Friday, February 27, 2009

Artists at the Breakfast Table

I know, I know, it looks grotesque but this is one of William Henry Fox Talbot's earliest photogenic drawings and"Callotypes", precursors to "photographs," 1844. The history of photography begins somewhat earlier and includes the discoveries of Daguerre (Daguerreotypes) and Joseph Niepce.

William H. F. Talbot, Breakfast Table, 1844

It's important to remember that these early, mid-nineteenth century images were both documentary images (invaluable for history museums and in the study of, say, rural sociology or folklife) and then increasingly in search of artistic merits.

[Left] Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940), Breakfast, 1892


Pablo Picasso, Breakfast of a Blind Man, 1922

"My favorite meal is breakfast!"

How often have you heard that? Or, "Breakfast served all day," a ubiquitous advertisement.

Breakfast, like everything else, is a highly individualistic issue in America. A bowl of commercial cereal? A latte picked up on the way to work? Biscuits and gravy? Cafe au lait and a croissant? Bacon, potatoes, and eggs? Oatmeal?

In Truman Capote's story, "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1958), his heroine Holly Golightly, nibbles pain au chocolat while gazing at the diamonds on display. If Edward Hopper had painted "Nighthawks" as a morning scene, he could have called it "Breakfast."

Mornings in Denmark, it's chocolate syrup on bread. In Laos, rice, boiled greens and pahdek (fermented fish sauce). Sunday morning in the Bronx used to call for bagels, lox and cream cheese.

Of course, there are those who cannot take food in the morning. Perhaps we should refer them to Franz Kafka's "Hunger Artist" (1922).

No, let's not go there.

Human cultures consist basically of symbols and our behavior is marked by symbolic interaction. As humans find expression in creative acts, food, a primal element, emerges in this cultural frame, hand-in-hand with art. We began with cave paintings and conclude, for now, in New York's
avant-garde galleries.

We all find the history of this phenomenon, the aesthetic relationship between food and the arts, intriguing; it is also lengthy and complex. And it is ever more evident in our twenty-first century world.

In his book, The Long Valley (1938), John Steinbeck recalls a breakfast scene in a California migrant camp and and tell us

This thing fills me with pleasure. Don't know why, I can see it in
the smallest detail.

What he sees is a woman, with a babe in arms, frying bacon and baking bread on a rusty stove. When the men come out of the tent and
inhale deeply the delicious odor, they are all but overwhelmed.

In his posthumously-published Garden of Eden (1986), Ernest Hemingway gives us a breakfast memory which functions as a character referent:

On this morning there was brioche and raspberry preserve and the eggs were
boiled and there was a pat of butter that melted as they stirred them and salted
them lightly and ground pepper over them in the cups. They were big eggs and
fresh and the girl's were not cooked quite as long as the young man's.

William Faulkner uses breakfast in Intruder in the Dust (1948) for a similar purpose:

[Is he] cooking breakfast? Miss H said.
He's a country man , his uncle said. Any food he eats
after daylight in the morning is dinner.

One hundred pages later, a young man is thinking about food and decides

... by the physical act of chewing and swallowing substance of its warp and
woof and so making, translating into a part of himself and his memory, the whole
history of man.

And one of my favorite writers is Mark Helprin who, at every opportunity, invents ways to use food to enliven our senses and intensify action. One of his best novels is Winter's Tale (1983), a masterpiece of magical realism. It will touch you with every sensory experience, stretch you and exhaust you with the roar of mythic weather.
We are kept off balance by the food. A young girl applies for a cooking job and finds that her employer likes unusual dishes named in the housekeeper's crazed imagination:

Durbo cheese, stuffed with trefoil, cammminog, young Dollit chicken, roast
brandribrolog seeds, Rhinebeck hotpots, vellum cream cake, and so forth.

A delightful mix of James Joyce, Alice in Wonderland, and Baron Munchhaussen

In sum, over a dozen Nobel Prize and Pulitzer winners have conveyed depth and color by putting their characters at the table or elsewhere contemplating food.

Stephen Shore, Trail's End Restaurant, Utah, 1973

In the 1970s, Shore traveled back and forth across America several times, recording in photographs common Americans in ordinary lives, in ordinary places. Unsurprisingly, foods appear frequently at restaurants, BBQs and home kitcens.

The road trip is an established American aesthetic experience.The works of John Steinbeck, Nelson Algren, Jack Kerouac and Stephen Shore testify to its efficacy.

Lawrence Weiner (Bronx, NY, 1942) Apples, & Eggs Salt & Pepper, 1999 (Conceptual Art) Weiner's well-known text art works are internationally recognized.

He works from the premise that conceptually a subject may exist in many realms: apples & eggs as food on a table, as words on the wall, as words spoken aloud and finally, as a memory or thought in ones mind, waiting to be expressed in some manner. As art, the printed word is as valid as a painting.

My childhood breakfast consisted of eggs and apple sauce (with salt and pepper), plus wheat toast and milk. Sometimes fried potatoes. They were all home-grown on my grandparents' farm and we called it "Apple Hay."

1 comment:

monaluna said...

well done! or, perhaps medium-rare... in any case, nice job! interesting stuff. and the writing is even, as my friend britt would say, "bloggy"! ;)