Food has been a favourite muse for artists since the first cavemen painted their prey and the renaissance provided us with an endless gallery of fruit bowls. Today social media has created its own virtual food mountain piled high with image upon image of peoples’ dinners and future sociological historians will certainly wonder why. And let’s not even entertain this century’s organically grown sculpture, the “Fatberg”. Food and drink has been used to symbolise everything from social decay to wanton abandon. This creative preoccupation with what we eat is hardly unsurprising given how vital it is to human existence.

Conversely, there is a persistent and well-worn stereotype that the world’s most gifted artists lived on paint fumes alone. It’s not hard to conjure the image of a whirling art dervish painting his latest masterpiece in a crazed maelstrom of energy, existing on a special blend of oxygen and genius.

The romantic cliché of starving artists subsisting in Parisian garrets is so strong – tortured geniuses painting in their fingerless gloves and frayed second hand scarves to ward off the cold while drinking cheap wine to quench the pangs of hunger. This is just one of the many stereotypes we love to warm ourselves with in the reality of a disordered and unpredictable world.

Many people believe passionately in the powers of deprivation. Days of fasting that sharpen the brain, increase focus and lead you on a direct path to enlightenment. To quote Spock, “This is illogical”. Hunger and thirst depletes the body and brain, leading to exhaustion and brain fog. We all know how single minded the mind becomes when we are desperate for a wee. Inspiration and talent take a back seat when the pre-frontal cortex is hammering the amygdala with the repeat message “find a toilet!”

So it’s time to go against the ‘grain’ of January’s annual guilt fest where we are offered a buffet of weight loss documentaries, the latest snake oil diet supplements and this week’s superfad food. Let’s rejoice in art history’s great love affair with food by looking at the artists who were writing cookbooks long before today’s celeb-cookbook boom.

We’re taking that old chestnut of the starving artist off the menu.

It’s even more ridiculous considering this stereotype is set against the backdrop of Paris during the time it was the capital of the gastronomical world. This culture gloried in food appreciation and so did the resident artists. Toulouse Lautrec, Degas and Picasso did not just chinwag over a Spartan black coffee; they hosted glorious dinner parties too. We seem quite happy to embrace the alcoholic, womanizing artist. Why is gorging on wine and sex more palatable than feasting on food? And in a sideways rant – where are the ‘manizers’, the starving women? Since when has society passed up on romanticised images of women not eating? Oh yes, since female artists used to be as distasteful as a cream cake at a weight watchers meeting.

So while we bust myths, let’s start with Frieda Kahlo who alongside her husband Diego Rivera, the celebrated muralist, hosted sublime parties in their famous blue house in Mexico City. These parties were a vivid memory for Frieda’s step daughter Guadalupe Rivera Marin and a source of inspiration for Marin’s cookbook co-authored with Marie-Pierre Colle, “Frida’s Fiestas: Recipes and Reminiscences of Life With Frida Kahlo.” Frieda loved to entertain and eat but did not like cooking, something many of us can relate to. In fact it was Marin’s mother Lupe who excelled at cooking and taught Frida her fabulous recipes (yes the ex-wife who lived happily in the same household, slightly less relatable). Recipes include Black Mole from Oaxaca and Cats’ Tongues – biscuits, cute kittens were not harmed in its baking process.

For Frida the joy of eating was an opportunity to celebrate family events as well as Mexico’s many festivals. Her menus demonstrated her fervent nationalism as well as another creative outlet to create tables and dishes as flamboyantly colourful, inventive and grandiose as her art.

Throwing extravagant dinner parties was a favourite pastime for many of our famed artists. The most outrageous were the spectacular parties thrown by Salvador Dali and his wife Gala. Guests were expected to wear fancy dress and invites were not confined to mere humans. The guest list included many animals including monkeys and his pet ocelot, all more disposed to follow polite party etiquette than their host.

Dali’s childhood dream was to be a chef and this passion was realised in his cookbook, “Les Diners de Gala”. From recipes that would make Heston Blumenthal mouth water to ideas for dinner party conversation that would make our eyes water, the cookbook is a work of art in itself and deliciously typical of Dali. He did not suffer the health conscious gladly writing: “If you are a disciple of one of those calorie counters who turn the joys of eating into a form of punishment, close this book at once; it is too lively, too aggressive and far too impertinent for you.”

One may assume this also applied to those who frowned upon on the sweet delights of sex as the book covered all appetites. The meat chapter is entitled “Les Entre-plats Sodomises” – feel free to google translate. Far more risqué than “9 and a half weeks” frenzied fridge fornication.

Ironically he included a more mundane recipe that has since been claimed by lycra-clad hipsters globally: avocado on toast.

Toulouse Lautrec also famed for his sexual, gastronomical and alcoholic appetites held a party that erred on a more abstemious form of crazy. Following dinner his guests were offered a viewing of Degas’s latest masterpiece as their dessert.

Lautrec loved to cook both traditional fare as well as recipes that I suspect were created in an Absinthe hallucinogenic haze. His cookbook “The Art of cuisine” was written by his friend Maurice Joyant using Lautrec’s papers after his death. It featured recipes you might expect on a sadistic gameshow including grasshoppers, squirrel and marmot replete with outlandish instructions:

“Having killed some marmots sunning themselves belly up in the sun with their noses in the air one sunrise in September, skin them and carefully put aside the mass of fat which is excellent for rubbing into the bellies of pregnant women… Cut up the marmot and treat it like stewed hare which has a perfume that is unique and wild.”  

Lautrec was aghast at the idea that one might drink water instead of wine at dinner. He would ensure pitchers of water were made available at his table with the addition of a goldfish swimming merrily inside.

Hen nights across the UK should raise a toast for his contributions to cocktail cuisine. However his infamous “Earthquake” made from Absinthe, red wine and Cognac may tip the scales from pissed to poisoned even for the most hardened Pornstar Martini mobs.

This is a mere amuse bouche of the foods loved and created by some of the maestros of art history and there are many more examples among the art community. The physical body needs food, water and air but perhaps the soul needs art.

Crucially, if we must eat to live then let’s enjoy what we eat and live a little.

Copyright by Sonia Picker


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