Soon You Will Die: A History of the Culinary Selfie
Pronkstilleven, Calvinism and Foodstagram. Words by Huw Lemmey
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The boundary between life and images of life has become almost imperceptible – such is the effect of the smart-phone muscle memory urge to record what is happening as it unfolds. Our bodies are triggered into feeling and response round the clock by shifting algorithmic rhythms of image display. The margin of time between life and its image has narrowed to a squeak; so much life has become looking at images (and moving images) of it.
So too the boundary between food and images of food. The irony, of course, is that while I might feel sick from consuming pictures of the over-garnished smears that are ‘butterboards’ on social media, butter itself is becoming horrifyingly expensive. Images cannot substitute for life; I cannot eat my phone screen. We are rich in supplies of imagery, but food security is dwindling because of capitalism and its double, climate change. I felt a wash of relief at being pulled out of the flow by Huw Lemmey’s illuminating genealogy of the practice of giving perishables a permanent visual form, tracing it to the Pronkstilleven (‘sumptuous still life’) of the seventeenth century Dutch Republic. Lemmey plots the connections between the advent of capitalist colonial wealth and the still life paintings which show it off. A sharp and welcome palate cleanser, reminding me that I am alive. RMJ
Soon You Will Die: A History of the Culinary Selfie, by Huw Lemmey
A table is laid before you. It is dressed in an exquisite soft linen tablecloth, scattered with delicate flowers and laden with fine tableware. On three pewter platters a meal is presented: two plucked and roasted pheasants, their skin golden brown; a shallow pie topped with intricate latticework, its crust surrounded with crenellated pastry; a small bread roll. There is a whole orange, plus juicy slices, and, in a blue kraak porcelain bowl, a mound of thick, fleshy, green Manzanilla olives. At the back of the table is a large gilt cup and a ceramic jug, to top up the rummer glass of white wine already poured for you. Lastly, there is a tall salt cellar – a silver cylinder engraved with ornate curlicues – holding a small pile of thick, crystalline sea salt. At the front of the table is a heavy silver knife, embellished with two little figures. The whole thing is a feast, and this table has been laid for you. It is sending you a clear message: soon, you will die.
If that seems like an intense message for lunchtime – well, the Dutch Republic was an intense place to be in the early decades of the seventeenth century, when Clara Peeters painted ‘Table with Cloth, Salt Cellar, Gilt Standing Cup, Pie, Jug, Porcelain Plate with Olives and Cooked Fowl’. She was still a young woman, living in a world where both politics and art were almost entirely the domain of men. Peeters was born in the final years of the 1500s, only halfway through the Eighty Years’ War, and these new United Provinces had just secured independence from Spain following the Spanish Furies, a series of Dutch revolts and Spanish sackings of cities. The new country was to be everything Spain was not: restrained, humble and, most importantly, Protestant. Yet this Calvinist moral credo had to contend with the fact that the Dutch were getting rich – filthy rich. Holland, one of the new state’s major provinces, had become one of the richest and most urbanised places on the planet; a new company, the Dutch East India Company, had been formed from various competing trading ventures to become the world’s first multinational corporation; and the world’s first stock exchange had been built in Amsterdam. The young nation was a little greenhouse for the first seedlings of capitalism, using early colonial wealth and new financial instruments to drain and build, sow and reap.
All this new wealth – a wealth distributed far more widely between merchants, traders, artisans and investors than in the old feudal days – raised the perennial question for the rich: How do we spend it? Peeters’ painting offers us one answer: on gold cups and silver salt cellars, on barrels of white wine and boxes of salt with which to fill them. With fresh oranges and juicy olives, imported from the south, and on cooks and maids to prepare the fine pastry and stuff the young pheasants (as much as the ingredients, it is labour – and highly skilled labour at that – that defines luxury). But for a nation who had discovered the almost mystical secret of investment, didn’t it seem something of a waste to buy food just to consume it? What returns could they get from a stale crust, a handful of brined pits and some gnawed fowl bones?
The answer was Pronkstilleven (a Dutch word meaning ‘sumptuous still life’) – a form of painting where the wealth of early colonialism and capitalist enterprise could be fixed in oil paint, there to display to guests, dignitaries or other merchants long after the feast had been devoured. A still life suggests its owner is a man of taste, good taste, both in food and art, and a man of wealth: that he might own not only the fruits, birds, spices and salts, but the representation of these things as well.
