What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of food and the incomparable Rijksmuseum? Maybe you think of the 'food still lifes' by the Dutch painters Pieter Claesz, Willem Heda or Adriaen Coorte. In addition to these old masters, the Rijksmuseum is currently housing the ultramodern photos by Henk Wildschut on the theme of food. These photos are, literally and figuratively, anything but black-and-white.
Each year for nearly forty years, the Rijksmuseum has been commissioning a photographer to take a series of photographs relating to a current topic in Dutch society. This year Wildschut was the photographer, and the topic was food.
If you are expecting haute cuisine, colourful market stalls or overflowing grocery bags, you are going to be disappointed. There's not a supermarket, restaurant or delicatessen to be seen in Wildschut's photos. Nor will you find lambs skipping in the spring sunshine, or dew-kissed tomatoes in the morning light or ripening furrows in endless fields. But at the same time, the fact that Wildschut has avoided idyllic images does not mean that he's gone to the other extreme with horrific images of animal transport, food waste or polluted horizons.
Wildschut does not want to make one-sided, clear-cut images because, as he says in the accompanying photography book Food, his excursions into the world of food production have taught him that food is a complex and wide-ranging topic. This point of view is supported by studies which have been published this year by LEI and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, and it reminds us that we need to keep the nuances alive in the polarised polemics about food.
In Wildschut's photographs, romantic images make way for clean reality. Many of the photos show bright lamplight and steel, or they present sterile conditions and high-tech equipment, innovation and industrialisation. As seen through Wildschut's lens, the world of food production looks clean and clinical without being cold or unemotional. Perhaps the right word is 'pure'. Wildschut's photos show pure food art. In addition to the machines and buildings, the people and animals in the photos are nearly immaculate.
I'm sure it's a sign that I'm incorrigibly romantic, but my favourite photo is the one in which a poultry farmer is daydreaming while surrounded by his flock of free-range Lohman Brown chickens. But the romantic appearance is deceiving, because this farmer is Helmus Torsius, who, far from being an old-fashioned crofter, has an incredibly cost-efficient farm on which about 115,000 chickens lay around 110,000 eggs daily.
Many of Wildschut's photos work in this way - they set the viewer to thinking, because their message can be read on multiple levels. This type of contemplation is very well suited to the Christmas season. Wildschut's food photos are a kind of amuse-bouche or petit four to go with the Christmas meal. I would recommend taking advantage of the opportunity to see these photos. This 'food for the mind' will be exhibited in the Rijksmuseum until 7 January 2014. But you may have to search for the photos a bit, because they are not hung anywhere nearly as prominent as are the paintings by Pieter Claesz, Willem Heda and Adriaen Coorte. And that may well be illustrative of food's place in today's society: Despite the prominence and excesses of food these days, any appreciation we might feel for it is often relegated to a minor back hallway. It may take another 400 years before Wildschut's photos are allowed to move to the main gallery.