Our latest Curator’s Selection focuses on one of today’s universal obsessions: food. The rise and proliferation of food-related content in social media can feel somewhat inescapable. One need only open one of the many platforms we use daily to see for themselves: ASMR videos on Tik-Tok where a knife is scraped over fried chicken to make audible the perfect crispy texture; YouTube culinary series navigating the origins and secrets of family recipes handed down through generations; an abundance of artfully arranged culinary photographs on Instagram taken by a food stylist standing – as per the trend – on a chair.
How did our obsession with food imagery begin? The origins can be traced back to early examples of still life painting in Chinese and Western European art where food items were depicted for decorative or didactic purposes. In China, images of pumpkins, fish and chickens came to represent abundance, and still do today. Pumpkins represent harvest; the Chinese word for fish sounds like the Chinese word for abundance; the Chinese pronunciation of the word for chicken is similar to the Chinese word for luck.
In the late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance in Europe, still life depictions of foods began to take on greater significance for both the viewer and the artist. Firstly, a still life became a useful way to master techniques for a novice painter, taking their time with immobile objects to learn about forms, composition, and lighting effects with chiaroscuro. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, food items here also gained symbolic meaning, connoting themes of class, global trade, biblical references, allegorical allusions, and the passing of time, reflecting on life and death.
Today’s appetite for culinary imagery is largely reflective of aspiration - a desire to visually induce a craving for either the pictured food, the lifestyle of the chef, or both. But more importantly, it is reflective of our natural tendency to want to exchange, share, and nourish each other with exciting new food and food for thought. We want to show off our cooking talent and encourage others to try. We want to take part in the connection that sharing food can foster. And still present, as shown in some of the works in this new curator’s selection, is the idea of using food as symbols and markers of meanings that run deeper than our stomachs.