Celebrating Food, Glorious Food
A new exhibition at the State Russian Museum traces the history of our relationship with mealtimes.
Published: December 4, 2013 (Issue # 1789)
Stepping into a room dedicated to meat is much more confrontational than it might sound. Not only are the walls covered in paintings on the topic, on display are also meat mincers, a very kitsch meat-themed tablecloth, a recipe book opened to a page detailing how to carve up a carcass and even a ceramic sculpture of a shaverma. Needless to say, the white walls provide an overly dramatic contrast to the red flesh. However, with artwork titles such as “The Triumph of Bacon,” “Tenderness,” and “Ready or Not, Here I Come,” a painting depicting a butcher emerging from a rack of hanging carcasses while brandishing a large axe, it’s hard not to smile, even when facing a large graphic image of fatty meat going through a processer. Vegetarians may beg to differ but they needn’t feel completely excluded as this room is only a small, yet impressive, part of the new exhibition now on at the State Russian Museum.
“Dinner is Served. The Russian Museum Culinary Companion” features over 200 artworks from both the museum’s and private collections as well as work direct from artist studios. With artwork dating back as far as the 18th century, the exhibition takes viewers on a culinary journey throughout the centuries, marking the changing attitude towards food over the ages compared to how it is perceived today. And the change is definitely notable.
Laid out mostly in chronological order starting with the 18th century, the exhibition begins with paintings of food as the centerpiece for all events. Whether it be a wedding, funeral or a lazy afternoon, families and guests would gather in their finery and sit down to enjoy a long meal together. Also popular in this era were still life paintings, and fans of this genre can indulge in the number of paintings featuring the classic composition of flowers, a jug of water and half-eaten peaches. However, the true highlight in this early part of the exhibition are the two sets of royal crockery on display; one used during the reign of Catherine the Great and the other during the reign of Alexander I.
Greeting viewers as they soon as enter the exhibition is a glistening display of a white and gold porcelain Arabesque service presented to Catherine the Great in 1784 to mark her 20th year on the Russian throne. With the set consisting of a remarkable 973 pieces, only a fraction of which is on view, the standout is a grand centerpiece of a bold and fierce looking statue of the queen herself.
The other royal set, known as the Guriev service, was made for Alexander during 1806-1816. While not as impressive as the first set, painted on each of the crockery pieces are scenes from St. Petersburg, mostly local residents such as street merchants, maids and children, which provide an interesting insight into the city at that time.
As the years progress, attitudes change and so does the artwork. Still life is replaced by porcelain pelmeni, steel cabbages, bricks imitating a sandwich and even a large black headless chicken made from rubber tires. All the Russian mealtime favorites can also be found in some form or another, whether it be intricately detailed borscht made from textiles, a 42-second looped videotape of herring, a display of Vodka bottles cut out from wood, to a wall dedicated to Russia’s iconic caviar — both red and black.
Also hanging throughout the exhibition are a number of Russian recipe cards — a charming addition as well as providing a timely source of inspiration for anyone hosting an upcoming Christmas or New Year party.
As the exhibition draws to a close, photographs begin to have a larger presence and by the end, recent photographs of friends and families show more casual, contemporary gatherings around food — in fact, so relaxed that in one photo wearing a shirt at the table is optional. However, while the mealtime dress code and settings may have changed over the centuries, one fact has remained consistent throughout: Where you find good food, you will find big smiles.
“Dinner is Served. The Russian Museum Culinary Companion” is on at the Benois Wing of the State Russian Museum until Mar. 17. For more information, visit www.rusmuseum.ru