Earlier this year I was on holiday in the north of Spain, driving up to the Pyrenees, then across to Santander and on to Asturias. Tinned seafood is a delicacy in Spain, often more prized (and more tasty) than fresh, and in Oviedo our friend prepared lunch: a salad of roughly chopped tomatoes and tinned bonito, some bread, tinned razor clams, a sheep’s cheese and a blue cheese, some smoked salmon, a tin of Imperial-brand Asturian butter, and bowls of gazpacho served in her late grandmother’s pink china bowls. The spread on the table reminded me of Peeters’ painting; I’d seen it earlier in the year in the Prado, Madrid, where I had spent my birthday wandering galleries alone. Almost instinctively, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone. I took a photo and uploaded it to my Instagram story. Was that, I wondered, the same as the instinct felt by whichever merchant commissioned or bought Peeters’ painting?
I must have thousands of these images on my phone. From that one trip alone I took photos of: a clam and white bean stew; onions stuffed with bonito; anchovies preserved in butter; mussels in a rich, thick tomato sauce; a plate of squid which was soon swimming in its own ink; a breakfast tortilla topped with mince and served with a cortado; matrimonio (literally ‘marriage’ – a fresh and a preserved anchovy served together, side by side)… and so on. By the time anyone had seen them, I had already enjoyed them, washed them down with bitter cider or wine, and my mind was on to other things. Was it that I wanted to record them, to remember them? Was it an act of charity – that others might vicariously enjoy them through sight alone? Perhaps, like Peeters’ merchant, I wanted people to know that this was what I enjoyed.
Images of food like Peeters’ – and by extension, images like mine – carry with them a moral value as well as a financial one. Instagram photos of food signal what sort of person we think we are: my buttered anchovies that I am cultured and appreciate the cuisine and delicacies of other peoples (and implicitly reject the expat tendency to crave the comforts of home); my shot of a gold-leaf encrusted tomahawk steak at Nusr-Et that the hustle and grind has paid off and I have made it; my polystyrene box on a countertop at Morley’s that I am still unchanged from my roots, and what have you. Through our choice of food, we are creating our own public identity, indicating our own values to others. We, then, are not so different from Peeters’ merchant. Yet her painting has some significant differences to our Instagram photos. As well as the implicit meaning of the painting – that both the merchant and the nation’s hustle and grind has paid off – Pronkstilleven has an explicit moral lesson for us: soon, we will die.
These paintings of food were a type of vanitas, a new iteration of still life painting that sought to imbue physical goods with moral messages. They suggested that the goods and foods, like our sinful earthly life itself, were transient, their meaning fleeting and worthless in comparison to spiritual goodness and its heavenly rewards. Perhaps imprinting a dark message on such a luxurious spread shouldn’t surprise us. After all, the Calvinist preachers who dominated the newly formed Dutch Reformed Church were, following Calvin’s own teachings, preternaturally obsessed with the nature of sin, and one motivation for the Reformation more widely was the sense that worldly corruption and greed within the Catholic Church had perverted it. The Reformation itself, especially its more radical fringes, often drew support from peasants, who were discontented with extreme wealth inequalities allowing the princes to feast on grand banquets while they themselves starved in the fields.
Given this increased moral focus on consumption in the areas where the Reformation had its biggest impact, it’s not surprising that it was the Calvinist Dutch who pioneered vanitas paintings. Their subjects varied – including flowers, gold and jewellery, fabrics and candles, books, lenses and, of course, foodstuffs – mirroring the main production cycles of the cities in which they were produced. Yet despite Calvinism’s often prohibitive attitude to images (the destruction of images of holy things, or ‘iconoclasm’, marked its early days in Switzerland), these inhibitions didn’t extend to food, either cooked or painted. The Reformation in Switzerland began with a rebellious sausage supper served during Lent – a time when meat was proscribed by the Catholic Church, but not by scripture. Calvin believed that God gives us food to be savoured, either on the tongue or on the parlour wall; food, being profane, was, strangely enough, the perfect subject for a Calvinist art lover.
