Around the Table: Museum Exhibitions

By Sarah Peters Kernan

The Christian liturgical season of Lent is upon us. Centuries ago, this was a long and difficult period of fasting in Europe. Some Christians still abstained from all meat and animal products for the forty days of Lent, others undertook a less rigorous abstention of foods. It was an austere time with regards to food. It is fitting, and quite purposeful timing for the curators, that this year’s Lent marks the final weeks of the exhibition Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500–1800 at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK. This exhibition explores food in early modern Europe including periods of excess and feasting as well as fasting and hunger. There is much to be found online about this exhibition, from the detailed website, related programming (including a recent conference about pineapples in the early modern world), a myriad of reviews and essays, an episode of The Feast featuring Laura Carlson’s interview with the curators, and a beautifully photographed exhibition catalogue. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Melissa Calaresu, co-curator of the exhibition with Victoria (Vicky) Avery, about some other aspects of the exhibition you may not find in these other resources, such as the process of mounting such an undertaking and her excitement about bringing new audiences into the Fitzwilliam.

Still life with a lobster, Joris van Son (1623–67), Antwerp, Belgium, 1660. Oil on canvas. 64.1 x 89.2 cm. C.B. Marlay Bequest, 1912 (M.76). Feast and Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500–1800. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Melissa and Vicky began thinking about an exhibition featuring food when they partnered on the acclaimed 2015 Treasured Possessions from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment exhibition at the Fitzwilliam. Treasured Possessions featured beautifully crafted and engaging objects that were once treasured by their owners, included a number of food-related items. Melissa, especially, became intrigued with the idea of focusing on the range of artwork and material objects for depicting, storing, preparing, and serving foodstuffs. Melissa credits Vicky for allowing her the freedom to search through the Fitzwilliam collections to find art and artifacts to relay a cohesive narrative about food and eating practices over time.

Recreation of an English confectioner’s work space, c.1790, conceived and made by Ivan Day. Feast and Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500–1800. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Gradually, Melissa and Vicky curated an enviable exhibition collection from Fitzwilliam items, items on loan from other private and institutional collections, and food recreations crafted specifically for Feast & Fast by Ivan Day. Melissa wanted to include Ivan, a longtime friend, in the exhibition planning. Ivan developed ideas for food sculptures and recreations to compliment the artwork and objects planned for display. Inspired by paintings, culinary tools, recipes, and more, Ivan created three large installations. A few elements were initially created as part of installations at other museums, such as The Edible Monument exhibition at the Getty Research Institute, but a vast majority of the elements are completely new and breathtaking. There are few, if any, places one can see a table set with lavish pies made of exotic birds like swan and peacock, or a mock confectioner’s shop window display. And importantly, all of the exotic birds used in the displays were ethically sourced. The swan, for example, was retrieved upon its death in an overhead electrical line.

Recreation of a Baroque feasting table, c.1650, conceived and made by Ivan Day with taxidermy by David Astley and seafood and fruit models by Tony Barton. Feast and Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500–1800. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Several works on display in the exhibition first underwent conservation, some of which was extensive. The Hamilton Kerr Institute in Whittlesford, the art conservation department at the Fitzwilliam Museum, undertook the conservation. The cleaning of several paintings revealed more vibrancy and detail than the curators had hoped. Melissa described her excitement when she learned that after a thorough cleaning, a painting of Dives and Lazarus revealed a pertinent bit of information: forks were discovered in the image! This was a major departure from earlier versions of the image in which diners ate with their hands and knives. Deep cleaning of other paintings like the seventeenth-century kitchen still life by Floris Gerritsz van Schooten and contemporaneous still life with a lobster by Joris van Son revealed significantly brighter, richer, and intense color palates.

Dives and Lazarus, Flemish School, Antwerp, Belgium, adapted from a 1554 engraving by Heinrich Aldegrever (c.1502–1555/61), early 17th century. Oil on panel. 17.8 x 23.2 cm. Daniel Mesman Bequest, 1834 (274). Feast and Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500–1800. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Melissa enthusiastically spoke to me about how she wanted the exhibition to be useful for educators and the broader public, not just regular museum-goers and academics. The exhibition is signaled, for example, by a giant pineapple sculpture designed by Bompas & Parr on the grounds of the Fitzwilliam. This hard-to-miss fruit is showy enough to attract attention from passersbys with no intention of visiting the museum and entice them to enter. Melissa also noted that the Fitzwilliam, especially the Education Department, has been doing an outstanding job of drawing in new audiences to Feast & Fast. Several community groups, like the North Cambridge Academy Museum Ambassadors, the Rowan Art Centre, and Dancing with the Museum, had the opportunity to interact with exhibition objects in truly unique ways (a video about this initiative is available here). Participants who had the opportunity to touch and work with select objects made some moving connections to the pieces and related to these early modern objects in a very personal way. The museum has worked to incorporate Feast & Fast into major event planning, like the most recent “Twilight at the Museums,” aimed at children, and “Love Art after Dark,” an annual event for University of Cambridge students. Local businesses have also partnered with the Fitzwilliam and the exhibition: the Cambridge restaurant Vanderlyle created a five-course tasting menu inspired by the exhibit, artwork, and early modern philosophies about food.

One-handled pipkin with pouring lip, unidentified Harlow pottery, Essex, England, 1650 Lead-glazed red earthenware with cream slip-trailed decoration, inscribed: ‘FAST AND PRAY 1650 W’ Dr J.W.L. Glaisher Bequest (GL.C.35-1928). Feast and Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500–1800. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

A few of the Feast & Fast objects will be familiar to those who previously visited the Treasured Possessions exhibition, like the pineapple teapot and the honeypot. Items like these were crowd favorites and have been pleasing visitors again. Melissa has many other favorite objects on display. While she was hard pressed to select a favorite, her love of ceramics shines through as she mentions the exhibit’s seventeenth-century pomegranate charger and a seventeenth-century burnished pipkin declaring “Fast and Pray.” Beyond what visitors might first see in these and other exhibition objects, Melissa encourages all to consider the anonymous consumption, labor, and stories behind each object, like the women who created sugared confections, men who collected shells, and slaves toiling in the Caribbean.

Feast & Fast is sure to delight and inspire contemplation of the origins of many modern food concerns. The objects and installations of this exhibition invite visitors to consider premodern fasting, vegetarianism, the conspicuous consumption of exotic victuals, and the labors of all who grow, sell, cook, and create our food.

Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500–1800 is at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 26 April 2020.

If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.