta, which he saw as contributing to national lethargy. In 1930, he declared a futurist cuisine, which was put into practice at Turin’s La Taverna del Santapalato (Holy Palate) restaurant, where the angular aluminium interior, designed by Nikolaj Diulgheroff and the artist known as Fillia, provided an ideal backdrop for outrageous culinary happenings.
But World War II and its deprivations, both culinary and cultural, signalled a pause in Europe’s extravagant café life. The cabarets and cafés had been of great social import, despite - or at times because of - their louche reputation. In addition to providing affordable food and drink, they furthered the urban economy by both attracting and displaying celebrity. Only when the national economies began to recover and it seemed possible to be frivolous again, did artists gravitate again toward their favourite spots for loose talk, self-display and intoxication.
Artists and the general public alike may have become more knowing about the role of cafés in the life of culture, but the formula that makes a restaurant or café succeed as an ‘in’ spot remains elusive. In London’s Soho in the 1950s, Muriel Belcher paid Francis Bacon to come to her Colony Room and bring other carousers to create the requisite buzz. Bacon also used Wheelers Seafood Restaurant, which became a sort of personal club - a place where he was allowed to run up an extensive tab.
By the 1990s, artistic life had moved on to London’s East End, especially Hoxton, where the Bricklayers Arms was the place to see and be seen, and now Bistrotheque and its cabaret of events thrives. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, in New York, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers hung out at Max’s Kansas City from its opening in 1965. In the 1970s, Gordon Matta-Clark and Carol Goodden opened the restaurant FOOD in New York’s still-gritty SoHo. It served tasty, inventive food and enabled artists to gain income from working there.
Of the early twentieth-century artistic movements it is often said that their ideas were ‘in the air’. If so, the air that sparked such creativity was less on the streets of Paris or Berlin, Zurich or Moscow than in these cities’ cafés. Today the tables have turned. While artists still congregate in the latest stylish places, it is now the chefs who are the artists, their food the art. As The New York Times recently gushed over the tarte flambée at the Museum of Modern Art’s Bar Room, ‘Who needs Picasso when you’ve got a pizza like this?’ Who indeed.
Avant-garde eating at the RA this autumn
Food in a flash
Pablo Flack, co-creator of FLASH at Six Burlington Gardens, hopes that his ‘pop-up’ restaurant will symbolise ‘heritage subverted by youth’ when it opens as part of GSK Contemporary in November. ‘We envisage it as an installation in its own right, complementing the mini exhibitions that form the show,’ he continues. Serving gin cocktails from teapots is just one of his novel ideas for afternoon tea. Occupying the West Room on the ground floor, FLASH will seat 120 guests and be open for just 80 days - the duration of the show.
For the past four years, Flack has been running Bistrotheque with David Waddington. The pair hosted the hugely successful Christmas-themed, temporary restaurant Reindeer at the Truman Brewery in London’s Brick Lane in December 2006. As former fashion designers, their intuitive sense of occasion and attention to detail will be much in evidence at FLASH.
The restaurant will echo the formal rooms of eighteenth-century grand houses, with panelling made from art storage boxes and hung with paintings with a Rococo flavour. The amazing centrepiece - a two-metre-round chandelier of Swarovski crystal - has been designed by fashion favourite Giles Deacon.
Food will be served on Wedgwood china decorated with bold graffiti-esque patterns by Will Broome. The menu for lunch and dinner - at around £50 per head - will feature French dishes with a Californian twist, and afternoon tea starts from £19.50. Tickets are not required for entry to FLASH, however booking is strongly recommended. GB
FLASH 6 Burlington Gardens, as part of GSK Contemporary, 020 8880 6111, Book FLASH now
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