Objects recur in Clara Peeters’ paintings, like the same ingredients used in different recipes. A gilt plate; matching goblets; a silver knife bearing her name that appears in at least six of her works. But a close observer of these rich feast depictions will see something else, again and again: Peeters herself. Look closely at the highly polished drinking vessels and the lids of closed jugs, and repeated in the shining convex domes that adorn the goblets you will find that Peeters depicted herself (often clutching her paintbrush) in the act of making the painting – much like van Eyck did in the mirror that hangs on the back wall of his famous Arnolfini portrait.
The gesture of the selfie is a humanist one; emerging in the Renaissance, it inserted the artist as an individual – a creator – back into the image which they had created. By painting herself with a brush, however, perhaps Peeters was making a point about her own work and the nature of art. While her merchant collectors were keen to show off the value of their goods – to capture them before they, like us, rotted away – she was foregrounding something that created even more value: her labour as an artist. She highlights for us the power of representation, demonstrating how to transform transitory pleasure into fixed value, with her role as not just a craftsperson but an artist being integral to that process. ‘To paint a thing, and put it on a canvas,’ John Berger stated in his TV series Ways of Seeing, ‘is not unlike buying it and putting it in your house.’ At a moment when ways of producing value were being revolutionised in the Low Countries, resulting in the wealth, and the ideological and theological framework, that made such still life paintings possible, Peeters reinserted the human labourer into the process and the product. After all, it does take labour – immeasurable labour, and often women’s unrecognised labour – to turn flour and fruit and butter and game into this sort of feast.
It feels like the meaning of Pronkstilleven cannot fully be captured now, but this shouldn’t surprise us; what images do, and how they do it, changes through time. The moral lesson implicit in the vanitas painting, borne of early capitalist accumulation, would have been almost totally incomprehensible to someone born in the age of icon painting, when the icon served not as a pedagogical moral tool but as a holy object in its own right. One doesn’t contemplate an icon, but worships it. Likewise, the function of paintings today has also changed. Once, the importance of images like Peeters’, and their value, came from their scarcity, the expense they cost to make and the skill of the artist. Yet the invention of new technologies has changed our relationship with images. The ability to photograph and print images of paintings, in books and newspaper and on postcards, gives them a new meaning, as their likeness can now be transmitted across the world. ‘The meaning of a painting no longer resides in its unique painted surface, which it is only possible to see in one place and one time’, said Berger. ‘Its meaning… has become transmissible.’
I have a little postcard of Peeters’ ‘Table with Cloth, Salt Cellar, Gilt Standing Cup, Pie, Jug, Porcelain Plate with Olives and Cooked Fowl’ tacked to the wall by my desk, and Berger is right: this reproduction does add something to the mystique of the original. Yet its constant reproduction has stripped the original of its Calvinist flavour, not directly, but by reducing it to the status of yet another printed picture – just another printed representation, like the photograph of my mother, or the poster of two gay punks, which sit beside it. We can’t go back to a point where images could serve as a reminder of our death. Despite what the reactionary Twitter aesthetes might implore of us, it is not possible to reject modernity, nor to embrace tradition. The image, and the way that images are made, distributed, and consumed, makes us who we are. The Calvinists knew this, which is why they stripped the images from churches – not just to remove the temptation of idolatry, but to remove the very system of thought that allowed representations themselves to be holy. Cheap technology has democratised the ability to make, reproduce, and publish images. Abundance, not scarcity, is the source of value for images online: the more times your image is reproduced on another smartphone screen, the more value generated for the platform, the advertiser and, in some cases, the influencer.
I stood over the table, sending this photo of fresh ripe tomatoes and bonito and razor clams out to a paltry few hundred viewers (more than ever would have been intended to see Peeters’ painting), watching and waiting for the twenty-four hours to pass, when the story would disappear. I looked for meaning in it, and in the hundreds of other images that flooded my screen and filled my brain, of other meals and of make-up routines and dancing teenagers and neo-fascist marches and runway shows and old churches and drone strikes. I looked for meaning and all I thought was ‘Soon, I will die’.
Huw Lemmey is a novelist and writes essays at huw.substack.com
Vittles is edited by Rebecca May Johnson, Sharanya Deepak and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.