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The Feast and Anti-Feast in Art: Gluttony, Ritual, Community


By the students in Professor Inger Brodey’s “The Feast in Philosophy, Film, and Fiction” course in Spring 2020 (ASIA 255H /CMPL 255H)

Welcome to our Ackland Museum exhibit on feasting in art. As you walk through and experience these pieces, we have essays for you to read about each work on display. We will start by introducing some of the most prominent themes in the student essays about this exhibit. The following questions and ideas have also informed the selection of the pieces included in our exhibit.

What does Feasting mean to you?

Do you associate feasting with family rituals, celebrating special occasions with carefully prepared meals? Do you associate feasting with abundance, waste, wine, and exhilarating indulgence? Or do you think of feasting as the traditional gatherings of varied groups over food to reinforce or celebrate community?  Through many classic readings, our course has studied traditional understandings of the feast across time and culture. The objects in our Ackland exhibit range across media, cultures, time periods, and materials, but are gathered in their multivalent connection to food and feasting. Below are some of the prominent themes and questions that our collection invokes.

Feast and Anti-feast

Frequently in our readings and in the modern film genre of “food films,” we have detected that idealized feasts are often contrasted against “anti-feast” foils. Beowulf’s celebrations of story, meat, and song in the Mead Hall are set against Grendel’s monstrous butchery in the same location. Readers reevaluate the humble variety and inclusiveness of Emma Bovary’s wedding feast when she attends a luxurious yet anemic and divisive aristocratic banquet at Vaubyessard. Similarly, our objects reveal both the idealized community-building aspects of the feast and also the ways in which feasting can paradoxically become self-indulgent, isolating, or destructive. Where does the feast end and the anti-feast begin?

Authenticity and Artifice

Five objects recall the ancient world of Greece and Rome, but through a variety of routes: one object survives from the 5th century BCE, two others reveal Renaissance Europe’s reconsideration of classical ideas, another is an early twentieth-century forgery, and a third mimics Greek mythology via eighteenth-century export routes from China. These items invite questions about the nature of artifice and authenticity: When is a copy a forgery and when is it an homage? Does the copy have similar meanings across time and culture? How significant is artifice in the feast? Can a feast be spontaneous, or does it require planning and conformity to rituals and cultural codes? Or can rituals also be authentic?

Back to Bacchus

No less than three items in our exhibit directly portray the mythical Bacchus and his entourage, a potent source of boisterous feasting imagery. The later interpretations of Bacchus often reveal another culture’s critique of the Roman excess associated with Bacchanalian feasts. Even the kylix itself reveals a game of excess played by Greek wine-drinkers at symposia, such as the one that Plato describes. To what extent is excess essential to feasting?  Are Bacchanalian gluttony and drunkenness admired or critiqued in these works?

Colors of Inclusion

Only four of our items are polychrome: an 18th-century French painting, a small lithograph by Toulouse-Lautrec, the small 18th-century Chinese export dish, and a 21st-century American photograph. In the food film as a genre, color is essential to conveying the diversity and visual richness associated with the ideal feast. In our collection, the use of color actually reveals hidden dangers in feasting—such as exclusivity, destruction, objectification of women as food, and exoticizing the other. The photograph, for example, awakens us to the cost of eating and the destruction inherent in all acts of eating, while celebrating the aesthetic perfection of a simple fruit. How does Toulouse-Lautrec use the color red to express stereotypes? How does Lancret use color to express the divisions of class in his painting? Must a feast always exclude as well as include?

Life and Death

Feasting has strong historic ties to religious rituals. “Feast days” in Europe were originally religious holidays named after saints, and as such have a natural association with death and rebirth. Two items on the third wall of this collection relate to Latin American sacred feasts that connect the living and the dead. Both Rivera and Boubat interpret these feast days with both celebratory and disturbing details. Does Boubat, a Frenchman, celebrate or satirize the Feast of the Dead? In his depiction of the Festival of Santa Ana, does Rivera essentialize Mexican peasants, celebrate them, or both?

One effect of COVID-19 has been that our exhibit (and its subsequent cancellation) has caused us to reflect on the importance of community.  The ways in which feasting can lead to exclusion, debauchery, and self-indulgent divisions awakens us to the continued importance of celebration and community, so central to the cultural ideal of the feast. We must continue to adapt our feasting to our ever-changing contexts.  Maybe it is only by the constant envisioning of potential anti-feasts that we keep alive our search for the ideal of feasting.

Inger Brodey
March, 2020

The Feast and Anti-Feast in Art: Gluttony, Ritual, Community
Ackland Museum Exhibit, 2020

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