The Art of the Meat

Slaughter in arts: A Retrospective

Some time ago at Berlin Food Week a somewhat archaic spectacle came to pass: observed curiously by spectators, who in part took matters into their own hands, a dead pig was transformed into a range of succulent meat products. It was not a one off event, similar actions followed: the slaughtering of a cow, also staged as an event, and workshops dealing with similar topics regularly offered online – a never-ending line-up.Far from the unappetizing practices of the meat industry, offerings of this nature are currently surfacing as a revival of the home slaughtering, common in rural settings well into the late 20th century, only transferred into a hip, stylish setting. The sort of experience-based reporting that accompanies them addresses the ethical issues of meat consumption while communicating via images that draw on a long art historical tradition of depicting meat.

Interestingly, a good 500 years ago, meat and its representation were strongly linked in a moral debate. Its tenor, of course, was different to that of today. Average 16th century central Europeans for whom meat was an important yet relatively pricy food, and in no way always available, would likely deem our very contemporary attempts at justifying our desire for meat or voluntarily forgoing it as absurd. In the strongly Christian society of the time, they were faced with the dilemma of whether desiring and enjoying meat would jeopardize their souls — even beyond death.

fleisch5-COMPFig. 1: Pieter Aertsen, Butcher’s Stall with the Flight into Egypt, 1551, oil on wood, 115,5 x 169 cm, Uppsala, University Art Collection

The Dutch artist Pieter Aertsen dealt with this issue in his 1551 painting of a butcher’s stall [Fig. 1]. Hanging sausages, a side of a pig, a pig’s head and guts, poultry, a large pot of lard, savoury pies and pig hooves as well as a freshly flayed ox’s head — the selection presented in the open stall is beyond abundant and rendered with keen painterly precision. Among the meat products are items that propagandizea less wasteful way of life: with fish and pretzels Aertsen portrays typical Lenten foods as a symbol of the Christian value of voluntary sacrifice. On the surface the painting is a depiction of a lavish display of goods, but it assembles a range of metaphorical messages, the moralizing Christian interpretation of which art history has given much effort. Along with references regarding the transience of earthly life, reflected for instance in the perishability of the meat, the painting warns against neglecting the true tasks of a Christian life via bodily pleasures. The contrast of temperance and gluttony — one of the seven deadly sins — continues in the background with the juxtaposition of a self-indulgent party and a group of churchgoers joined by the Holy Family on their flight into Egypt.

Compared to the rich art historical debate surrounding the painting, the historically verified facts seem poor. The picture was allegedly created in Antwerp. We don’t know for whom or for what purpose. Anyway Aertsen’s composition was highly successful, as four almost identical versions of the painting by the artist’s hand survive today. The beholder, then as now, is bound to be affected by the material presence of the butcher’s ware, thoughfor different reasons. At the time the painting was created, meat stalls were an everyday affair, not, however, worthy of depiction. Pictures were precious, and were thus reserved for edifying religious themes as a matter of priority. The artistic innovation in Aertsen’s image was undoubtedly the reversal of existing visual expectations. It can be presumed that the sensual, highly virtuosic representation of meat, to which the Christian narrative takes a back seat, arouses a similar effect as that of Andy Warhol’s highly controversial soup cans in the 20th century.

fleisch4-COMPFig. 2: Rembrandt, Carcass of Beer (Flayed Ox), 1655, oil on wood, 94 x 67 cm, Paris, Louvre

As Aertsen’s painting provided a model for popular market and kitchen pieces moralizing of all sensual delight for centuries to follow, the motif of the slaughtered ox the artist rather casually painted in the background created an autonomous pictorial tradition. A few years later Aertsen’s student and nephew Joachim Beuckelaer was, if not the first, then one of the firstto confront viewers with a slaughtered pig that filled the panel almost entirely. Hardly noticeable here are a servant and maid busy with a jug in the background. Perhaps unconvincingly, they have been interpreted as personifications of ‘Gula’or gluttony. This painting was not on public view before the 1920s, but Rembrandt’s 1655 version of a slaughtered ox received much artistic attention after its transfer to the Louvre in 1857 [Fig. 2]. Although we know little of the historical context and Rembrandt’s intention, here the brightly illuminated carcass hanging from a crossbeam in a dark shed does not seem to urge a holy sacrifice of carnal desire. Its hind legs splayed, Rembrandt’s ox demonstrates a formal similarity to depictions of the crucifixion that prompted later artists’ generations to stage suffering and sacrificial death, disfigurement and bodily mutilation as a paradigm on the slaughtered animal.

