The final stop on the Art of Food tour is a Fish Plate by Pablo Picasso. Does this plate remind you of anything? If you think back to the second entry in the Art of Food blog series, you’ll recall the ancient Apulian Fish Plate by the Eyebrow Painter. These two fish plates, created thousands of years apart in two radically different styles, are not as dissimilar as you might think. Picasso grew up in Málaga, an ancient city in Southern Spain along the Mediterranean coast. With his proximity to the sea, Picasso may have developed a similar reverence and connection to the water as the Apulian artist who created the ancient Fish Plate. Though more abstract and figurative, Picasso’s Fish Plate recalls, revises, and reintroduces the ancient patterns and symbols found on the plate created generations earlier.
Like the transition from the Apulian fish platter to Picasso’s Fish Plate, art has gone through an unending series of changes and transformations. The number of movements, revolutions, and styles covered in an art history survey course is incredible (and, in my experience, pretty overwhelming!). New generations introduce groundbreaking techniques, while some bring back to the spotlight themes or styles used decades before. What each generation chooses to highlight can often be seen as a reflection of the contemporary thoughts and issues surrounding the artists of the time. Think of the incredibly detailed psychedelic rock posters from 1960s Haight-Ashbury, or the carefully composed work of any French academic painter hoping to show at the Salon. Artworks from both of these times exhibit the culture and ideas of the time. Perhaps this is one reason why the field of art history even exists: to trace, compare, and attempt to understand the evolution of human thought and response using visual evidence.
In addition to new artistic creations like Picasso’s Fish Plate, evolving human thought also brings a change in consciousness. With his later paintings, Picasso abandons his academic training after meeting a group of intellectuals who encourage him to explore a new style of Spanish modernism, radically different from classicism but a style that would challenge the world’s understanding of what makes good art. Because of his willingness to transcend the trends of the time, the world was introduced to the incredible new genre of Cubism. Our Fish Plate depicts a similar change in awareness when compared to the Apulian fish plate. Not only do the two plates represent an evolution in artistic style, but also a change in awareness in relation to the subject depicted—food. The Apulian fish plate depicts fish as fish—food as food. Picasso’s fish plate depicts fish as not quite fish—food as something more than just food.
This change in consciousness, this heightened awareness that our food means something more than simply nourishment and sustenance, is an idea that began here with the first blog post on Ceres. The great Roman goddess of agriculture atop the Missouri State Capitol reminds us every day of the importance of farming and ranching to the state of Missouri. As the goddess credited with teaching humans how to grow, preserve, and prepare grains, her divine knowledge is as relevant today as it was to the Romans. Ceres’ constant presence reminds us that we need to be in continual conversation about the state of agriculture in our country.
This conversation, full of difficult questions—What is food? Where does our food come from? What does food mean to us?—has taken a tangible form with Picasso’s Fish Plate. Picasso’s plate, if interpreted as a visual commentary of our contemporary ideas of food systems, can offer some enlightening ideas to the discussion of food and society. With his Fish Plate, Picasso renews and reinvents the symbol of the fish and poses the question: Is it possible for us to similarly renew the cultural significance of food? Or should we just give into the consumerism that invades our lives and acknowledge the fact that it’s simply easier to pop in a microwave dinner than take the time to prepare a meal with “real food”?
I believe that it is absolutely possible to revive the cultural significance of food. It has to be. The world is headed in the right direction with many amazing resources and food movements within reach, but it still has a long way to go. Let me start with a little story. My family’s Thanksgiving dinners are, simply put, an epic affair. Not only do we have the traditional American spread of food, but we have another table that my sisters and I call our “Japanese Thanksgiving” spread, complete with hand-rolled sushi, soba noodle salad, and a little mochi for dessert. Our Thanksgiving would not be complete without this second table. In order to keep that tradition going, however, my sisters and I needed to learn how to roll sushi and pound rice. Sitting in my grandma’s kitchen with a hot cup of green tea, rice stuck in my hair, and our dog gobbling up all of the crab meat I’m dropping on the floor, I was participating in the process of renewing the significance of food. Not just for me and my sisters, but also for my grandma. It took hours, but I can confidently say I can now make a mean roll of sushi. This process of remembering that food has a rich cultural and global history and hopefully just as rich a future, begins in your family’s kitchen.
In conclusion, I’ve thought a lot about what I’ve learned throughout the course of writing this series. I’ve definitely learned that one day, there might not be as many fish in the sea, and that if I’m going to eat meat, I should get up the courage to slaughter a chicken myself. However, I also realized that I was led to these conclusions thanks to some amazing artworks at the University’s Museum of Art and Archaeology. I hope you have learned from this digital “Art of Food” tour of the Museum that all types of art, from ancient pottery to 19th century paintings to contemporary sculpture, can offer insight into problems our world is working through today. When people look at a work of art, they immediately think, “What does this mean? What does this have to say to me?” If they spend enough time looking and processing, they generate an idea. If they care enough about that idea, they will turn it into an action. I was somehow missing that last step. I could spend pages analyzing and contextualizing the formal elements of a painting. But art, no matter how long ago it has been created, has the potential to go beyond that, to help us understand difficult problems and to inspire action to solve them. If this blog series has inspired you to thoughtful action—shopping at your local farmer’s market or simply looking at a food label before you buy—then it has succeeded, by no means because of my writing, but because artists like Pablo Picasso and some unknown Hindu sculptor first inspired me to write.
About the Author: Kim Nochi is a first-year master’s student in the Department of Art History and Archaeology focusing on the art of Medieval Spain. In addition to her scholarly interests, she has a personal interest in food policy and local food systems, a result of growing up in rural Nebraska (yes, she’s a Husker fan!). This blog post is part of the “Art of Food” series.