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The fascinating potato made immortal

The fascinating potato made immortal

The potato and the meaning of life

Octogonal earthemware flask with an "? la fleur de pomme de terre" decoration. Rouan, 18th century.

So secretive during all those months beneath the earth's crust and yet so prolific that it is reborn in a multitude of vigorous tubers; so humble in its homely jacket and yet so triumphant in its conquest of the best tables! The potato doesn't have the seductive charm of a temptress. But it is deeply rooted in the world of myths and dreams. Its vitality is its charm. Its force is of the earth. Its symbolism is phallic. At least those are the themes which come up in the works of art inspired by our South‑American friend.

Centuries ago, it was a source of inspiration for the Andean potters. Their artists' hands shaped and rounded its form in the clay and hollowed out eyes in it. A spout sprouted upwards from it in the form of a human face. These phantasmagorical beings seemed to have drawn their life‑force and the secrets of reproduction from the potato's womb itself, as the sexual man‑woman relationship evoked by the potter seems to express.

After having cursed the potato as an evil food, populations of Europe became inspired by it.

From the beginning of the 17th century Moustier earthen­ware called "? la fleur de pomme de terre" decorated tables in the Provence. But was it really the potato blossom which the master‑painters of Proven?al pot­tery took as a model? We'll leave the experts to defend their theories, pursue their research and compare facts which are hardly convincing. Let us simply state that the tuberous nightshade was known in this region of the south of France in the 17th cen­tury. And weren't the Italians cultivating it as an ornemental plant at that very same time?

The Irish honoured the potato with silver crowns of magnificent craftmanship. In them they served potatoes which had been carefully placed in a napkin which absorbed their moisture and kept them hot at the same time. Today the Swiss serve potatoes in their jackets in the same tradition, in a basket covered with a cloth.

In the 18th century, at the French court, it blos­somed in the buttonholes of the aristocracy and in Marie‑Antoinette's hair. Its flower was also embroidered on the robes of Louis XVI.

It seems that in those days our little solarium had some charm if the great of this earth wanted it as a decoration! Its seductive powers seemed to fade when people became interested in it as an edible plant.

Foster mother, chaperone and lifesaver: the potato has always been all of these. These roles of the potato have inspired many poets, painters and the soul of the people, as folklore and the objects from past generations reveal.

With his incomparable genius, Vincent van Gogh was, a century ago, the first to give the potato its letters patent of nobility, in the world of the fine arts. He sees it as the symbol of man's relationship with the soil, of the labour which must be produced to earn his food, to subsist and to continue to live.
The 19th century has given us numerous paintings with the insipid title: "the potato harvest". We have to admit that in contrast with the cereal and wine harvest it hardly gave rise to much cheer. The only pleasure it provided was when the potatoes were cooked in the smouldering ashes of the plant stem which was burnt at the edge of the fields after harvesting. At the end of a hard day's work, they warmed the hands, the tip of the nose and the throat.
How capable we are of dismissing the pathetic scenes of disastrous potato harvests as Millet did with a strike of his paint‑brush! Realizing that poverty and misery would probably not bring such money, Millet made a few changes in his painting which was initially titled : "the bad potato harvest.

He transformed the desolate image of tomorrow's hunger into an atmosphere of golden sunlight, of meditation and of the "Angelus". Associated with prayer, the potato became manna, the miraculous food which permitted pious families to cope with life. Here we are a long way from our lands of plenty, from the colour and cheer­fulness of our sumptuous markets.

Is it towards eternity that the potato leads Rohner's characters? Like Tom Thumb and his brothers, they follow a path strewn with tubers. Beyond the horizon, they are going to find their father.

It's the mystery of life and its elusive complicity with its partner Time, which Biagio Pancino wants to fathom. As the Inca potters did, the artist naturally asks the potato what the flow of time which leads us into the unknown, ages us, forms and transforms us, will reveal. The painter‑ sculptor prepares himself, with the help if his brushes and colours, for the metamorphosis of his canvas. While time has come to a halt in the traditional work of art, the work of the tuber is dynamic. It continues to pursue its biological existence. It exhales life itself.

The potato lays its soul in the hands of the artist who decks it out with all the colours of his palette. Without any doubt, Biagio Pancino knows the true nature of the tuberous nightshade. He hears its quiet respiration. He caresses it with his brush. He under­stands it at a glance. He hasn't read a single treatise, but he knows everything about its biological life and its origins. It gives consistency to the artist's aesthetic ideas which are translated into colours, volumes, shadows, light and forms evolving with the tuber's life‑rhythm. With time, the originality and the exuberance of the potato's germination surprise the aesthete and transform his work. The unforeseeable aspects of individual and free life are finally immor­talized by Biagio Pancino when he puts the final touch to his work after a complete dissection of tile apple of the arts.