Art and Food in Barcelona

An exhibition celebrates artists' views of eating; then it's time for lunch

Noon in Barcelona: A line of people — mostly tourists and students, judging from all those fanny packs and backpacks — snakes back from a side door, around the Carrer de Provença onto the Passeig de Gràcia, waiting to take a guided tour of La Pedrera (below right, photo: Flickr/J.Salmoral), Antoni Gaudí's 1912-vintage biomorphic masterpiece. There is no line at all at the famous building's front door, however — just a security  guard motioning in people who are interested in what's inside—which in this case isn't a guided tour but, up a broad curving staircase, a mouthwatering exhibition called L'Art del Menjar: De la Natura Morta a Ferran Adrià — The Art of Eating: From Still Life to… well, you know who.

The show, assembled by Valencian art-book editor and curator Cristina Giménez, consists of some 130 works — paintings, sculpture, photographs, conceptual pieces, and more — gathered from about 70 museums and private collections, all addressing some aspect of the act or ritual or particulars of dining. As its name promises, the exhibition begins with several glowing still life paintings, mostly Dutch and from the 17th century (one large example, by Paul de Vos, offers a table laden with hooved and feathered game, with live birds perched atop their slain cousins and cats contesting bits of meat below). A number of prominent 20th-century artists are represented, among them Dalí, Picasso, Juan Gris, Chaïm Soutine, English pop pioneer Richard Hamilton, and German avant-gardist Joseph Beuys. New Delhi-based Subodh Gupta provides two very different show-stopping pieces: an immense impressionistic painting of the remains of a fish on a plate and an impressive sculptural piece made of high-gloss stainless steel cooking vessels and utensils arranged in a rack with lapidary precision. A real coup for the curator was obtaining Martha Rosler's ambitious 1974 multimedia piece "A Gourmet Experience" — a room holding an elaborately set table behind which a series of screens flashes bits of video and food scenes from assorted glossy magazines while voices intone passages from cookbooks, sociological observations on dining, and so on.

Some of the artists represented have had more than an aesthetic connection with food. The American conceptual artist Gordon Matta-Clark actually ran a storefront restaurant called Food, staffed by artists, on Prince Street in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood for a couple of years in the early 1970s. (The menu included sushi and sashimi, then rare in New York, as well as borscht, stewed rabbit, and a salad of figs and anchovies.) In the mid-1980s, Catalan artist Antoní Miralda collaborated with Barcelona chef Montse Guillén to open a tapas bar called El Internacional, six or eight blocks south of Prince Street in TriBeCa. (Covering the place, New York magazine helpfully described tapas for its readers as "the legendary pub snacks of Spain".) And then there's Ferran Adrià of El Bulli, who has always maintained that he isn't an artist, but some of whose most famous innovations conclude the exhibition — by way of photographs by his court photographer, Francesc Guillamet.

A half hour or so spent enjoying L'Art del Menjar — open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. through June 26 (with free admission) — is a great way to work up an appetite. And a great way to satisfy one would be to walk three blocks down the broad Passeig de Gràcia, one of Barcelona's prettiest boulevards, to the new Mandarin Oriental Hotel, for lunch at Blanc (below, photo: Michael Psaltis)

Blanc is the preserve of Jean-Luc Figueras, who first made his mark as chef at  Eldorado Petit, probably the best restaurant in Barcelona for much of the 1980s, and went on to cook at the acclaimed Azulete and then in his own eponymous place in a beautiful Modernista house just off the Avinguda Diagonal. Figueras is half-French and his cooking seems approximately that, too, but he also honors the Catalan portion of his heritage with intelligently updated takes on local classics, sometimes with unexpected but felicitous foreign accents. (He was, among other things, one of the first contemporary Spanish chefs to incorporate Asian ingredients into his dishes.) 

Blanc — which means "white" in Catalan, as it does in French — is a very, well, white restaurant, with some gray tones, but overall quite bright and a little frilly in decor. There's nothing frilly, though, about what's on the plates. There has always been a sturdy, earthy quality to Figueras's cuisine, however refined the execution may be. A multi-course lunch he served recently demonstrated his approach eloquently: First came a classic country-style terrine with toast. This was followed by small portions of three Catalan-inspired dishes: an interpretation of the traditional mar i muntanya (sea and mountain) idiom, which combines seafood with meat or poultry, in this case an arrangement of espardenyes, or sea cucumber, with confit Ibérico pork cheek and a grace note of black truffles; a paper-thin tart of crumbled botifarra sausage topped with translucent slices of fingerling ratte potatoes and more truffles; and a dish of peas from the Maresme farmlands north of Barcelona, greatly prized here (there were shelled ones in the market for almost $20 a pound), with salt-cod tripe and bits of black trumpet mushroom — everything in perfect balance, precisely seasoned, and full of flavor. The main course was purely French: a glorious veal shank, lacquered-brown in hue, with side dishes of favas, baby carrots, pearl onions, and artichokes (above left, photo: Michael Psaltis). For dessert? A nice long walk.

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