Friday, February 17, 2012

A Feast For The Eyes

Robert Hughes says that “by general consent, Jean Siméon Chardin (pronounced “char-din”) was one of the supreme artists of the eighteenth century and probably the greatest master of still life in the history of painting,” but what does he know of art? Isn’t he Australian?

Real artists have their work displayed in art galleries and museums but Chardin’s daubings can still be found right where he painted them — the Louvre, a second-rate tourist attraction in Paris known mostly for displaying such things as sculptures of women missing their arms and tiny portraits of women sort of smiling. Not the pinnacle of man’s artistry, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Chardin’s paintings are supposed to be exquisite demonstrations of the Golden Rule in terms of their composition, creating a harmonious balance within a dynamic three-dimensional space. And yet all they are are bits of food on tables. Look at his “Still Life with a Rib of Beef,” for example. I know it was 1739, and they didn’t have refrigeration back then, but do we really need to be reminded of what a stench raw meat would have made just hanging there? I see some onions, but what else is the cook going to use to make something tasty? A few jugs and pots and a cloth — boring.

Far more interesting and useful is the work of the photographer / stylist (if indeed they are two separate people) who created the magnificent photographs that illustrate the book Quick and Simple Cooking for Two. See how the eye is led diagonally across the page — no horizontals or verticals here. There are plenty of oblique circles to keep the eye busy, and splashes of red indicate where the real action takes place, in the paired pans holding the prepared food. In between, we see evidence of what has gone into the meal: whole and chopped veggies, including a stalwart sheaf of celery.

Chardin can paint metals like copper and brass all he wants but can he paint stainless steel? Note the contrast between the polished bowl and grater, how they reflect the spotlight differently. Consider too the humanist touch of the tablecloth, recognizable from picnics to bistros like a security blanket. It says you are safe. This food will not kill you like raw beef. Critics, being unkind, might say that the rolled steaks look worryingly like turds, but that’s just how well-cooked meat looks.

The art lover can save themselves a lot of trouble and expense by eschewing the overrated glories of Paris and taking another look at what treasures lie in their bookshelves at home. Also, you won’t have to speak French.

Quick and Simple Cooking for Two, Ideals Publishing Corporation, 1976 

Also from this book: It Was All Yellow, Depth Of Field
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