The Art of the Cook – Swati Chanda

Matisse, Cézanne and Picasso painted still lifes of food. Andy Warhol famously painted soup cans, Wayne Thiebaud painted Candy Apples and Swiss artist Dieter Roth painted The Dinner Party. Artists have long painted food, and food has long played a role in art, in ways symbolically significant or metaphorical. And in the worlds of Leonardo da Vinci and Salvador Dali – two artists separated by 400 years – art, eating, and theater combined in unique ways.

While gastronomy (the practice of cooking and eating good food, the study of the relationship between food and culture, and the theory and practice of food production and preparation) adopts many guises, its aesthetic element has always been celebrated – through table decor, embroidered table linen and flowers, or elaborate presentation.  No wonder, then, that visual artists should be interested in the art of gastronomy, and that dialogues between art and gastronomy should take many forms, many routes.

Artists have long brought the kitchen to their canvas, seeking to represent food in aesthetic forms. And what happens when artists enter the kitchen? Monet kept kitchen journals; Jackson Pollock scribbled recipes. As for Leonardo and Dali, they emphasized performance: dinner as theater. And they wrote cookbooks.

Cookbooks and recipes have been in circulation through the ages – long before there were smartphones or apps with recipes, blogs by home-cooks or TV cookery competitions. Cookbooks can be traced back in antiquity to the third-century Greek work Deipnosophistae (translated as The Learned Banqueters, Philosophers at Dinner or The Gastronomers). The work is in the form of dialogues supposedly around a table, and includes discussions on health and diet, food, food prices and food preparation (including recipes, such as for stuffed vine leaves).

Frontispiece to the 1657 edition of the Deipnosophists
Frontispiece to the 1657 edition of the “Deipnosophists”

A number of cookbooks survive from the Medieval times. One such, compiled in the 12th century, contains 196 recipes, including for “Blank Manng” – the gelatinous cold dessert blancmange mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It was made with almond milk and ground chicken for invalids or, more popularly, as a dessert, garnished with rosewater. Another Medieval cookbook describes how to make frumenty (a porridge made of wheat, chicken stock and saffron) and payn puff (boiled fruits wrapped in pastry), and contains various recipes with delicacies like the swan and peacock.

With the advent of the printing press, cookbooks became widely available after the fifteenth century, and the rise of the middle classes fuelled their sales, but it was really in the Victorian era that printed cookbooks came into their own. The celebration of the domestic and familial, and Victorian definitions of femininity ensured this. Cookbooks began to become handbooks for Victorian housewives and by the late nineteenth century, some of them had become bestsellers.  Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families and Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management were hugely popular. (In the USA, Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cookbook was one of the all-time bestsellers in the genre.)

Today, interest in the aesthetics of food and its preparation, and the visual delights of consumption are evident everywhere: from cooking shows and competitions on TV, to display of restaurant menus, to cooking blogs and social media posts from dinner tables at home, to updates from the restaurant table. Travel-eating is widely shared.

Tourism itself consciously explores gastronomy’s connection with art; for example in Denmark, one such art and gastronomy tour involves bike rides through local farms and vineyards, and visits to the factories and cafes; these ventures are combined with art workshops and festivals. In Spain, an art and gastronomy tour has clients working with artists to paint menus and restaurant scenes while enjoying lunch with locally grown and sourced items.

A few years ago, experimental psychologists at the University of Oxford conducted a study to assess whether placing food on a plate in a manner inspired by art would modify the diner’s experience of eating the food.  One group of diners was offered a salad arranged like “Painting No. 201”, by the pioneering Russian abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky.  Two other groups were given salads with identical ingredients and dressings, but arranged differently (i.e. conventionally).

kandinsky painting no. 201 and the salad it inspired
Kandinsky’s “Painting No. 201” and the salad it inspired

Although diners were not told that their salad was arranged to look like a Kandinsky painting, they rated it the best of the three, and also said (before and after eating it) that they would be willing to pay twice as much for it as for the other two salads.

So if the aesthetics of food presentation appeal to the average diner, what happens when the artist’s drive for learning and discovery extends to the realm of food?

Leonardo (1452-1519), the prime exemplar of the Renaissance man, and widely celebrated for his paintings, was more than a visual artist. A polymath interested in science, mathematics, cartography, astronomy and inventions, Leonardo conceptualized hydraulic pumps and steam canons, musical instruments, adding machines and flying machines. Most of his inventions never saw the light of day in his lifetime and remained purely fanciful, while some were remarkably prescient and foreshadowed technology that was developed many centuries later. They were remarkable for the ways in which they fused art with natural philosophy, using art to explore all aspects of human experience. His drive led to many inventions in the kitchen, such as a spit which turned using air heated through a turbine.

