Monday, November 30, 2009

Potatoes and Their Contexts


Robert Frank [born 1924, Zurich, Switzerland] US 285, New Mexico, 1956 [from The Americans, made from black & white photographs from a road trip, 1955-56. A fiftieth year anniversary retrospective is currently in place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, September 2009-January 2010]

A Food Lover's Guide to the Arts

The late nineteenth century brought a plethora of paintings about potatoes as artists turned to the Common Man and his food for aesthetic expression. Vincent Van Gogh was especially prolific, making dozens of sketches and paintings in the period 1885-88. His well-known Potato Eaters was done in 1885, as was his Peasants Planting Potatoes. In fact, planting, harvesting, selling, and peeling potatoes constitute the majority of our pictures in the 19th century or earlier. Then things begin to change.

Dorothea Lange's documentary Depression photos and
Alfred Hutty's sculpture remind us that the potato in modern times still carried the connotations and meanings of human labor, usually performed by ther lower classes.

Once Modernist painting begins, we find a new still life style [Ligare], Pop Art [Oldenberg], Installation art [Polke] and photography, the medium that seems to best express Post-Modernist ideas.

But In Peru: The origin of the potato is generally believed to be the upper reaches of the Andes Mountains of Peru, serving the people as food for approximately 8,000 years. It was not until Spanish invaders took the tuber to Europe that its popularity began to spread. Even today, Peruvian potatoes [such as papa amarilla] are held in high esteem, rather like AAA coffee beans from the upper slopes of Ethiopia and Kenya.

Peruvian purple potatoes. Photo courtesy Tom Parkes, 2008

In 2008-09, for The UN International Year of the Potato, popular artist John Dyer created a series of paintings showing highlights of Peruvian potato production and one shown here is Andean Potato Eaters for UK or

Jose Sabogal [1888-1956] was probably the most famous Peruvian indigenous painter. At one point he followed the popular and forceful mural style of Diego Rivera to portray the lives of the local people. Very few examples of his art are accessible on the Internet.

European Pommes de Terre:

Jean-Francois Millet [Greville, Normandy, France 1814-1875] Peasants Planting Potatoes, 1885

Vincent Van Gogh, The Potato Market, 1882

Below: Vincent Van Gogh, Peasants Planting Potatoes, 1888 [water color]

Vincent Van Gogh [Zundert, Netherlands, 1853-1890] Basket of Potatoes, 1885

Carlton Alfred Smith [UK, 1853-1946] Peeling Potatoes n.d. He painted dozens of Victorian scenes, mainly pleasant interiors and cheerful women, with little or no social or aesthetic messages.

ItalicJoaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Peeling Potatoes, 1891

Below: Bastide: Lunch on the Boat 1898. Is that the same kid in the foreground?

Paul Henry, RHA, RUA [1876-1958] The Potato Digger, Irish 1912-1915.The most influential Irish landscape artist of the 20th century.
Joan Miro [Spain, 1893-1983] The Potato, 1928
A Surrealist, Miro sought to introduce "the landscape of the mind" into his work as well as dreams..In fact, a fusion of reality and dreams yielded a sort of "super reality,"or Surrealism. Remember, he was a friend of both Luis Bunuel and Sal Dali.

Louise Valtat [Dieppe, France 1869-1952] Still Life with Potatoes, n.d.
Post-Impressionist, mainly known for landscapes.

The Russian Kartofel:


The young Russian water colorist, Pavel Ivanovich Basmanov [Altai, 1906-1993] sketched and painted this work, Potato Harvest,1937, which the government did not receive favorably. It seems that his art did not make a convincing statement about trying hard, which socialist realism demanded. He spent some time in prison and was released just in time to take part in the Great Patriotic War (1940-1945) as a volunteer.


Mikhail Evdokimovich Tkachev [pronounced-Tka-CHOFF. Born Kalach, near Voronezh,Russia, 1912-??] Peeling Potatoes, 1956
Popular Russian Impressionist did landscapes and portraits, experienced two wars and was honored by the government.

