Wilbur and the supermarket: feast and famine

A ‘Charlotte’s Web’ onstage and a tasty museum show ask what it means that we are what we eat

Everyone knows Wilbur was Some Pig. In E.B. White’s gentle and funny yet harrowing children’s classic Charlotte’s Web, the runt of the litter and his barnyard animal friends take on human intelligence and characteristics in order to confront the mystery of mortality: Terrific he may be, but unless the spider Charlotte can pull off something drastic, Wilbur’s bound for the oven and the frying pan.

Maya Caulfield as Fern, Elisha Henig as young Wilbur. Photo: Owen Carey

Maya Caulfield as Fern, Elisha Henig as young Wilbur. Photo: Owen Carey

Yesterday I took in Oregon Children’s Theatre’s stage adaptation of White’s novel at the Newmark Theatre downtown and let this familiar agrarian fable wash over me once again. The tale was published in 1952, when the nation was deep into its transition from rural to urban and suburban life, but when the farm still seemed close, and people realized that meat didn’t originate in neat plastic-wrapped packages at the grocery store. Biologists and social scientists might have clucked their unfanciful tongues, but White’s anthropomorphism made perfect sense: the animals’ travails not only mirrored deep concerns in children’s minds, they also suggested an abiding emotional link between humans and the “lower” beasts, a link that in the past 60 years has helped foster the vegan and vegetarian revolutions as well as ardent animal-rights campaigns. If we are what we eat, what does that mean? One of the many beauties of Charlotte’s Web is that it raises the question but leaves the answer open-ended, as something for young and older minds to ponder, while it also speaks wisely about the circularity of life and the inevitability of death. OCT’s production, with aerial artist Claire Aldridge climbing to the rafters as the spider and a barnful of animal impersonators honking and baaa-ing and snorting through the action, hits the novel’s high notes efficiently and sometimes more than that.

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"Suite Louisiana: Down Tchoupitoulas Street (Chef Emeril)," Warrington Colescott, 1996, etching, Portland Art Museum. Gift of the artist.

“Suite Louisiana: Down Tchoupitoulas Street (Chef Emeril),” Warrington Colescott, 1996, etching, Portland Art Museum. Gift of the artist.

So it was a bit of a shock, just a few minutes later, to find myself staring smack in the cooked face of a roast suckling pig – Andy Warhol’s whimsical and brightly cartoonish lithograph with watercolor Piglet, from his 1959 book Wild Raspberries, created with his writer friend Suzie Frankfurt as a “cookbook for people who don’t cook.” Warhol drew the cute little porker, Frankfurt wrote the sly recipe, Warhol’s mother did the calligraphy, and schoolboys were hired to do the hand coloring.

Only steps away was another, much starker, image of a pig: Sue Coe’s 1993 etching Standing Pig, a compelling scene of a pig being dragged to its death in a slaughterhouse. Hooks on chains hang from the ceiling. Two butchers, one with his knife sheathed and the other with his blade menacingly out, seem to be pulling the pig in opposite directions. The beast, terrified, is wetting itself. Like the Warhol, the print has qualities of a caricature. But in this one, nothing’s cute. We are witnessing, as I imagine Coe would have it, the prelude to a murder.

Jean-François Millet, "Les Glaneuses (The Gleaners)," etching, 1855. The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection, Portland Art Museum.

Jean-François Millet, “Les Glaneuses (The Gleaners),” etching, 1855. The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection, Portland Art Museum.

I had just crossed the South Park Blocks from the Newmark to the Portland Art Museum, and headed immediately downstairs to walk slowly through Feast and Famine: The Pleasures and Politics of Food. Parts of the exhibition, which includes 66 works on paper from about 1850 onward, would have tickled Wilbur pink. Parts would have had him trembling in his hooves. All of it works together to create a quietly potent overview of the ways we think about our food, the ways we ration it, and the varying approaches we take to the taking of lives in order to continue our own. If that sounds didactic (and some of the images in the exhibition are), Feast and Famine also celebrates both the joys of eating and the pleasures of fine draftsmanship by artists ranging alphabetically from Glen Alps (the muscular little American realist litho Ferry Boat Café, 1946) to the contemporary poster artist Joe Wirtheim, whose 2007/2013 Victory Garden of Tomorrow images are reminiscent of World War II homefront posters.

