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Schlachthaus und Lichthof

Doch immer bleibt die menschliche Gestalt im Farbraum: Der Maler Norbert Tadeusz wird sechzig

Vollblutmaler sind in Deutschland, besonders heute, ziemlich rar. So ein Künstler ist der Düsseldorfer Norbert Tadeusz, der heute sechzig Jahre alt wird. Von früh auf beschäftigte ihn das Thema der menschlichen Gestalt, die er in ihrer farbräumlichen Präsenz, oft ausgesprochen gymnastisch agierend, auf die Leinwand spannte. Den Maler und Zeichner interessieren jedoch auch ganz banale Sujets, vom Staubsauger bis zum Elektrokabel, vom Strohballen bis zum Getreidesilo, denen er durch eine spezifische Beleuchtung, die manchmal an Edward Hopper erinnert, atmosphärische Lebendigkeit verleiht.

Vor dem großen Format hat Tadeusz keine Bange: Wer schon einmal eine Kunstexkursion auf die Insel Hombroich bei Neuss unternommen hat, dem wird sicher im Tadeusz-Pavillon das wandbildhafte Ensemble der vier monumentalen Kompositionen aufgefallen sein, auf denen sich ein vielfiguriges Treiben unter südlichem Licht Platz verschafft, eine Kutsche mit markantem Schatten inmitten des Gewimmels von Matrosen für einen diagonalen Akzent sorgt. Seit seiner Affinität zu Italien, wo er manche Museen und Altarbilder besser kennt als manch ein Kunsthistoriker, tauchen in seinen Lichthöfen nicht nur mediterrane Balustraden, Fensterläden und Pflanzen auf, sondern spiegelt sich seine Faszination für die energiegeladene Anmut des Pferdes und die Dynamik von Reiterspielen wider.

Der Körper auch der toten Kreatur bildet das Thema zahlreicher Variationen von Blicken in Schlachthäuser und Pferdeschlächtereien, die er in Italien in Skizzen festgehalten hat, um sie als plastisch eindringliche, stille Protagonisten im Düsseldorfer Atelier dann mit weiblichen Mitspielern, Klavieren und Stehleitern als groß dimensioniertes Tableau neu zu arrangieren.

Das Leitmotiv im Schaffen dieses Künstlers ist der weibliche Akt, ein Thema, dem er immer neue Facetten abgewinnt, zu deren zeichnerischer und malerischer Realisierung die Geduld und die Ausdauer der leidgeprüften Modelle nicht unerheblich beigetragen haben.

Der gebürtige Dortmunder, inzwischen seit einem knappen Jahrzehnt an der Braunschweiger Kunsthochschule lehrend, war Beuys-Schüler, eine Herkunft, die sich an den frühen, kaum bekannten Holzskulpturen und Bronzen unverkennbar ablesen lässt. Als Gegenpol zu den komplexen Großgemälden hat den Maler immer wieder das kleine Format interessiert. Hier ist es die Lakonie und das Gespür für Knappheit, die das Betrachterauge staunen lässt: eine winzige Liegende in Rot, ein gestreifter Teppich, ein kühles Treppengeländer, eine leere Liege auf der Terrasse, das Handtuch über einem Stuhl, eine rot markierte Terrazzo-Wendeltreppe, zwei geknickte Trinkhalme auf dem Linoleumfußboden, eine Hausecke, ein zerknülltes Kissen, dunkle Pullover an der Pier, ein Sarg auf einem gummibereiften Wägelchen. Es sind oft die Materialoberflächen und die Unterschiede der stofflichen Struktur, die den Bildern haptische Präsenz und sinnliche Griffigkeit geben.

Die farbigen Kühnheiten in den Gemälden, der stupende Sinn für raffinierten Bildbau und das Gespür für die Ausgewogenheit von Kolorit und Liniengerüst haben Norbert Tadeusz einen eigenen Rang in der Kunst unserer Tage verschafft, auch wenn er nicht auf Platz eins der Marktrenner rangiert. Diesen Sport überlässt er seinen spurtstarken Vollblütern.

