Marni Reva Kessler


On her book Discomfort Food: The Culinary Imagination in Late Nineteenth-Century French Art

Cover Interview of June 30, 2021

The wide angle

Although I didn’t know it at the time, this book took root during a visit years ago to the National Gallery of Art when I happened upon Antoine Vollon’s Mound of Butter. I was swept in, of course, by the subject and dazzled by the sumptuous licks of paint that somehow combine to deliver the essence of butter. I imagined the artist’s hand whipping dense cushions of pigment into this luminous mound, his gestures carrying an echo of the act of smoothing butter upon a slice of freshly baked bread. But even as I reveled in this painting’s radiance, I also sensed the stir of disquiet. The very downy peaks that captured my attention, I came to see, are met with oily planes and flashes of white and paler yellow that disclose the unpleasant possibility that Vollon proffers butter that is in the process of melting and spoiling. The milk product’s inherent instability—the artist’s rendering of it mingled with my knowledge of it—emerging as a screen through which I encountered the painting. More astonishingly, I also detected within Vollon’s scrambled eddies of paint the form of a head, further infusing an unseemliness that conflicts with butter’s beloved status in the culinary imagination.

rorotoko.comAntoine Vollon, Mound of Butter, 1875-85. Oil on canvas, 19.75 x 24 inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Chester Dale Fund.

I was working on a different book at the time, so I tucked this painting into the back of my mind. Several years later, I submitted an abstract to a conference panel titled “Food into Art.” That paper led to another one and then to the opportunity to write an article. Only gradually and over several more years did I realize that I could turn the research I had been doing for a book on Degas’s family portraits into two articles and write this book about late nineteenth-century French representations of food in which Vollon’s astonishing painting would prominently feature. I had absolutely no idea then that my research for this chapter would lead me to discover the dark underside of butter’s pervasive adulteration and that I would conclude that Vollon models the substance into a cipher for expressing those contemporary anxieties about its safety.

The other three chapters also focus on one or two works and engage my claim that pictures of edibles are dense with unanticipated significance. Édouard Manet’s Fish (Still Life) superficially appears to depict the ingredients for a humble stew and a vessel in which to cook it. But piercing this fragile veneer of imagined contentment is a surprising unsettledness, a conjuring of death and putrefaction that brings us to the corpses on display at the new Paris Morgue. Gustave Caillebotte’s rendition of a greengrocer’s arrangement of produce in Fruit Displayed on a Stand, I argue, formally echoes the radiating grid of Haussmann’s Paris and the multicolored maps that represented the changing urban fabric even as it mourns the farmlands on which the fruits were grown. A painting and a photograph by Edgar Degas feature vividly rendered meats that sharply exceed their purely culinary value, invoking instead contemporary debates about animal butchery and anatomical cross-section views of the human body.