Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 21, 2021
Marni Reva Kessler Discomfort Food: The Culinary Imagination in Late Nineteenth-Century French Art Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021. 320 pp.; 12 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Paper $30.00 (9781517908805)

In a rapidly growing canon of scholarship on food in art, Marni Reva Kessler adds her personal voice and unique approach to the subject in Discomfort Food: The Culinary Imagination in Late Nineteenth-Century French Art. In four chapters on depictions of fish, butter, fruit, and ham by French artists Édouard Manet, Antoine Vollon, Gustave Caillebotte, and Edgar Degas, Kessler purposefully chooses not to focus on the food’s delicious and mouthwatering qualities—a striking choice, given France’s reputation for culinary excellence. Rather, Kessler analyzes unsettling pictures of fish postmortem, stabbed butter, and discarded meats that dismantle popular understandings of food pictures as merely scenes of colorful abundance. Kessler also deviates from mainstream interpretations of rotting foods in memento mori paintings by suggesting that still-life paintings of food are not still lifes at all: they transcend their genre to generate the viewer’s and “the artist’s conscious and unconscious desires, motivations, memories, and anxieties, with a past that is both private and communal” (xvii). This book, which would appeal to both academic and nonscholarly readers, showcases the capacity of food imagery to tackle the uncomfortable realities of being human.

Readers see Kessler’s fusion of food studies, memory studies, and art historical methodologies at work in her first chapter on Manet’s Fish from 1864 (Art Institute of Chicago). Although Manet displays many traditional ingredients for fish stew, there are none of the herbs classically used to spice the dish; several of the oysters are closed shut; the eel is still squirming; and the mullet fish in the center of the painting is clinging to life. This is no ordinary nature morte; Kessler describes it as a crime scene, with fish and eels “so aggressively alive” (10). Kessler argues that Manet’s murdered fish, like his portraits of wan and flattened figures, parallels the rising development of forensic science and criminology and increased access to corpses in public morgues. Kessler also anchors her interpretation in more pragmatic inquiries, speculating whether Manet would have waited for the fish to die before painting it, and if he used his own hands to move the subject’s cold, clammy body. Kessler contemplates the lived experiences of the artist because she knows what it is like to catch and hook a fish; she makes an intervention in this chapter by inserting her own personal memories of fishing in upstate New York. With this confessional tone that diverges from more clinical approaches to art historical scholarship, Kessler takes chances in Discomfort Food and empowers the reader to make just as much meaning from the painted food as the artist.

Kessler takes larger theoretical leaps in the second chapter on Vollon’s Mound of Butter from 1875–85 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), which she luxuriously describes as “creamy cushions of pale buttercup yellow crowned by golden hues” that “churn” and “whir” across the canvas (47). This food, typically used in making decadent pastries and confections, communicates a darker narrative, according to Kessler; she alerts readers to the anxieties about adulteration that butter produced in the mid-nineteenth century, because it was challenging to store as well as buy due to dishonest sellers. Not just a victim of corruption, butter is also portrayed as a victim of violence, with the author likening Vollon’s subject to a stabbed face. She illustrates how the knife punctures the mound at a point resembling a human neck, below a downturned mouth, nose, and eye sockets formed by crests in the butter. Kessler utilizes memory studies again to argue that Vollon’s butter—a proxy for a severed head—shores up a traumatic French past stretching back to the use of the guillotine during the French Revolution. Connecting a mound of butter to capital punishment might seem like a wild reach, but Kessler makes this interpretation seem credible, even obvious, after she convincingly demonstrates how the edges of this mound of butter seem designed to render the human body and the historic violence that accompanies it. This chapter also solidifies the author’s claim that still-life paintings of food betray their genre to become landscapes and portraits that complicate what have been conventionally understood as static dining-room paintings.