Peter Winter, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 19. 2. 2000


In Paintings Grip – The Imagery of Norbert Tadeusz

One has to bear the context of his times in mind in order to fully understand just what Norbert Tadeusz undertook after completing his studies at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. It’s 1966 when he receives the title of ‘Meisterschüler’ – the same year in which Jörg Immendorff hurls a canvas with the programmatic injunction “Hört auf zu malen” (Stop painting; ill. p. 26) in the art world’s face. Just a year later, in 1967, Beuys, who granted Tadeusz the title of ‘Meisterschüler,’ goes public for the first time with his expanded concept of art and the idea of social sculpture. His slogan “Everyone is an artist” could be understood as a declaration of war against the academic ‘Meister’ tradition. Tadeusz begins his artistic career with a conscious decision for painting at the very same time when painting was being written off as an antiproletarian relic from a forgone era of cultural aristocracy. The demand was for social engagement, Fluxus and Conceptual Art instead of painting, Land Art instead of studio art. And if one had to paint, it was more along the lines of Pop Art and conceptual painting as practised by the likes of Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, or even explicitly political and socially critical painting as exemplified by the young Baselitz with his Große Nacht im Eimer (The Big Night Down the Drain) or the Helden (Heros) series.

His decision for painting – and a classical studio practice no less – for subjects like nudes, self-portraits, still lifes and landscapes could either be seen as reactionary or, to the con- trary, as remarkably self-assured and brave. Hardly 30 years old, Tadeusz ventured out into the same playing field as all the greats. His references spanned the older generation of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Edward Hopper as well as the younger R.B. Kitaj, David Hockney and Eric Fischl. He even embraced their progenitors: Edvard Munch, Max Beckmann, Lovis Corinth and Emil Nolde glimmer throughout his images as a deeply internalised and condensed matrix.

The precondition of his painting is a deepseated irreverence, a programmatic ignorance towards supposed instances of contemporary discourses and their advocates. “I paint what I’ve seen…” Full stop, exclamation mark.

Tadeusz only employed the motifs and archetypes he found worthy of painting, regardless of who painted them or when, regardless of whether they might seem old-fashioned or cumbersome to contemporary viewers. Everything could become interesting to him as long as line, colour, form and surface, figure and space could be condensed and intensi- fied into new, mysterious spaces of experience where formal, genuinely painterly impressions unexpectedly merged with existential and emotional experiences. Cardboard boxes and stretchers can occasion a painting just as well as horses, cows, flowers, straw or hanging carcasses. To use Tadeusz’ own words: “The starting points for my paintings are often entirely unspectacular. But sometimes, some pretty spectacular paintings come out of them.” Thus unexpected psycho- logical states and emotions emerge from the simple relation- ships between motifs and their pictorial spaces: aggression or eroticism, dizziness and arousal, solitude and emptiness. On one hand, his work is always about pure painting. On the other, it’s just as much about a pure sense of naked humanity – both figuratively, and often literally.

Norbert Tadeusz’ style of imagery finds an archetypical manifestation in a self-portrait of the artist as a 30 year old: Selbst im Spiegel – rasierend (Self in mirror – shaving; ill. p. 3). One would have to speak of pure colour field painting were it not for the figurative party of head and torso. The image is organised into a multitude of variously juxtaposed and interwoven colour fields. A pair of green rubber gloves in the foreground seems like splattered colour at first glance, a monumental dripping prominently positioned as a dynamic gestural antithesis to the clearly defined fields of colour. Even the image of the artist seems like a painting within a painting, and in fact is simultaneously his Bildnis (image) and his Spiegelbild (mirror image) in the truest sense of the term. It shows the artist in his bathroom mirror brushing on his shaving cream, both decorating and concealing himself – just before revealing himself again by removing his beard. His gesture can be read as a moment of danger: not just in the application of the shaving cream but also in the handling of the razor. What at once can be seen as the application of paint is at the same time an operation on the carotid artery with a razor and, as such, a precarious moment of great risk. In Tadeusz’ case, one could certainly draw direct parallels to his painterly existence.

