Joseph Gilliers’ Le Cannaméliste français + Kara Walker’s Sphinx

A confectionery dictionary published in 1751 by Joseph Gilliers, Le Cannameliste français is a monument to the art of sweets, cataloguing the knowledge of confiserie from creation to decoration.

Plate 1 illustrating the tools of confectionery, from Le Cannameliste français, Bibliothèque nationale de France

Of particular interest in this important work in the history of confectionery is its illustrations of sugar sculptures, made from melted sugar molded into various rocaille formations. These ephemeral, astonishing works of art adorned the dining tables in courtly residences, sparking the guests’ curiosity and providing fodder for stimulating conversations with their twists and turns.

Plate 5, elaborate arabesque tabletop sugar sculpture design, from Le Cannameliste français, Bibliothèque nationale de France
Plate 11 from Le Cannameliste français, Bibliothèque nationale de France
Plate 12 showing a tablescape with fruit pyramids, from Le Cannameliste français, Bibliothèque nationale de France

In the hands of the confectioner, sugar turns into an ephemeral sculpture/installation and a source of aesthetic and gustatory delectation, its sweetness pleasing the palate and its design replete with ornamental references to otherworldly voyages and fantastical gardens. What these sculptures intentionally leave in silence is the inordinate amount of slave labor required for the production of sugar.

The themes of social construction of what comprises the exotic; transient pleasures and deathly consequences of consumption; brutal extraction and transformation of natural resources by imperial projects, indirectly implied in these illustrations, are some of the very subject matter of Kara Walker’s installation, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, exhibited at the old Domino sugar factory in Brooklyn, New York, for 2 months in 2014.

Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, or The Marvelous Sugar Baby” Associated Press photo/Richard Drew
Associated Press Photo/Richard Drew
Associated Press Photo/Richard Drew

Kara Walker has taken the historical medium of sugar sculpture (30 tons of sugar coated the polystyrene foam blocks) to create a monumental sphinx-like sculpture of a black woman. The exaggerated physiognomic features, breasts, hips, and vagina of the femme fatale make overt references to the caricatural depictions of black female body that continue to occupy the Western cultural imaginary (e.g. Mammy in “Gone with the Wind”). And the ironic clash of the title “Subtlety” with the gigantic vagina cannot be missed. The ephemeral medium that presents enchanting vision and taste of the exotic lands in Gilliers’ illustrations has transformed into a powerfully evocative material for Walker’s critique of the ideological violence of racial stereotyping and the all-consuming drive for these enduring images in our time.

Inspiration for this post came from Allison Klos’ MA thesis at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, titled “An Invitation to the Exotic: Ephemeral Art in Joseph Gilliers’s Le cannaméliste français” (2009).

Jean-Etienne Liotard, Trompe l'oeil, 1771, oil on silkrelined on canvas, The Frick Collection
Jean-Etienne Liotard, Trompe l’oeil, 1771, oil on silk relined on canvas, The Frick Collection

I don’t know what it is about still-life paintings, but I’m really crazy about them (as if I haven’t made that obvious in this blog).

I want to know why these painters were so fascinated by this genre of painting. I want to know why I’m so fascinated by them.

These miniature reliefs and little drawings on scrap paper would have never captured my attention had they been presented to me in real life the way they were depicted in this painting. But that’s making an assumption that these objects were painted just as they appeared in real life. And that’s an assumption neither you nor I can justify.

Why? Why did they keep painting these? And why are they so irresistible?