All sorrows are less with bread.

(Miguel de Cervanted Saavedra)

Food is for life, food is for love. It divides and it brings people together, it marks celebrations and mourning, it is interwoven into so many aspects of our life. Apart from being an important element of human life and wellbeing, it has become an expression of national identity, religious, economic and social status. Food choices are determined by the environment and the climate, but also by social, political and religious factors.

From ancient times to Instagram, the strong relationship between humans and food has inspired many artists. On its own or as part of still lives, city scenes, markets, depiction of banquets or tinned soup, food is fascinating. The cultivation or capture of food, its preparation, preservation and consumption has been recorded in art works over the centuries. We learn about culture, customs, social and economical structure by observing what and how people ate.

The values and beliefs of a society are reflected in the food they choose to consume, which in turn become symbols of these aspects of their culture.

Egyptian pharaohs prepared for their journey into the afterlife by packing a few provisions. A painting from an Egyptian tomb, 14th century BC depicts porters carrying fish, ducks and grapes to be buried with the deceased.

Ancient Greeks valued frugality, and regarded as decadent and immoral the excesses of the Persians, and even considered this taste for culinary luxury as the reason for their defeat. Greeks were proud of their Spartan diet of bread, olives and fish, but by the 3rd century conversation about gastronomy and toasts to Dionysus became more prominent.

Around the same time, the Romans’ diet was inspired by the Greek one, with the addition of meat and spice. But the Romans were not interested in austerity, and the rich ones attended and hosted luxurious banquets, with copious amounts of food and drink. Frescoes uncovered at Pompeii depict abundance of fruit – apples, pomegranates, figs – fresh or preserved, fish and seafood, poultry and pulses. The Romans were quite messy eaters, and they littered the floor with bones, crumbs, shells and other bits of food – for the servants to sweep later, hopefully before mice and rats came for a feast too. Romans, especially the poor, who didn’t have a kitchen, also ate out, in thermopolia, a kind of restaurants that offered both eat-in and takeaway options.

As Christianity became the powerful religion of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, there was a concern that focus on food may be interpreted as gluttony – a deadly sin. Where food was scarce for the majority of the population, the aristocracy continued to feast – wearing fine clothes, sitting around tables adorned with beautiful cups and cutlery, piled up with rich dishes. Artists were more interested in depicting the banquet as a social event, detailing clothing and tableware as a record of fashion and customs. The miracle of multiplying the fish and bread sufficiently to feed thousands of famished followers has inspired many artists, as there are numerous paintings featuring this most famous of suppers.

Of Shapes and Colour

In the hierarchy of genres, still life scores pretty low, well below portraits, battle scenes and landscapes. Still life paintings are not just experiments in colour and composition; they are often loaded with food and associated symbolism.

Adam and Eve often appear holding or eating an apple – symbol of sin, temptation and unavoidable entropy, but also knowledge and later, when in the hand of Jesus, redemption.

The tactile and sensual qualities of fruit have rendered it a symbol and a metaphor for sex and fertility, especially luscious forms like peaches and seed-rich pomegranates. Cherries and strawberries are also featured as symbols of sweetness and blood, or sacrifice.

The fruit in Caravaggio’s Basket of fruit (1595) is remarkable in its accuracy and realism. The apple has a visible blemish (as if harbouring a worm) the fig leaves are drying out and turned partially brown. Grapes, the symbol of fertility, but also of debauchery, appear dusty.

In Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge, painted a few years later, Caravaggio is much bolder in the use of religious and sexual symbolism. The ledge on which the fruit rests is solid, yet cracked in a couple of places, suggesting that even a strong structure can break and perish. The fruit is ripe and inviting, the red melon split and exposed, glistening with juices; the long and bendy gourds decidedly phallic. To the left, where the light appears to come from, there are pomegranates and peaches, symbol of fecundity, but also salvation and truth.

The connection between food and sex continued into the seventeen century. Food items as symbols of gluttony, male and female genitalia, male prowess or lack of, all piled up in genre scenes such as those of Franz Hals and Jan Steen. Socialising around food remains a favourite theme, from Renoir’s Dejeuner des canotiers and Van Gogh’s Potatoes Eaters to Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe.

The Modern World

At a time of plenty, when TV programmes about cooking and baking are inexplicably popular, when people display pictures of their meals on social media, does food still inspire artists in the same way? Food is still an emotive subject, and making it the subject of artworks is today a powerful way of drawing attention to excess consumption, wastage, globalisation, the future of our planet.

Food had a special place in the heart of pop artists. In Campbell’s Soup Cans, Andy Warhol painted the packaging of the food, rather than the food itself, repeated 32 times – reflecting on the sameness and the processed nature of the food we consume. Roy Lichtenstein’s enamel on steel Hotdog, complete with mustard, although not quite appetising, has become one of the most recognisable icons of Pop Art.

21st century poster art is even bolder in its approach: a giant tomato, perfectly shaped and featuring smooth skin, suggesting genetic modification and labelled “Grown Elsewhere” is sitting on top of a normal size tomato, squashing it. Nelu Wolfensohn’s Food Invaders hopes to raise awareness of the danger posed by food that travelled thousands of miles to local producers, as well as the effect this food and the chemicals it was treated with may have on consumers.

New technology and improved chemicals have enabled producers to provide more food, faster. This is a positive development, and it was hoped that malnourishment would be eradicated. But a lot of this food goes to waste. To be precise, 1.3 billion tonnes of food, aimed at human consumption is thrown away every year. Visualise that, invites Wolfensohn’s poster, featuring a round loaf of bread, or a parched planet Earth, with one third of it cut off.

From survival to haute cuisine, from extreme diets to over indulgence, food will always be a source of pleasure and togetherness, but also of conflict and suffering. It inspired artists to use food in order to debate issues of social inequality, power and wealth, consumer culture. This debate continues in contemporary art.