Kessler’s most fully realized research is in chapter 3, on Caillebotte’s Fruit Displayed on a Stand from 1881–82 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). The author likens Caillebotte’s painting to the redistricting of Paris, with clusters of fruits sectioned off by cloth borders that are segmented like arrondissements on a city map. Kessler contemplates how the parceled fruits act as an extension of the paved boulevards, wide vistas, and plunging diagonals that mark Paris’s transformation after the urban renovations installed by Baron Haussmann. The fruits divided by papier joseph packaging read like an aerial view of the city, which Parisians experienced from new heights in hot air balloons and other cartographic devices that charted the new organization. Yet Fruit Displayed on a Stand is not a celebration of this city in transition. For Kessler, the fruits in this painting refuse to stay in their lanes and vie to surpass their cloth folds, rejecting symmetry and displaying unwillingness to accept the confining borders imposed upon them. The severed and decapitated foods that Kessler probes throughout this book resonate with Caillebotte’s painting of fragmented fruits that potentially reflect the mourning of monuments razed, homes destroyed, and winding streets made straight as a result of Second Empire reformations. Kessler admits that Caillebotte may not have been consciously using fruit to comment on the city’s redistricting, but his artistic instinct aligns with a larger public impulse in the late nineteenth century to segment society and engineer new pathways in Paris.

The fourth and last chapter of Discomfort Food requires the most mental gymnastics from the reader, for Kessler analyzes not only Manet’s painting The Ham from 1875–78 (Glasgow Museums) but also a photograph of Degas with The Ham (1895, Bibliothèque nationale de France) in relation to Degas’s painting of meat in Portrait of a Man (1866, Brooklyn Museum). To start, Manet’s Ham is noticeably naked without any culinary dressing. Its fibrous muscles and pink tendons are exposed like a dissected body part—a logical interpretation by Kessler given the strong relationship between art and medicine in the nineteenth century, when doctors taught anatomy classes at the École des Beaux-Arts. Degas’s portrayal of meat in Portrait of a Man looks even more undressed, with a platter of meat on the table and a pile of meat on the floor composed of choppy brushwork. Kessler relates the severed meats in the two paintings to the thorny friendship between Manet and Degas, which is further manifested in the photograph of Degas sitting in front of both Manet’s Ham and his own portrait of Manet’s wife, Suzanne, at the piano. It is known that Manet disliked Degas’s depiction of Suzanne, so he sliced her off the canvas like a discarded piece of meat. This offended Degas, who later took back the modified canvas. Kessler finds it meaningful that, in the photograph, Degas is positioned underneath the severed Suzanne and in the sight line of Manet’s Ham and its knife, which points threateningly at him. It requires labor on behalf of the reader to follow Kessler’s twisting journey to decode this photograph as Manet’s revenge fantasy, in which Degas is haunted by the vandalized painting, but in the end this interpretation is compelling and showcases food’s ability to stand in for grittier, more personal themes.

For this reason, Kessler’s Discomfort Food is a fresh and imaginative approach to food in French art. Focusing on the turbulence in these pictures rather than their bounty reveals how food is not simply a signpost of a sustained life but also a device that presses upon our most profound anxieties. The only element that would make Discomfort Food more satiating is a closer look at the production of these painted foods. At a few points, Kessler addresses the role of the women and rural laborers who were responsible for powering French food industries. But in today’s cultural climate, when groundbreaking scholarship such as Denise Murrell’s Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today (Yale University Press, 2018) is invested in recovering voices that have been marginalized in French art, readers are likely to question: at whose expense and at what cost were the foods in these artworks produced? There is precedence for probing the human cost of food production in Dutch and American still lifes, particularly in Julie Berger Hochstrasser’s book Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age (Yale University Press, 2007). In looking to such scholarship, Discomfort Food would have been enhanced by an acknowledgment of the truly uncomfortable and backbreaking work performed by the laborers who made access to both local and exotic ingredients possible. Thanks to increasing attention to the Anthropocene in nineteenth-century art, readers are also likely to wonder, at what cost to the natural environment was the production of food rendered visible or invisible in French paintings of the period? Asking such questions inspires new inquiries in the field of French art and digs deeper at the root of this rich book on the anxieties and traumas that food paintings activate.

Shana Klein
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Kent State University