Monday, July 21, 2008

Delacroix's Lobsters

One of the many masterpieces by the French Romantic, Eugène Delacroix, his "Still life with lobsters" (1826-27.)

Before anything else, take a good luck at the picture again.

First, there's a landscape receding into the horizon in true perspective. You see the horses and the huntsmen in the background; you see the muskets and the game bags; you see the shot hare, some other game birds, a pheasant.

And you see a lobster.

What on earth is a lobster doing in a scene about game? This makes no sense.

And even more bizarrely the lobster is obviously cooked (from the color), and the rest of the game is clearly raw.

Shades of Surrealism a century before it took root? A Dali before his time? Trying to outdo Nerval?

Not quite.

To understand the image, we need to take a tour to Galen (129 A.D.), an ancient physician whose theories dominated medicine and food for more than a millenium.

Each person supposedly has a temperament composed of four elements: air (warm and wet), earth (cold and dry), fire (hot and dry) and water (cold and wet.)

Likewise each food had a characteristic warmth and coldness, dryness and wetness. More importantly, cooking could transform this.

The goal was balance. (The Chinese, independently, came up with a similar scheme.)

Before you rush out to totally declare "scientific" bullshit on these concepts, permit the CC to forward two thoughts.

One is that this idea of balance is not particularly different from your modern idea of "balancing" proteins, carbohydrates and fats. The details are different but the idea of "balance" has propagated to modern times just in a different guise.

Secondly, if you believe in "vitamins" (which is a buncha catchall compounds which are totally unrelated), you're basically just as unscientific.

(Lest the above not be clear, nobody is denying the importance of the various "vitamin" compounds for the human body. What is being denied is that they have anything to do with each other. They don't. They are lumped together because they've always been lumped together, and nothing could be more unscientific than that. Even the name is bullshit because it comes from "vital amine" and yet, vitamin C is not an amine at all.)

So a lot of bad blather has propagated to modern times under a "scientific" guise.

Back to the original Galen balance. Whatever you feel about Galen, you are going to deal with it in an artistic context which is metaphorical not scientific.

The lobsters (cold and wet) are there to balance out the game (hares and jays - warm and dry.) The pheasant is provided as an idea of the "ideal" because it was considered the perfect balanced food. The metaphor of the soaring wing of the pheasant should be reasonably obvious in this context.

Like most imagery that comes out of a medieval context, Delacroix's is rather sophisticated. And it behooves us to understand where it came from, and where it is headed later in the context of surrealism.

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