Walters' 'Artful Dining' is art with taste

August 05, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

An 18th-century recipe for pickling peaches calls for using ginger, cloves, nutmeg and mace; but also vinegar, mustard and garlic, which must have given the peaches an interesting flavor. The recipe is from "The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Simple," published in London in 1747 and written "By a Lady."

The book is part of "Artful Dining: The Exhibition," a lighthearted look at food and dining in art and craft from about A.D. 1000 to 1994, now at the Walters Art Gallery.

Timed to coincide with the Walters' series of food-related fund-raising events by the same name, "Artful Dining" presents a potpourri of delectable treats designed to show how food delights the senses and unites the sexes.

In "Kitchen Interior" (about 1600) by Dutch painter Dirck de Vries, a vendor holds up two roosters for the inspection of the cook, who reaches for them. The label tells us that since the Dutch word for bird, vogel, had sexual connotations, the painting actually suggests that the vendor is propositioning the cook; and she's accepting, right in front of the lady of the house, who looks on uncomprehending. That was the 17th century, when food was fun.

Turn to the high-minded 19th century, and you find a sweet little girl tending her tiny stove in "The Little Cook" (1857) by Pierre-Edouard Frere. She's such a sweet little girl it makes your teeth ache.

Proceed to a less treacly 19th-century painting, the still life "Elegant Meal" (1859) by Johann Wilhelm Preyer, with its inviting oysters, grapes, almonds and sparkling wine.

The odd thing about this show -- in fact, about art on the subject of food in general -- is that it rarely shows people in the act of eating. We have food being hunted (on a Limoges salt cellar of about 1625), food being cooked (from a German 16th-century cookbook), and people sitting around after they've just dined ("Banquet of the Gods" depicted on a 16th-century Limoges dish). But none of people actually stuffing their faces.

And a good thing, too, because eating is not that pretty a sight, when you come right down to it. It must have been even less attractive before the fork replaced the hands in the 16th and 17th centuries. And speaking of forks, the show includes an array of knives and forks from the 16th to the 20th centuries.

This is one of those exhibits that reflects the great breadth of the Walters collections. There are not only paintings and plates, but knives and forks from six European countries, a German or Polish 17th-century tankard, a Spanish 17th-century sausage-making bowl, an Austrian 15th-century gingerbread mold, and a Chinese tea bowl (Sung dynasty, 960-1280).

One item not from the Walters collection is also the youngest item in the show. In the knife and fork display is an American plastic knife, fork and spoon (1994) on loan from Jerry Newbeck of the Gallery Sandwich Shoppe, located across the street from the Walters. It's also the one American item in the show. Others may want to draw conclusions from this about America's contribution to civilization; far be it from me.


What: "Artful Dining: The Exhibition"

Where: Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; through Oct. 30

Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, students and 18 and under free, free to all 11 a.m. to noon Saturdays

Call: (410) 547-9000

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