Leonardo kept meticulous notebooks amounting to over 12,000 pages of notes. These notebooks, in which he wrote almost daily (in mirror script, from right to left), illuminate his ideas on the many subjects of his interest, from architecture and anatomy, to  flying machines and grocery lists. Leonardo’s drawings and writings were collected into manuscripts after his death; the largest is the twelve-volume Codex Atlanticus (Atlantic Codex), currently preserved in Milan. In these pages, Leonardo has advice on cooking and health, such as, eating only when hungry, cooking with simple ingredients, avoiding an afternoon siesta and not drinking wine on an empty stomach.

Parts of this extraordinary document may be considered a proto-cookbook; certainly it is a window into Leonardo’s genius and eclectic interests. As Dali’s art and cookbook were windows into the Surrealist painter’s interests.

Dali, who displayed mastery of the classical-realist to the avant-garde and surreal, moving from the classical realism of “Girl from the Back” to the Surrealism of “My Wife, Nude, Contemplating her Own Flesh Becoming Stairs”, was interested in a number of creative ventures. These included film, sculpture, jewelry design and photography. A great admirer of Leonardo, Dali shared the Renaissance artist’s desire to use art to explore various facets of human experience, to design devices and inventions – many of which were considered outlandish – and to experiment with visual perspective. Dali’s Sacrament of the Last Supper deploys the golden ratio – a formula for geometric proportions and harmony in painting, beloved of Leonardo and used in many of his paintings including the celebrated The Last Supper.

But where Leonardo had an incipient cookbook with commonsensical advice about health and dietary habits, Dali’s cookbook challenges with its celebration of the erotic and the bizarre. And there is little room for speculation about Dali’s dietary preferences. “I only like to eat what has a clear and intelligible form,” Dali says without ambiguity in Les Dîners des Gala, his cookbook celebrating adventurous and extraordinary gastronomy. “If I hate that detestable degrading vegetable called spinach, it is because it is shapeless, like Liberty.” So what does appeal to this gastronome? “The opposite of shapeless spinach, is armor. I love eating suits of arms, in fact I love all shellfish… food that only a battle to peel makes it vulnerable to the conquest of our palate.”

The lavishly illustrated Les Dîners des Gala contains Dali’s paintings and illustrations as well as photographs of him presiding over opulent, surreal dining tables. One painting is of a disembodied head with biscuits for hair, and meats cubes and peas for brains. On a platter in front is a large cube of blue cheese, the sides of which have crowds of people, some on horseback, some holding  pennants. Mountain, castles and lake form the background. Another illustration is of a desert scene. A disintegrating telephone receiver is suspended on a twig over a melting plate holding two fried eggs and a razor blade. A snail perches on the upturned end of the melting plate.

The recipes in the book match the excesses of the artwork. The recipe for the innocuous-sounding “Avocado toast” begins, “First you have to prepare the brains” and advises the addition of tequila. With one section devoted to aphrodisiacs and others titled “Les cannibalismes de l’automne” and “Les caprices pincés princiers” and with dishes like “Pierced heart” (literal, not metaphorical), or instructions to let songbirds boil joyfully in a pot, the book of recipes is not for the fainthearted.

Dali’s cookbook brings to mind his celebrated art; for example, “Portrait of Gala with Two Lamb Chops in Equilibrium upon Her Shoulder” (1934), or “Lobster Telephone” (1936) or “Self-portrait with Grilled Bacon” (1941), or the melting clocks inspired by ripe Camembert cheese.

Food featured prominently in Dalí’s art; art features prominently in his cookbook. But this is beyond synergy. Art becomes food; food becomes art. Just as the dining experience at Dali’s home, with outlandish costumes and sometimes, wild animals wandering through the dining room, was theater, or performance. As it had been with Leonardo, perhaps reaching its pinnacle for the dinner feast Festa del Paradiso or Heavenly Party which Leonardo designed, while working in the kitchen of the Duke of Milan as a sort of master of banquets, to celebrate the marriage of Neapolitan nobility. Surviving reports describe the theatrical dinner event in which young men and women, dressed as angels and planets, rotated around Jupiter. Tapers and candles illuminated the spectacle, throwing points of light onto reflecting surfaces in the room, creating the illusion of starry skies. And below this, people dined.

Where art begins or ends, and how dining commences, are swept together in this gastronomical aesthetic.


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