From plate to palette: a history of food in art

Ten-week art history and theory course

Courses and Classes

15 January — 26 March 2018

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Juan Sánchez Cotán, Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit, 1602.

© Museo Nacional del Prado. 68 x 88.2 cm.

Explore the remarkable history of food in art, from the ancient world to the contemporary, across a range of themes. Over ten weeks of lectures and discussions, leading scholars and art world experts consider how food has inspired artists over the ages and has been used to evoke allegory, symbolism, still life, feminism, surrealism, hyper-reality and much more.

The depiction of food in art has existed since the earliest recorded images. It has served both as a representation of daily life as well as an allegory for the social and economic. Food has been used by artists to describe and critique society, raising fascinating questions about power, wealth, status, life, fertility, death, the after-life and more.

From the earliest examples of human visual culture, stone age cave paintings depict slaughtered animals, perhaps to be consumed; Egyptian hieroglyphs provide tantalising glimpses into an agrarian economy with reference to crops and bread; Roman mosaics include visions of fruit, fish, bounty and feasting.

Perhaps the most well-known example of food in art in the Western tradition is the opulent still life, and the associated genre paintings made popular in the 16th and 17th century. Such paintings became an opportunity for artists to showcase their skill and talent through the depiction of lifelike and intricate arrangements which captured texture and colours, and provided new perspectives on edible and perishable goods. For those who commissioned and collected them, such paintings served to distinguish the owner’s wealth, intellect and social status. The exotic and often luxurious, as well as common, foods on display made subtle references to decay, the temporary and transient nature of life.

The depiction of food in art has long been employed by artists to engage with social, political and gender agendas, increasingly in recent times. Famously, the pop artists of the 20th century appropriated images of mass-produced and fast foods to comment on social issues such as commercial and consumer culture.The symbolism associated with certain foods has also been used by feminist artists throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, and often combined with self-portraiture, to claim back sexuality, critique social norms, and empower the female role.

Historical and contemporary examples are many and fascinating and the depiction of food and eating is an enduring interest for artists; a nearly universal theme across the world’s many cultures and over time.

This ten-week course presents an exciting and unusual perspective on the history of art by considering the changing role and depiction of food. Taking a broadly chronological and thematic approach, the course begins with some of the earliest depictions of food in art, and considers them through the ages and across cultures. Beginning with the ancient world and antiquities, the course moves on to Egypt, Greek and Roman mosaics, and food in medieval cultures, with a focused exploration of the Dutch still life and genre painting. A discussion of satire brings the course into the early 18th century, and then towards the treatment of food by artists in the modern and contemporary periods, where key artistic movements including Impressionism, Futurism, Surrealism, Pop Art, Feminist art, the hyper-real and contemporary art will be reviewed.

Topics that will be covered include:

• The depiction of food in antiquities and ancient art
• The symbolism of certain foods including the apple, the pomegranate, the quince, bread, oysters, lobster and meat
• A detailed and comprehensive study of food in art throughout the ages, from ancient Egypt through to the contemporary art world
• Discussion into how food has been treated by artists in different artistic movements, and its impact on the art historical narrative

Leading scholars, art historians and art world practitioners explore the work of key artists and landmark artworks that depict the evolution of the relationship between food and art.

Although depiction of food in art exists across the world’s cultures, this series focuses predominately on the Western, British and European traditions, including reference to works in the RA collection and national museums.

This course is available to book as a full ten-week course OR as two individual blocks of five weeks.

There is a break of one week in between the two five-week blocks:

Weeks 1–5 (Monday 15 January – Monday 12 February)

Break – Monday 19 February

Weeks 6–10 (Monday 26 February – Monday 26 March)

● Fully booked

● Cancelled

15 January — 26 March 2018

The Sir Hugh Casson Room for Friends, The Keeper's House, Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly

7–9pm each week (registration from 6.30pm). £540 for full course, £320 for weeks 1–5 OR weeks 6–10. Includes all materials, light refreshments throughout, and a drinks reception at the end of weeks 5 and 10.

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