The Art of the Feast: Understanding the Glorification of Gluttony

Matthew McLean questions what great feasts throughout art history tell us about plenty and excess

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BY Matthew McLean in Frieze Week Magazine , Opinion | 04 OCT 21

‘Big gatherings, big food, big Champagne,’ thus one acquaintance described to me how, from his vantage point in a European villa, a certain slice of society was choosing to respond to the ongoing restrictions, uncertainty and despair of the pandemic this summer. I thought of this vivid image of abundance when I first heard about the new exhibition by Irish artist Sam Keogh at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, on view in my somewhat less balmy South London neighbourhood during Frieze Week. The show comprises ceramics and performance against a backdrop of large, wall-based collages, inspired by the cartoons via which artists would traditionally transfer designs for weaving into tapestries – an artform that, from the Renaissance through to the start of the 18th century, was more highly prized for interior decoration than painting. Rather than fabricated from fine fibres, however, Keogh’s scenes of quasi-medieval splendour (banqueting tents, brocade, the suggestion of a unicorn) have been rustled up using humble materials like plastic sheeting and paper, creating textures reminiscent of old crisp packets: more Golden Wonder than Gobelins.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Land of Cockaigne, 1567. Courtesy: Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen - Alte Pinakothek München, Munich

The show’s title, ‘Sated Soldier, Sated Peasant, Sated Scribe’, describes the three figures depicted in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Land of Cockaigne (1567), which is Keogh’s primary inspiration. Based on a folk myth about a place where food is endless and everywhere – rain falls as cheese, and chickens run around pre-cooked – Breugel’s recumbent, slightly pot-bellied figures could be read as icons of corporeal satiety: ‘a dream to an opposite of a world of toil and malnutrition’, as the art historian TJ Clark put it in his book Heaven on Earth (2018). For Keogh, however, the myth of Cockaigne is double-edged – easy satisfaction travested as idleness – which speaks to the cultural construction of want and work. Put another way: does lying on your back on a grassy knoll with endless delights poured into your mouth seem like paradise, or purgatory?

Throughout art history, the feast is a moment in which sacred and profane rub shoulders. Paolo Veronese’s depiction of the biblical Feast in the House of Levi (1573) – an episode from the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus and his disciples dine at the home of a tax collector with ‘a great company of publicans’ – is today a gem of the collection of the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. In its day, however, the work and its maker were censured by the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition for the ample display of all-too-earthly types: ‘buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such scurrilities’, a transcript of the 1573 hearing records. Half a century later, Rembrandt van Rijn would paint Belshazzar’s Feast (1635–38), one of the National Gallery in London’s most startlingly cinematic works, where the titular host – a Babylonian ruler who served his dinner guests using golden cups looted from the Temple in Jerusalem – rises in shock, spilling wine across his table, as a divine warning that his reign will soon end appears on a wall behind him.

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Sam Keogh, Sated Soldier, Sated Peasant, Sated Scribe, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and Kerlin Gallery, Dublin

At Frieze London – where I once witnessed artist Bedwyr Williams dissect a life-sized, man-shaped iced cake he called ‘The Curator’ – this year sees art animated by ideas of the edible. At Frieze London, Marianne Boesky is presenting new works by American artist Gina Beavers, whose thick, crunchy impastos sometimes seem cut from the crust of a loaf. Beavers often draws on imagery found on social media. (As writer and foodie Fanny Singer noted in a 2019 column for frieze magazine, it’s not for no reason that these streams of images are called ‘feeds’.) Whether depicting Wayne Thiebaud-ish piles of icecream, hands clutching ripe heads of corn bedecked with matching clip-on nails, or heavily-lipsticked mouths ready to gorge, Beavers’s art abounds with an almost visceral sense of images as things to be devoured, painting as kind of intellectual pigging out.

At Frieze Masters, dealers of Dutch Old Masters will present fine examples of the opulent still lives that enjoyed huge popularity in Flanders and the Netherlands in the 17th and 18th centuries. Among his current stock, the inimitable Johnny van Haeften boasts a sublime undated kitchen still life featuring grapes, apricots and gourds by Floris van Schooten, active in the first half of the 17th century. Such works, argues the art historian Norman Bryson, reflect the ‘experience of massive oversupply’, in a culture boasting ‘an immense surplus of national wealth, but with few cultural traditions that permitted its expenditure.’ The painters of such still lives, Bryson argues, often walked a fine line between abundance and vulgar affluence. (I am reminded, looking at such works, of the vogue for a kind of ‘simple’ cuisine: studiedly casual, served in chic spartan settings, priced for only a certain social class.)

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Gina Beavers, Rose Lip, 2021, acrylic and foam on linen on panel, 183 × 183 × 31 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen; photograph: Charles Benton

In 2017, I led the American artist Portia Munson around Frieze Masters to choose a work that spoke to her for an article on Frieze.com. At Frieze London that year, the gallery PPOW presented Munson’s Pink Project: Table (1994), an installation teeming with countless, sugary-pink plastic objects. She alighted on an intricate still life from around 1615 by Jacob van Hulsdonck, featuring china bowls, pewter dishes and wooden baskets overflowing with an array of herrings and cherries, artichokes and pigs’ trotters. ‘I am hoping’, Munson wrote, ‘that, my work will one day be looked on with the same strangeness – that plastic will one day be seen as weirdly as these objects.’

What we eat is no less crucial to our climate than the packaging it is wrapped in: according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, our preference for eating meat produces an environmental impact equivalent to every plane, car and truck in the world. This Frieze Week, as we celebrate coming back together at the fairs and around the city, feasting our eyes on the art and navigating the array of meals from gallery dinner to hungover breakfast, I hope we’ll find a moment to pause. To ask, in all our choices, not just whether we’re hungry, but what for.

Sam Keogh: Sated Soldier, Sated Peasant, Sated Scribe’ is on view at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, London, until 12 December.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, October 2021 under the headline ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain'.

Main image: Sam Keogh, Sated Soldier, Sated Peasant, Sated Scribe (detail), 2020. Courtesy: the artist and Kerlin Gallery, Dublin

Matthew McLean is Creative Lead, Frieze Studios, based in London, UK.

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