Deutsch on Kessler (2021)

Kessler, Marni Reva. Discomfort Food: The Culinary Imagination in Late Nineteenth-Century French Art. U of Minnesota P, 2021, pp 320. ISBN 978–1–5179–0880-5

Marni Kessler’s new book, Discomfort Food: The Culinary Imagination in Late Nineteenth-Century French Art, could make even the most skeptical appreciate painting. In chapters that read like love letters to luscious surfaces, jewel tones, sinewy brushwork, and crinkled folds of papier Joseph, it is an exemplary display of the migrating meanings of artworks and their power to impact profoundly upon their viewers. Beautifully written, copiously researched, touchingly intimate, it is a model for the scholar wishing to bring together the personal and professional without sacrificing academic rigor. Despites its emphasis on discomfort and unease, reading the book is a pleasure, as historical objects come to life and burst with possibilities.

In four chapters, Kessler focuses on four works of late nineteenth-century French painting, and one photograph: Édouard Manet’s Poissons (nature morte) (1864), Antoine Vollon’s Motte de beurre (1875-85), Gustave Caillebotte’s Fruits à l’étalage  (1881-82), Edgar Degas’s Portrait d’homme (c. 1866), and Degas’s Edgar Degas et Albert Bartholomé dans l’appartement de Degas (1895, Gelatin silver print). What draws these works together, Kessler argues, is that in each, food is far from a mundane subject. All of these works contain aspects of the bizarre, the unexpected, and the unsettling, making them ripe for multiple readings and responses.

Chapters begin with bold assertions. Poissons (nature morte) appears like a crime scene. Motte de beurre connotes the collective trauma of the guillotine. Fruits à l’étalage resembles a map of the new urban grid. Manet’s Le jambon (c. 1875-78), pictured in Edgar Degas and Albert Bartholomé, acts as a surrogate for the missing figure of Suzanne that Manet had cut out of Degas’s M. et Mme. Édouard Manet (c. 1868-69), also present in the photograph. Kessler then takes her reader on a journey that is not linear, but circles back on itself repeatedly. She contextualizes the subject matter in its historical and cultural specificity more thoroughly than previous art historians, relying on a range of new sources that span from cookbooks and manuals on food safety to histories of cartography or the regulation of the guillotine. This allows the author to more accurately identify the painted objects. Moreover, the scholarly scaffolding is fascinating in its own right. How interesting to learn about the Gallery of Reptiles, Fishes, and Insects at the local museum not far from Manet’s 1864 rental house in Boulogne-sur-Mer, or how butter was preserved and corrupted, or the laborious process for curing ham! These sources provide new ways of looking, and each chapter that brings together seemingly disparate things and discourses contains the excitement of solving a mystery.

Will the reader be entirely convinced by every interpretive move? It is an open question, and one that Kessler reflects on throughout, as she speculates about how her perceptions relate to her unique history. Discomfort Food embraces the realm of subjectivity, memory, intuition, and the unconscious. Kessler argues for, and demonstrates, how the life experiences, passions, and proclivities of art historians determine which artworks get studied and how they are critically approached. It is no surprise that the acknowledgements run six pages long, for Discomfort Food breaks down the illusion that private lives and public products are separate. This story of art is guided by the thrall that each work has exerted upon its author over the years, bound up in precious and painful memories. In sharing those memories—of the anguish of threading a needle through the length of a baitworm’s body, of a mother teaching her daughter how to select the tastiest fruit, a metaphor for the beauty of imperfection—Kessler permits readers to relate to art in similarly personal ways. The formal analysis is captivating, yet it is neither overly formal nor does it carry the detached perspective normally associated with visual analysis. As such, it calls into question the language of art history, exposing the conventions of the discipline, and what those conventions sacrifice. Kessler’s descriptions are also powerful reminders of what is lost when works of art are experienced through reproductions.

Kessler takes risks in writing from the heart as well as the archive. Discomfort Food includes more speculation and a looser web of associations than most interpretations of this material. But in her account of how art fascinates us, the benefits far outweigh the costs. The narrative is driven by desire—to know, to remember, to hold, to consume. It does not address the erotics of such desire or its relationship to sexual difference, despite the way that its objects were, as Kessler at times observes, the source of libidinous looking in the nineteenth century. That is one of many avenues for further research suggested by this book.


Allison Deutsch
University of London