Murals matter

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Diego Rivera, “Wall St Banquet”

VISUALLY, MY BOOK OPENS and closes with murals. The cover borrows the “Wall Street Banquet” of Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, and the back flap author photo was taken in a restaurant in Germany. I suppose it’s a coincidence that the book is walled-in, so to speak, although there’s something about murals …

Rivera’s “Banquet” is part of a huge set in Mexico City, covering three floors and staircase of the Ministry of Public Education building, taking Diego and his team six years to finish. That was in 1928-29, as Wall Street crashed.

In this panel, eight diners share champagne, while being served ticker-tape streaming the latest stock market prices from the golden machine under a glass dome. Behind that is a bank vault with megaphones. A Statue of Liberty lamp balances on the table in the foreground.

Rivera, “Dinner of the capitalists”

At least some of the well-dressed guests are historical figures, including a Rockefeller, whose family would commission Rivera, who was an on-and-off-again communist, to work in the U.S. Inevitably, in 1934, the family instructed labourers to scrub out his most ambitious American piece, a huge mural in the foyer of The Rockefeller Centre, New York.

Meals Matter might almost equally have been illustrated by a nearby  mural in the Mexico series – “The dinner of the capitalists”, which shows a ruling family served coins, with revolutionaries with abundant food in the background.

Both murals belong to the building’s third level, which illustrates the “Ballad of the proletarian revolution”. Over the Wall St banquet, the banner translates as: “the rich man keeps thinking how to double his money.” The words over the capitalists’ dinner say: “Gold is worth nothing if there is no food”.

I came across Rivera’s murals when idly searching for an illustration of banquets, whose interpretation is important in Meals Matter. (I ended up with a photo of an electric chandelier in Glasgow!) The Wall St version is not strictly a banquet; in this case, “banquet” connotes privilege.

Symons portrait Max 7

The back flap author photo was taken in mid-2019 by my wife, Marion Maddox, in Hannover, Germany. She took out the phone at the Max Walloschke restaurant, where we went several times. Our revisits explain the two versions (shown here) in different clothes in front of different still lives.

Max Walloschke, who was a weightlifter, professional wrestler and German bowls champion, opened the Kneipe (“pub”) on 19 June, 1952.

IMG_20200323_124344735_HDRIn Berlin, I suspected that smart locals crowded old-time Austrian restaurants, because they could not admit to enthusing about what some might call “heavy German kitsch”.

However, Max Walloschke remains unapologetic, calling itself “Das Kultrestaurant am Steintor” – the “cult restaurant at the Steintor”, that is, the place with a dedicated following at the city’s old “stone gate”.

Another of their claims is “Hier gibt es das wahrscheinlich beste Eisbein der Stadt” –  “probably the best pork knuckle in town”.

The restaurant’s official slogan, “Gutbürgerliche Küche und gemütliches Ambiente seit 1952“, uses two words that are allegedly untranslatable. “Gutbürgerliche” suggests “homely” in the sense of lots of sausages, potatoes, and beer. And “gemütlich” hints at a “cosy” atmosphere, and more, because: “Cosy captures an element of it but crucially lacks those of friendliness and belonging.”

Max postcard
Max Walloschke postcard

The restaurant also boasts “authenticity” and “tradition”, which we can believe, and “Herzlichkeit” (“warmth”), which we can confirm. (I plan to say more on this.)

As immoveable artworks, genuine murals (rather than wallpapers) have tended to be sponsored for public places, including cafes and restaurants, where they often employ faux architectural elements to give the illusion of grandeur, space or being in the homeland – sometimes all at once, such as a panorama of the Bay of Naples through trompe-l’oeil pillars. The more Gutbürgerlich murals of beer, pork and vegetables encourage Gemütlichkeit.

I must find out the name of the painter, whose food murals contribute so warmly to Max Walloschke’s welcome.

“Wall St Banquet” on left

The end of the world? In many ways, but maybe, you never know…

The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, 2020)

EMPTY SUPERMARKET shelves. Flights banned. Cruise lines taking a holiday . . . That’ll pass.

But Parisian bars, cafes and restaurants totally closed? That’s the end of some world or another.

More than just locked restaurants across the globe, urban life closes down and, with it, many seeming certainties. How unconvivial could this get?

My new book, Meals Matter, develops a “radical economics” from John Locke, Brillat-Savarin and others. As the first copies are being printed, a major rethink feels even more necessary. As First Dog on the Moon says: “Things are crazy and scary and they were already crazy and scary before.”

Meals Matter laments the two-century dismissal of meals – the disparagement of domesticity, the corruption of the lively marketplace, and the denigration of the wider, political meal. For this last, I reclaim the name, “banquet”. Needless to say, going along with money’s demands, governments so abandoned their meal – the banquet – that it remains scarcely visible.

Along comes the coronavirus, and governments act financially. Save the stockmarket! This is meant to “save jobs” to maintain metaphorical “bread”, although cynics also know that businesses seek to “capitalise the gains and socialise the losses”.

The government “banquet” should be not just emergency provisioning, but a whole meal. After all, any good meal comprises not just nutrients, but also comfort, pleasure, companionship, beauty, health, learning….

The aristocratic and religious hierarchies embellished their banquets with fine architecture and arts, and employed musicians, dancers, clowns, and jesters to tell truths. They staged whole after-dinner operas.

After pulling down monarchies and theocracies, the people anticipated their own mighty, popular banquets. But capitalism rose up within and against democratic republics, preferring only one meal, that of the market, and that merely conceived as prices.

Without government employment, artists were expected to rely on the market, and private patronage.

Suddenly, performers are out of work. I can no longer attend Verdi’s Attila at the Opera House tonight, nor the Bowral music festival next weekend. With a pandemic shaking live music and theatre to the core, government support looks slim indeed.

New York Times columnist, Michelle Goldberg, just wrote:

it’s chilling to witness an entire way of life coming to a sudden horrible halt. So many of the pleasures and consolations that make dwelling in cramped quarters worth it, for those privileged enough to choose city life, have disappeared. Even if they all come back, we’ll always know they’re not permanent.

Things are changing. Social-distancing and self-isolation atomise face-to-face meals. Yet mass banquets reappear on balconies. Neighbours drop food off at front doors. The whole world comes together as never before.

Meals Matter Front flap 3

Just maybe those who survive the pandemic might have been reminded the hard way that meals matter far more than money. If dictatorships haven’t further edged out liberal democracies, the banqueters might appreciate that the political household depends on cooperative health care, decent educations, the performing arts….

You never know, perhaps even mainstream economists will soon disown their slogan, “greed is good.” Governments might re-nationalise airlines….

Michelle Goldberg also wrote: “Maybe when this ends, people will pour into the restaurants and bars like a war’s been won, and cities will flourish as people rush to rebuild their ruined social architecture.”

To help prepare, put in your orders for Meals Matter: A Radical Economics through Gastronomy.