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  • Discomfort Food: The Culinary Imagination in Late Nineteenth-Century French Art by Marni Reva Kessler
  • Michael D. Garval
Marni Reva Kessler. Discomfort Food: The Culinary Imagination in Late Nineteenth-Century French Art. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2021. Pp. xxv + 291. $30.00.

As its wonderful title suggests, this is not a book about the delights of French cuisine. Rather, Marni Kessler’s new study delves into the disconcerting, anxiety-ridden underbelly of late nineteenth-century French food culture, as expressed through the period’s art. Focusing on foodstuffs represented in several paintings and one photograph by a painter, she finds lurking all manner of decay, disquiet, disarray and, yes, discomfort.

Kessler leads off with Édouard Manet’s Fish (Still Life), which appears to depict ingredients for a seafood stew, but is instead, she contends, a moving reflection upon the death and decomposition of the eponymous fish. With the canvas construed as a “crime scene” (4), “a kind of whodunit that both engages our curiosity and makes us want to turn away” (13), the chapter makes for compelling and instructive reading. Its coda then interrogates Helen Frankenthaler’s telling réplique to her French precursor, For E.M., where Manet’s mullet metamorphoses into a delicate, cloud-like form, “evanescent, like all things” (46).

From here Kessler proceeds to “Clarifying and Compounding Antoine Vollon’s Mound of Butter” (47). Probing the history of still life painting, contemporary cookbooks, treatises on adulterated [End Page 147] food, Zola’s Ventre de Paris, mounds of soil in Haussmann’s Paris, Georges Bataille on formlessness, the specter of severed heads in post-revolutionary France or Freud’s notion of the uncanny, she ponders this beautifully unsettling mass of butter, poised “on the cusp of both spoiling and melting, its materiality, the thing upon which it most relies, in peril” (47).

Next, scrutinizing Gustave Caillebotte’s Fruit Displayed on a Stand, Kessler again inter-weaves wide-ranging evidence—from gardening manuals to colored maps of the newly Haussmannized capital—with her characteristically penetrating analysis of the painted surface. The produce display appears orderly, like garden plots, aerial photographs or cartographic renderings of urban space, but, she argues, “small disturbances in the painting’s field slightly destabilize [this] prevailing impression” (147), pointing toward future disorder, decomposition or dispersion. This leaves behind a past which leaves us with “a scent of melancholy and a tinge of nostalgia” (149), a mood perhaps more elegiac than discomfiting, however.

The last chapter examines the complex connections between three images featuring meat: Edgar Degas’s enigmatic Portrait of a Man, Édouard Manet’s Ham, and Degas’s photograph, Edgar Degas et Albert Bartholomé dans l’appartement de Degas. Wending her way through cookbooks, veterinary treatises, the new centralized abattoir at La Villette, contemporary anatomical illustration, and the two artists’ fraught friendship, Kessler explores “the evocative capacities of animal flesh” (175) to get at mortality and memory, and to merge with the artistic medium itself.

Understanding food both within broader cultural contexts and in relation to individual memories, this is a book at once deeply personal and broadly humanistic, its documentation meticulous, its analysis razor-sharp, and its prose achingly beautiful. Perhaps most importantly and refreshingly, in Discomfort Food Kessler deploys an admirably mature critical sensibility, unabashedly interdisciplinary in its approach, unapologetic in its choices, and unafraid of wrangling with the “messier aspects” (xxii) of food, art, and life. [End Page 148]

Michael D. Garval
North Carolina State University


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pp. 147-148
Launched on MUSE
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