Saturday, October 26, 2013

Twentieth Century Kitchens

When we want to know what a kitchen was like in the 17th or 18th century, we take a look at the paintings and other art works of the artists of that time. Works by Chardin (1699-1779) in France or Jan Steen (1626- 1669) and many others during the Dutch Golden Age give us wonderful insight into life in those times, including lives of kitchen maids and the atmosphere of various public dining places and food-centered events. I've written about these representations of French and Dutch kitchens here and here.  Though I haven't focused on it, English tradition also includes various indoor kitchen and tavern or inn-keeper scenes from the 18th through early 20th centuries.

What about our own time? Do our great artists give us insight into life in our own kitchens and public dining spaces? Or has photography or some change in the role of art made such things obsolete?

Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post Cover, 1945.
The artist that most quickly comes to mind is Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), whose subject was everyday life in mid-20th century America. Lots of pictures show Americans at table, about to eat a festive meal like Thanksgiving, or other scenes about everyday life. I've chosen the image at left because it reminds me of the earlier artists' work where a kitchen maid might be working on some task, holding a bowl in her lap. America is of course a land without servants -- the first visible fact of this painting is that the returning soldier is helping out his mom. No question, though, it conveys a great deal about American life in 1945, which I feel no need to spell out.

Big question: is Rockwell really comparable to Chardin, Steen, and other painters of the Dutch Golden Age or of Victorian scenes? I'm not very well-educated about art theory, but I say yes, he's quite similar in many ways, not just in his choices of every-day themes and subjects, but also in his ability and power as a visual communicator. Why get more theoretical about art than that?

Edward Hopper, "Chop Suey" 1929
Edward Hopper (1882-1967) chose the interior of restaurants as his subject for at least a couple of very famous paintings. In "Chop Suey" (right) and "Automat" he shows women at the table in a restaurant. The women in "Chop Suey" are evidently having a cup of tea and a conversation, and other diners are also in the frame. In "Automat" the woman is alone, strikingly alone.  Hopper's iconic "Nighthawks" -- showing several people inside a diner -- is the most famous like these.

In a few hundred years I think people who want to get a visual impression of dining in the 20th century will be as interested in these images as we are in Chardin's or Steen's depictions of their day. Yes, there were other styles of art than Hopper and Rockwell, styles that were in many ways more dominant -- and didn't depict any dining events or kitchen interiors, or in many cases didn't depict any recognizable objects.

Georgia O'Keeffee's Kitchen, 1961
Here's something that fascinates me: a photo of Georgia O'Keeffee (1887-1986) in her kitchen at the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. Evidently she loved to cook the foods of the New Mexico locals.

Did she ever paint anything about the food? I can't find anything except a few still-life studies, which I never consider to be real food paintings. She concentrated on amazing abstractions of the scenery outside her windows, as well as the close-ups of flowers and other items that were her trademark. Upon seeing the actual landscapes around her homes when I visited there, I was overwhelmed by how similar to the actual views were her representations of the barren but colorful mountains with scrubby plants and unfamiliar rocky outcroppings.

O'Keeffee was very original in her work, and exacting in her choices of subject matter. If she didn't paint scenes inside the kitchen (a lack that I can't actually prove) there were no doubt very good reasons why not. I'm glad she was an accomplished cook, along with being an artist!

As the 20th century progressed, art movements developed thick and fast. I've always found the swift progression of ideas to be fascinating. Pop art is one of my favorites, and its inclusion of kitchen and dining images is one of its most famous features. Normally, you'd think of Andy Warhol and Tomato Soup Cans. I also want to think about how it's reflected in the work of Duane Hanson (1925-1996) and George Segal (1924-2000). Hanson worked in resin and mixed media, so his works look so real that they are startling, while Segal made casts of actual people but left the gauze and other casting materials in place, resulting in ghostly statues. Both are hard to grasp in little photos, but here are a few:
Duane Hanson, "Woman Eating," 1971
Duane Hanson, "Supermarket Shopper," 1970
George Segal, "Restaurant" -- one of many on this theme,
often compared to works by Hopper
Segal, "Diner"

I have barely begun exploring this topic, which is obviously enormous and full of additional opportunities to see what artists have made of our everyday lives.


~~louise~~ said...

It's people like you who open the eyes to the many facets of rediscovering the many aspects of food, Mae.

Excellent post, I don't usually approach the history of food through the arts but I now realize, I am missing a most important part.

Thank you so much for sharing...

Jeanie said...

I love this post, Mae. It's a different look at something so common -- the kitchen. I'm a huge Rockwell fan and I put him high on the list of artists. I suppose other artists call him an illustrator, but anyone who can draw a viewer so intimately and immediately into a scene is an artist to me. I also think of vintage advertising art -- you know, the kind they show of the mom in the kitchen putting something "yummy" (quite possibly jello) on the table. You see the fridge and stove, get an idea of what the appliances were, the idea of food and family. One could do a dissertation on this topic!