Cabbages on canvas and beyond
January 3, 2020 11:42 AM   Subscribe

Why are artists – from George Orwell to Stanley Spencer – obsessed with cabbage? Alexandra Harris, winner of the 2010 Guardian first book award, explains in Top of the crops: cabbages in art

"In 1987, the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington devoted a canvas to a sensual, spectral portrait of a red cabbage – and portrait is the right word, because a cabbage is like a head."

"If eaten in great quantities before a feast, there would be no hangover. The cabbage, then, was the ancient licence for excess. No wonder that, many centuries later, it appealed to the baroque sensibilities of Italian artist Tommaso Salini, who painted Young Peasant with Cabbages in about 1610. A half-draped boy rises tanned and vigorous from behind the splayed, curling leaves of enormous cabbages: a buoyant god emerging from a swirling cabbagey sea."

"Cabbage was a favourite with the leading abstract painter Jean Hélion, who praised its very ordinariness."

"My favourite cabbage painting is The Dustman by Stanley Spencer, the master of the familiar-turned-strange. This 1934 work shows the resurrection of rubbish from an ordinary household dustbin: all our forgotten scraps gloriously risen from the dead. Children hold out a broken teapot and a jam jar, and – in the middle of the picture – there's a bedraggled but beautifully deep-veined cabbage. For Spencer, this was a painting about the things we forget to worship: "All the signs and tokens of home life, such as cabbage leaves and teapot, which I have so much loved that I have had them resurrected from the dustbin because they are reminders of home life and peace.""
posted by youarenothere (20 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
posted by youarenothere at 11:44 AM on January 3

Shoutout to Diocletian.
posted by Sterros at 11:49 AM on January 3 [1 favorite]

My cabbages!
posted by belarius at 12:05 PM on January 3 [4 favorites]

Joachim Beuckelaer, "The Four Elements: Earth" (in the National Gallery, London). Beuckelaer includes lettuces, artichokes, cucumbers, and many other kinds of fruits and vegetables, but it is a cabbage that takes centre stage.
posted by cyanistes at 12:11 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]

I love the anfractuous cross-section of a tight cabbage, a pleasure before many a meal. None of the paintings I’ve clicked through to have used that aspect - are there any?
posted by clew at 12:32 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]

Why are artists – from George Orwell to Stanley Spencer – obsessed with cabbage?

Well, the walrus said the time had come to talk of many things.
posted by mattdidthat at 12:33 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]

Random...a friend of mine dumpster dived (dove?) a giant oil painting of a cabbage years ago. We later discovered it was valued at something like 20k. The artist, whose name I can't recall, was known for her cabbage portraits...which is a thing I didn't know was a thing.

We just thought it looked like a giant nug..
posted by captain afab at 12:48 PM on January 3 [4 favorites]

There are a slew of reasons... or a slaw of reasons...
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:06 PM on January 3 [5 favorites]

It is also the season in which poetry about cabbage is most prominent. Oh, the names alone! Deadon, Tiara, Caraflex, Storage No. 4.
posted by clew at 1:18 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]

"Silly," she said briefly, "I don't mean that hat; I mean that sort of hat. As a matter of fact, there couldn't be a finer hat than the cabbage."
"My dear--" he protested; but she was looking at him quite seriously.
"I told you I was an artist, and didn't know much about literature," she said. "Well, do you know, it really does make a difference. Literary people let words get between them and things. We do at least look at the things and not the names of the things. You think a cabbage is comic because the name sounds comic and even vulgar; something between 'cab' and 'garbage,' I suppose. But a cabbage isn't really comic or vulgar. You wouldn't think so if you simply had to paint it. Haven't you seen Dutch and Flemish galleries, and don't you know what great men painted cabbages? What they saw was certain lines and colours; very wonderful lines and colours."
"It may be all very well in a picture," he began doubtfully.
She suddenly laughed aloud.
"You idiot," she cried; "don't you know you looked perfectly splendid? The curves were like a great turban of leaves and the root rose like the spike of a helmet; it was rather like the turbaned helmets on some of Rembrandt's figures, with the face like bronze in the shadows of green and purple. That's the sort of thing artists can see, who keep their eyes and heads clear of words! And then you want to apologize for not wearing that stupid stove-pipe covered with blacking, when you went about wearing a coloured crown like a king. And you were like a king in this country; for they were all afraid of you."
As he continued a faint protest, her laughter took on a more mischievous side. "If you'd stuck to it a little longer, I swear they'd all have been wearing vegetables for hats. I swear I saw my cousin the other day standing with a sort of trowel, and looking irresolutely at a cabbage."

G.K. Chesterton, Tales of the Long Bow
posted by LizardBreath at 1:42 PM on January 3 [5 favorites]

Cabbages are cheap, have an interesting cross-section, have a great shelf life for still life, don't talk back and can be eaten for dinner.

Mary Pratt's Cabbage, Carton & Cat pre-dates her ultra-realistic later phase (cf. Jelly Shelf) but is still quite lovely.
posted by scruss at 2:38 PM on January 3 [7 favorites]

I think there must be some kind of innate, possibly universal, human love of cabbages that seems to transcend cultures and times. I don’t know why, but I’m definitely on #TeamCabbages
posted by Doleful Creature at 5:03 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]

Schoolboys are force-fed with it
Cattle are served dead with it
I hate that stuff

- Roger McGough, ‘Cabbage’
posted by andraste at 5:22 AM on January 4 [1 favorite]

I have just discovered that there is no cabbage emoji and that greatly upsets me. But this is great! If you can’t or won’t eat brassicas try the ornamental kale or cabbages as winter foliage. They’re prettier then some flowers!
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 1:04 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]

Loverly cabbage
posted by DaddyNewt at 2:28 PM on January 4

Cabbages fundamentally delightly me, because early farmers in Europe figured out there was only one species that could provide necessary greens and fodder in cool growing areas where summer temps were brief, and turned it into a ridiculous number of variations. Roots to get you through the winter, leaves that gave you greens deep into fall, seeds to provide oil and flavoring.
posted by tavella at 7:19 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]

And walking sticks, even! Have not figured out when brassica made it to China, but did come across the delightful

Triangle of U
posted by clew at 8:47 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]

only one species

Well! You are thinking most likely of Brassica oleracea, the cabbage that is cabbage! (And also broccoli and cauliflower and Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi...) BUT there is also Brassica rapa the turnip (and Bok Choy and tatsoi and mizuna and komatsuna...) and then there’s mustard... which is another Brassica! There are so many brassicas!
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 8:16 PM on January 5

Well, yes, I should have said genus, since while oleracea is particularly various and tolerant of cool growing conditions, some of the root and seed variations come from crosses with the rest of the kin.
posted by tavella at 8:31 PM on January 5 [1 favorite]

i hereby accuse OP of being cato the elder
posted by poffin boffin at 7:42 AM on January 8

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