Chaim Soutine, a Lithuanian artist living in Paris, was obsessed with this model from 1920 to 1925, as is evinced by approximately 10 paintings [Fig. 3]. Due to gastric trouble he was forced to follow a strict diet. Often destitute, Soutine dealt with food as a theme in his still lives. For his series of slaughtered oxen he kept a carcass as a model for days in his studio, regularly pouring fresh blood over it to conceal any signs of decay — certainly a blatant breach of taboo for a Jewish raised artist. As his vividly coloured, expressive images make the brutality of slaughtering palpable, the British painter Francis Bacon later employed this subject to visualize the agony of human existence in the combination of portraits and slaughtered animals.

fleisch3-COMPFig. 3: Chaim Soutine, Carcass of beef, c. 1924, oil on canvas, 140,3 x 107,6 cm, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Institute of Art

This engagement with the sacrificial death of animals appears to have become more existential in art the more slaughtering retreated from the daily visual field. The first industrial slaughterhouses came about in the middle of the 19th century in the U.S. and shortly thereafter in Europe. In graphic language Upton Sinclair depicted the horrendous conditions for animals and humans in his 1906 novel, »The Jungle«. Among artistic representations of butcher’s shops and slaughterhouses from that time several paintings by Lovis Corinth stand out, who in 1893painted the steaming interior of a slaughterhouse [Fig. 4]. An orgy of colour in red and grey, Corinth shows butchers as they gut and flay a freshly killed ox in a dark, narrow room — a raw business where blood flows freely, so much so that observers feel they are awash in it themselves. With Corinth, who describes childhood memories of slaughterhouse scenes in autobiographical writings, as with other artists of the 20th century, painting joined forces with the slaughtered animal whose insides splay outward — an expressive, thoroughly sensual manner of painting that divulges inner subjective experience. The art historian Julius Meier-Graefe has remarked somewhat romantically that Corinth at his easel felt »an earthly pleasure like the butcher before his cattle« and comments: »He slaughtered as he painted.«

fleisch2-COMPFig. 4: Lovis Corinth, In the Slaughterhouse, 1893, oil on canvas, 78 x 89 cm, Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie

Beyond such colourful slaughter, Christian symbolism in representations of meat persists in contemporary art. Take Damian Hirst’s glass-wall tanks, for example, with slaughtered animals floating in formaldehyde, seemingly hybridsbetween a natural history wet specimen and a reliquary casket. Or an installation by the Finnish artist Saara Ekström from 1997, for which twelve hams were tattooed with medieval-style crowns of thorns and carnations — the word ‘carnation’effectively connoting the incarnation of Christ [Fig. 5].

fleisch1-COMPFig. 5: Saara Ekström, Carnation, 1997, Digital-Print, 104 x 128 cm

The array of representations of slaughtered animals past and present could be expanded indefinitely and undoubtedly supplemented by further artistic positions. At this point we can say that looking into art history shows us a shift in thematic concern. It starts with an allegorical depiction of the slaughtered animal in Mannerism and Baroque art, which visually celebrated carnality while simultaneously warning of their sinfulness. As factory farming and killing machinery developed in early modernism around 1900, the artistic interest shifted to staging the victimhood of meat stock. Through expressive schemes and brushwork, stylistic means were meant to stir beholders emotionally while giving expression to the inner experience of the painter. Through the often shocking use of actual slaughtered animals as artistic material, contemporary art addresses the process of alienation between humans and their food – like the initially mentioned live slaughtering event.

Ethics have not been ignored in any of these examples. Despite their various approaches, all representations have a direct visualization of death in common. This makes emotional distance difficult and stimulates reflection on an often hidden, yet existential part of life.

Text: Petra Gördüren


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