Scholarship Note:
Matthew Eli Baigell (1933, New York]. Distinguished Professor of Art, Rutgers University [with Renee Baigell] Peeling Potatoes; Painting Pictures: Women Artists in Post-Soviet Russia, Estonia, and Latvia [Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1999]. On order.

Spuds in America:

George Washington Mark [Connecticut, 1795-1879]
[General] Marion Feasting the British Officer on Sweet Potatoes, 1848.

The legend, from the files of the South Carolina History Archives: The American General Marion [known as "the swamp fox"] captured a British officer and, as was the custom, hosted him at his humble swamp hideout. When finally released the Brit reported that he was astounded that those upstart colonial could subsist [and win]on water and sweet potatoes.

Henry P. Moore, Sweet Potato Planting, Edisto Island, SC, 1862 [stereograph image]

Below: Stereograph image, from 1862, shows African-Americans planting sweet potatoes at the
James Hopkins' plantation on Edisto Island, just south of Charleston, South Carolina. Moore was a Philadelphia photographer. When the plantation was take by Union troops, they found that the landowners had departed, leaving their slaves behind [See Jessica B. Harris's forthcoming book, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journal from Africa to America].

Sweet potatoes are new world tubers, similar to but not the same as the West African yam and adopted by the slaves in their new surroundings in the Southeast. They supplemented otherwise meager rations and when roasted in the dying embers of a fire, were delicious and nutritious.

Above: Alfred Hutty [Grandhaven Mich, 1877-1954] Potato Pickers in Low Country, 1930-40/Below: Potato Pickers, 1930-40 [sculpture]. Hutty was a leading figure in the art of the Charleston Renaissance group. Today, The Charleston Renaissance Gallery is located at 103 Church Street, Charleston, SC.

Below: Dorothea Lange [1895, Hoboken,NJ, -1965] Between Potato Fields, 1935 [WPA photo]
This is truly "the context" of the potato in the U.S.

Contemporary Images:

David Ligare [Oak Park, Ill 1945] Still Life with Burger, Fries and Apple, 2001. Ligare lives in north central California and paints his own special style of landscapes,which are as meticulous as his still lifes.

Claes Oldenberg [Stockholm, Sweden 1929] Colossal Baked Potato 1971

Oldenberg, Baked Potato with Butter, 1972.
Oldenberg pursued this subject and called his project, "Baked Potato Studies"

Above: Roy Lichtenstein [born New york City, 1923-1997] Baked Potato with Butter, 1962

Carlo Marracucci [b Florence, Italy, 1962] Hot Potatoes, 1993
Mostly baked potatoes are hot and Marracucci's are chemically, radio-actively hot.
An environmental statement about farming with chemicals.

Installation Art:

Giusepppi Penone [b 1947 Cuneo, Piemonte] Patata [Potatoes], 1977
Arte Povera Retrospective Exhibit
His work is shown with that of Anselm Kiefer, Gonzales-Torres and other installation artists.
The attraction of the Povera Arts people is their passion for the natural and the archaic. Break down the dychotomy between art and life, usng everyday materials. Like potatoes.

Claes Oldenberg [Stockholm, Sweden] Shoestring Potatoes Falling from Open Bag, 1966
Pop art at its best.

Sigmar Polke [Silesia, Germany, 1941] Kartoffelhause Potato House, 1967 [installation]

Post-Modern Photography:

Erwin Wurm [b 1954, Austria] Madchen mit pommes, 2000/2005

Spontenaity and brevity are key to understanding his work.

Wurm continues to reach for definitions of art. He asks, "If someone is standing still, do we define it as a happening or an object? At what point does something change from an action into a sculpture, from a sculpture into a photograph?" This young woman, seated on a German sidewalk, has decided to play with her food and perhaps make a statment about it.

If she and the potatoes/fries are the objects of the photo, what is the subject?

Wurm also made a sculpture called "Fat Car" [an image of a sport car carrying copious amounts
of fat.]

END NOTE: If you are wondering about that Robert Frank photo, above, it is inserted to lure you into reading the next blog on Landscapes.

No comments: