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  • Mark Brafield

Still life

Christmas is on its way, and food, and pictures of food, seem to be all around. Every shop window seems stuffed with beautifully presented pictures of turkeys, mince pies, Christmas puddings or, I saw yesterday, gin and tonic jellies.

A local artist paints exquisitely detailed pictures of all the classic biscuits; digestives, custard creams and bourbons. Funnily enough, another one found herself painting an empty chocolate wrapper after she had eaten the chocolate. Many years ago, before the advent of smart-phones, I was dining at a high - end restaurant (Gordon Ramsay, in fact) and the food so beautifully presented that a diner at an adjoining table took out his cumbersome camera for each course and solemnly photographed it in front of all the other guests. But perhaps this can go too far; only this week Delia Smith commented that 'if I am given another plate with six dots of food on it, I shall go mad'.

The strange thing, however, is that we do not really respond that deeply to pictures of food. If you look at a lemon, it does not make much of an impression. But think about smelling or tasting a lemon and immediately you will salivate. Proust looked at his madeleine quite cheerfully without much happening; his visionary re-creation of the past only came when he dipped it in the tea and tasted it.

Neurologically, we may put this down to the fact that of all the senses, only smell (and its close brother, taste) is hard - wired direct to the amygdala, the primal nerve-centre of the brain. Everything else takes the longer route through the cortex, the logical, contextual but slow part of the brain.

But we still respond, albeit in a different way, to images of food. That artist was painting an absence of food in her chocolate wrapper; maybe that was recalling other absences. After all, nothing looks emptier than an empty food packet. And what about Andy Warhol's soup can ? Perhaps its sense of uncanny detachment is due in part to the fact that we know there is food inside, but we can't see it. Why would the artist paint the can, not the food ?

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