Food and art have been intimately linked for centuries, and Feast and Famine could have gone in any number of directions. Mary Weaver Chapin, the museum’s curator of graphic arts, has kept it focused partly by keeping to prints and multiples, partly by demanding a high level of craftsmanship, and partly by keeping a subtle tension between have and have-not. She also has excellent material to draw from. The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection, which provides a large part of the show’s content, is one of the museum’s richest. Chapin also drew heavily from the holdings of Portland collector Jordan Schnitzer, who specializes in prints from the 20th and 21st centuries, and who loans his work liberally to museums and other educational organizations. His pieces provide a lot of the contemporary punch to an exhibit that’s built on a firm foundation of the Gilkey collection’s 19th and early 20th century works.

Camille Pissarro, "La Cherrue (The Plow)," color lithograph, 1901. Portland Art Museum, bequest of Charles Henry Leavitt.

Camille Pissarro, “La Cherrue (The Plow),” color lithograph, 1901. Portland Art Museum, bequest of Charles Henry Leavitt.

Nineteenth century masters including Jean-François Millet and Camille Pissarro provide both a social and a technical grounding for the exhibit with some meticulous and quietly engrossing works. Millet’s 1855 etching Les Glaneuse (The Gleaners) memorializes the ancient practice of gleaning, in which poor people gather the leftovers in farmers’ fields after harvest. It was partly charity, partly social safety net: the gleaners had a right, and the landowners had a duty. Millet’s 1855-56 etching La Barratteuse (Woman Churning Butter) captures the manual labor and skill of farmwork, along with something of its domestic qualities: a cat hovers at the woman’s foot, rubbing against her calf. Pissarro celebrates both the social aspects of shopping (Marché aux legumes, à Pontoise [Vegetable Market of Pontoise], etching, 1891) and the cooperative aspects of preparing the fields for planting (La Charrue [The Plow], color lithograph, 1901).

There’s vibrant eye candy from the likes of Wayne Thiebaud, Claes Oldenburg and Mel Ramos (who mixes still life and girlie-mag cheesecake in his sly 1990 color screenprint Miss Fruit Salad); and some bright Roy Lichtensteins that suggest, if you dig a little below their respective surfaces, his ties to the impressionists; and out-and-out celebrations of the glories of the feast like Warrington Colescott’s 1996 Suite Louisiana: Down Tchoupitoulas Street (Chef Emeril); and little captured moments of human connection over the table, happy and unhappy,  by the likes of Adolf Dehn (a pair of pudgy gossips in the 1945 litho Watermelon Eaters), Beth Van Hoesen (an uncharacteristically and quite appealingly satiric tête-a-tête in the 1946 litho Cocktail Hour) and Pablo Picasso (his iconic and unspeakably sad 1904 etching Le Repas frugal [The Frugal Repast], in which a man and woman at table are physically entwined but emotionally in separate universes).

Adolf Dehn, "Cornucopia and Her Pstilential Sister – Famine," lithograph, 1949. Portland Art Museum, gift of Mrs. Adolf Dehn.

Adolf Dehn, “Cornucopia and Her Pestilential Sister – Famine,” lithograph, 1949. Portland Art Museum, gift of Mrs. Adolf Dehn.

Dehn’s alternatingly lush and stark 1949 litho Cornucopia and Her Pestilential Sister – Famine, with its vivid contrast between a lush and rounded sister of plenty and her skeletal, shrinking sister of want, is representative of a strong element of social commentary. Kathë Kollwitz’s 1924 litho Deutschlands Kinder hungern! (Germany’s Children Are Starving!), with its empty bowls and wide hollow eyes, is both an immediate plea for help and a sharp criticism of the social and economic divide that allows abundance for some and a pittance for others. After 90 years, the theme’s still current and potent.

In the end, Feast and Famine is a visual feast, but a feast with stirring and provocative questions of what it means to eat, how we decide what we eat, and who gets to eat how much. The question rings: If we are what we eat, but we have nothing to eat, are we then nothing?

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Feast and Famine continues at the Portland Art Museum through May 4. Hours and admission information here.

Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Charlotte’s Web continues in the Newmark Theatre through February 16. Ticket and schedule information here.

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