Sex, Food, and Surrealism

The last several weeks I have been hard at work on writing projects related to my new book Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, which is coming out in May 2014. I’ve missed having the time to work on this blog and read more about Americans dining and cooking in Paris, but I’ve also enjoyed delving back into the history of sexuality, which has been my main focus for years.

Charity and Sylvia book cover

The recent work has also given me the opportunity to think more seriously about the overlap between the histories of sex and food. All along I have been aware that sexuality is a running theme of the blog, which I had credited to my own long interest in the subject. The fact that many of the Americans who adored French food lived rule-breaking – even wild – sex lives has made the research that much more juicy.

On more recent reflection, however, I’ve realized that the overlap of my two research interests, food and sex, is more than a coincidence. Well duh, you might say. As anyone knows who has ever seen the famous dinner-love scene between Albert Finney and Joyce Redman in the movie Tom Jones, food and sex are well-matched pleasures. Historically, many of the Americans who traveled to France took it as a given that the country renowned for its sensuality offered exquisite opportunities both at table and in bed. The two pleasures of the flesh seemed to combine naturally.

In our own time, we continue to naturalize the connection between food and sex. This pairing explains the secret of Nigella Lawson’s success. Whether or not she is a good cook or has good recipes to offer, viewers believe in her gourmand cred because she so over-the-top sexual. This is a woman who knows her pleasures.

Nigella Lawson licking an ice cream cone
Nigella Lawson licking an ice cream cone

Considering the power of these cultural associations, I might have gotten complacent and accepted the food/sex link in my research as natural. Good thing that a recent trip to the “Surrealism and the Object” exhibition currently appearing at the Centre Pompidou, Paris’s biggest modern art museum, forced me to reconsider. The popular association between sex and food made the pairing a perfect subject for the Surrealists, who sought to de-naturalize the world in their artworks. Surrealism strived to make familiar objects unfamiliar, to force viewers to really look at ordinary and mundane objects, which often pass without notice.

Salvador Dalí described Surrealist sculpture in 1931 as “absolutely useless and created wholly for the purpose of materializing in a fetishistic way, with maximum tangible reality, ideas and fantasies of a delirious character.” In his 1933 “Retrospective Bust of a Woman,” on display at the Pompidou, Dalí paired a woman’s bust – in both senses of the word, this bust is really all about the woman’s desirable breasts – with a baguette and two ears of corn. The baguette is unmistakably phallic and French, the corn recalls for me eroticized images of Native American women as subjects to be conquered. In the original sculpture Dalí used a real baguette (which supposedly got eaten by Picasso’s dog). The piece on display at the Pompidou uses a model of a baguette, which adds to the unnatural effect. Here are sex and food combined in a manner that is neither natural nor appetizing. There are elements (the breasts, the baguette) that excite the appetites, but the conjunction is alien and cold.

Salvador Dali, "Retrospective Bust of a Woman" (1933/1970)

Dalí was famous for throwing Surrealist dinner parties where the menus were intended to discombobulate. At a “Dizzy Dinner Party” he organized in Hollywood in 1941, live frogs were on the menu. How French, and yet how totally inedible. This was la cuisine française truly re-imagined. At a 1972 dinner party hosted by Madame Rothschild the menu included imbroglio de cadavres exquis (I don’t know what the dish consisted of, and I’m not sure I want to know). In 1973, Dalí even published a cookbook, Les Dîners de Gala, featuring pictures of his creations. Poulet à la Shroud of Turin anyone?

Dalí, Chicken and Christ, from Les Dîners de Gala (1973)
Chicken and Christ, Les Dîners de Gala (1973)


Other pieces in the Pompidou show expanded on the theme of sex/food à la unnatural. Meret Oppenheim’s 1936 “My Nursemaid” appeared in many of the advertisement’s for the show. Featuring a pair of white patent leather high heels bound together and served on a silver platter, with paper chop frills at the tip of each heel, the piece was both fetishistic and off-putting. The scuff-marks on the soles disrupt the fantasy-object appeal of the heels, while the barren whiteness of the shoes empties the platter of any appetizing quality.

Meret Oppenheim, "My Nursemaid" (1936)Meret Oppenheim, “My Nursemaid” (1936)

Oppenheimer’s 1936 fur-lined teacup, also included in the show, likewise seemed to juxtapose food and female sexuality (the fur) in a deeply unnatural combination.

Meret Oppenheim, Fur covered breakfast (1936)

But by far the most disturbing piece in the show was a Cindy Sherman photograph from her 1992 “Sex Pictures” series. Never have I seen a picture involving both sex and food that is as un-sexy and un-appetizing as Sherman’s composition, combining a mask of an old man attached to a pregnant bust with oddly erect breasts, sitting a top a model of a vulva, fringed by untamed pubic hair, giving birth to a string of fat sausages.

Cindy Sherman, 1992

There was a sign at the entrance to the exhibition warning that the show included images that might “hurt the public’s feelings, especially those of young children.” I took a hammy photo of the kids in front of the sign before we went in. Afterwards, I had to admit that the museum had a point. The kids survived, but they spent as little time in the Cindy Sherman room as possible. (And we all ran away from a room screening a Dalí film with lots of heavy breathing).


If the show was mostly made up of images designed to both de-naturalize and disturb, there was one lovely photograph by Man Ray that seemed intended only to achieve the first half of this equation. The picture does not involve food, but I thought I should include it here as a riposte to the hubbub created recently by American Apparel’s choice to use mannequins with pubic hair in its New York City shop windows. Although claimed as a feminist move by the chain (yeah, right), intended to break the taboo around pubic hair in today’s culture, from my more cynical perspective the mannequins were intended to attract attention by drawing on the powerful emotion of disgust that pubic hair seems to elicit in our pornie modern culture. Thus I particularly welcomed Man Ray’s photo of a mannequin-with-pubic-hair, which invites viewers to consider the objectification and sexualization of women, while at the same time embracing the beauty of the female form in its unshaven state. Maybe it was just impossible for Man Ray to take an ugly photo. Either way, I leave you with this delight.

Man Ray, Mannequin
Man Ray, Mannequin

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

4 thoughts

  1. I’m told that in the internet world food is second to only to pornography in terms of the most viewed. The surprise, to me, is that it is only second! In the world of art it seems to me that food is generally either still life or merely a vehicle to convey a particular message. It is very, very rarely the primary subject. It only seems to be in our time that what we eat, in terms of both nutrition and pleasure, has risen to such prominence in the public mind. The question for me is why that should be?

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