The object of Art is to give life a shape

Do you know your vegetables? Your fruit? Okay, how about your old paintings -not the commercial paint by number things your father used to busy himself with to escape the dishes, but the ones from so long ago that many of the famous artists were still perfecting their techniques?

Perhaps I should offer a full disclosure at this point, lest I seem knowledgeable beyond my pay-grade. My grasp of the vegetable kingdom is largely confined to those I deigned to eat when I was a child. Fruits, naturally were usually fair game because my mother never steamed them. And, of course, they contained sugar. There were seldom any arguments about fruit -although I confess that I developed an aversion to apricots one year after I ate too many.

Liking stuff, and naming it, though are different Magisteria. Apart from, say, apples, oranges, pears and peaches, I was useless in the fruit section of stores. Oh, and I could spot bananas of course, but I only memorized their name because I didn’t really like them. I’m also good with carrots, peas and corn, but they’re about all I feel confident identifying in bins without labels and little arrows.

At any rate, after reading an article in the Smithsonian Magazine suggesting that a knowledge of old paintings could help with understanding how food evolved, I felt both intellectually and artistically wanting. I realized just how impoverished a childhood I had experienced in post-war, pre-flood Winnipeg. I mean, I suppose my class had endured the requisite visits to the various museums and galleries of the era, but I only remember the visits to the dinosaurs, and the one that had the snakes slithering about inside their glass cases. Pretty sad, but that’s it’s about all that interested me those days, eh?

Oh yes, and I remember Charlie who used to take his glass eye out in the hallway for money. But still, that’s not the same as learning about fruit and vegetables -useful stuff- is it?

Anyway, it was after the inevitable exhumation of a long buried guilt from a wasted youth that I approached the Smithsonian revelations:

Written by freelance journalist Theresa Machemer, the article immediately immersed me in the work of an artists I had never heard of -no surprise, of course- but also in a particular Fruit Stall painting by the Baroque artist Frans Snyders which, had I ever been forced to see it in my youth, I would have immediately forgotten. Stuff with horses, or semi-naked women, perhaps, but a fruit stall? Come on, eh? Apart from the bunch of grapes hanging sloppily from an otherwise full basket, and maybe some McIntosh apples and a diseased pear, I recognized nothing. There weren’t even any carrots, for goodness sakes. Nothing that would interest the average prairie city kid. Nonetheless, I read on, in hopes of being able to bring up the subject with the guys at lunch sometime -impress them with my knowledge of art.

Not the vegetables in the painting, though -as Machemer writes that when ‘Plant geneticist Ive De Smet and art historian  David Vergauwen studied Fruit Stall firsthand during a visit to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg … the pair realized that neither could identify some of the fruits depicted in the scene.’ I suddenly felt strangely bonded to them in that confessional moment.

And it must have had an effect on them as well because it ‘inspired the friends to embark on an unconventional research venture newly cataloged in the journal Trends in Plant Science. By combining modern plant genetics with centuries of still-life paintings, the researchers realized that they could create a visual timeline of produce domestication.’ I’m sure that’s important and everything, but I think they found it a bit overwhelming so they finally decided to crowdsource.

Anyway, ‘Some of the oldest works cited in the study come from ancient Egypt, where artists depicted watermelons with dark and light green stripes similar to those seen today. Genetic analysis of a watermelon leaf found in an Egyptian tomb suggests the modern fruit’s millennia-old predecessor tasted like cucumbers.’ Personally, I had no acquaintance with cucumbers at all until one afternoon in the cafeteria at university when they ran out of boiled carrots.

Still, there was value in my discovery I suppose, because it awakened me to what other people in other places are forced to eat. And, of course, since ‘Artistic portrayals of produce are useful because they can reveal the step-by-step processes through which humans tamed wild plants into something delicious, as well as when certain foods appeared in different parts of the world.’ I had left Winnipeg by then.

And, closer to home, ‘“We are mainly interested in the story that, say, the modern orange carrot made from its humble beginnings as a weed, to its current popular form,” De Smet explains.’ I don’t know where he spent his childhood, but they weren’t ever weeds in the prairies, I don’t think. Anyway, as he added, ‘“Genomes of ancient plant-based foods can help us understand what this plant could have looked like—for example, color based on the active pathways that produce different colors—and which characteristics it might have possessed—for example, sweetness.’

There were many paintings they neglected to show in the article that offered other clues to what various fruits and vegetables looked like in the old days -some even depicting varieties that were left behind ‘during the shift to industrialization because they grew too slowly or couldn’t be harvested with machinery… [however] the foods studied by De Smet and Vergauwen are often ancestors of modern varieties.’

Naturally, artists being, well, artists, they occasionally took liberties with what they drew, so the two friends couldn’t believe absolutely everything depicted -especially things that would not all have been in season at the same time. Anyway, ‘To gauge how accurately a given painter portrays their subject, De Smet and Vergauwen use roses as a reference point. The flowers have been domesticated for around 5,000 years, and the steps the plant took toward domestication are well-documented.’ A sort of trap, I guess.

Still, it’s all a work in progress, and crowdsourcing should help with data collection, particularly with private collections not open to the general public, or paintings displayed in monasteries or nunneries where you’d have to take out religious orders to get through the doors.

All in all, I can’t say I learned much about things I would never eat unless I was invited over for dinner or something. And yet, it’s nice to know that, in a pinch, some of it might be edible -although I’d probably leave a lot on my plate. Besides, there’s always dessert.


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