Simple Food/Complex Painting
Pavel Gerasimenko

The food featured in paintings for the seventy years following 1917 not only shows the formal tasks of artists, but to a large extent, speaks to their way of life.

Petrov-Vodkin’s “Herring” of 1918 is one of the major 20th century Russian “food paintings”. In this work only three objects reflect the artist’s life, which is known from his letters to his mother, “Throughout the summer hunger was so strong that I felt myself as an animal—I could only think about food and became wildly voracious. Yes, this is true hunger, moreover, now it is getting cold.” These lines written November 20, 1918 almost coincide with this still life painting.

Salted fish and bread were common subject matter in these food paintings of the 1920s, and can be seen, for exam- ple, in David Shterenberg’s works. Abram Efros wrote about Shterenberg, “His painting is a narrative about bread—you need to stock up on it to have little enough to survive, but you have to suffer so much to get it.”

In the early 1930s, the GOST's standards were introduced in the Soviet food industry, which in a way became an embodiment of the ideal about produc- tion process held by the Left Front of the Arts (LEF) Association’s artists. The way products are depicted in “The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food” justify Boris Groys’s theory that Socialist Realism was born out of the avant-garde: packs, boxes, and tins arranged on its pages represent food reduced to pure geometric forms. Sausages and peas are retouched to an extent at which they become the “eidos” of sausages and peas. They are products, which in fact, ordinary Soviet citizens could only dream of having. What is before our eyes is not food itself, but its literary and pictorial description.

The Thaw has reshaped the artists’ “consumption bundle”. In 1961, four oranges of bright orange color appeared on a Vladimir Weisberg’s painting—a sign of the times.

In the 1970s, Russian Conceptualists and Socialist Realism artists combined “The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food” with Andy Warhol’s Pop Art. Monumental portraits of canned food appeared. While Mikhail Roshal in 1975 painted a Borscht can with a subscription “Hi, Andy!”, Oleg Zaika created a ration pack which included “Condensed Milk,” “Ketchup,” “Laminaria Salad,” and “Moscow Soup.” In the new era, with its abundance of commodities characteristic of the post-perestroika times, gastronomic still life has lost its social meaning and its artistic value has also waned.

DI # 6-2018

December 13, 2018