With self-portraits, it often seems natural to think of programmatic statements in relation to the artist and their artis- tic ambitions; or at least such thoughts come to mind less often with other pictorial genres. It’s thus astonishing how often entwined strings have prompted Tadeusz to certain images. Sometimes they appear as entwined lines against coloured grounds; sometimes they’re combined with (golf) shoes, meandering across the canvas. At first glance, these motifs suggestive of minimalism may not offer much. On one hand they seem unorthodox and chaotic, but on the other they’re also heavily ornamental and often coalesce into thoroughly attractive compositions. After a longer period of contemplation, one gets the impression that the work is certainly focused on painting’s central problems: the relationship between surface and line, figure and ground, light and shadow, surface and volume. The somewhat entangled paths of these threads may even suggest a certain thematic complexity characterised by chance and unexpected turns.

The combination of the motif with different kinds of footwear adds a further biographical dimension to this painterly problematic and hints at an affinity between the entwined threads and life’s many paths.

The studio still lifes can seem similarly unwieldy and entangled. Bucket, broom, laths or pieces of stretchers, canvases, paint cans, brushes and cardboard boxes are usually parked in a corner then arranged so that the pictorial space remains closed off to the viewer. Yet despite their barricade-like character, the arrangements seem remarkably fragile. One could speak of a compositional Jenga where the whole structure could collapse at the smallest touch. Even in the supposedly grimy corners of the studio, a highly fragile balance prevails between the surfaces, lines and spaces, between real objects and purely abstract parties. Dumped and cast away material always contains the potential of transforming into meaningful images and content. They are prompted to transform into an active pictorial narrative by the artist’s eyes and hands. Suddenly one can begin to imagine what both drove and burdened Tadeusz, the ‘Meisterschüler’ of Beuys. What Beuys held for agents, Tadeusz held for objects: here, every object has the potential to become an artwork, every arrangement becomes a composition, every situation marks a changeable state of matter.

At first glance, Tadeusz’ large figure paintings make an even stronger impression. Here it seems as though a drama were underway, and that drama always begins with the handling of light. The interplay between light and shadow is a theatrical device which brings a certain dynamic – drama even – to the scenery. Light is manifest as a sculptural category that forms figures and shapes space. One feels reminded of Edward Hopper who would set his figures in sometimes cold, sometimes endlessly soft, light always in connection with a sense of loneliness. Tadeusz’ lighting is mostly part of a rigid compositional method: it usually appears in combination with hard shadows that traverse the pictorial ensemble – and almost always the figures – in grid-like structures. It seems as though Tadeusz uses light – or rather shadow – to draw scalpel-like lines that divide and dissect surface, figure and space alike.

Such a dissection takes place on many levels. The light isn’t alone in exposing the figures and spaces without mercy. The figures’ nudity also belongs to the same surgical toolkit, as well as motifs like the suspended carcasses, long since relieved of their skin, simply hanging bisected in the air, revealing their internal structure. These meat motifs in particular have often provoked comparison with Francis Bacon. Whereas Bacon’s bodies are often caught in a process of dynamic deformation and volatile transformation, hardly graspable in their haziness, Tadeusz’ bodies are characterised by a hard, sharp presence that draws the viewer into the atmosphere of a dissecting room and perhaps even puts them on the operation table. But it’s ultimately painting that gets dissected here: composition, line, light and colour are mercilessly put on dis- play without any harmonising filter – almost painful for the viewers gaze.

In the end, it’s this painterly intensity which grips the viewer in a vice by way of its formal power, making the encounter with these images into an inescapable experience. It reveals the drama in every floral still life, mirrors the body of every horse as a portentous existence and even transforms the experience of unremarkable studio corners into that of a war zone in between the obstruction of space and its conquest. But most fascinating of all is how seemingly anachronistic accessories and pictorial motifs prove themselves as mirrors and witnesses of the immediate present, as projection surfaces for the most intense encounters with painterly, human and emotional worlds of experience.

Reinhard Spieler (aus dem Katalog “Olé”, Galerie Beck & Eggeling 2016-17)


Flesh and Meat – An imaginary transubstantiation

Notes on Norbert Tadeusz,  by Beat Wyss

Norbert Tadeusz started his professional career as a window dresser in Dortmund, an industrial town in Ruhrgebiet, the German centre of heavy industry. In 1961, he commenced studies at the Düsseldorf Academy, enrolling there together with the GDR refugees, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. The provincial capital on the banks of the Rhine had become the epicentre of West Germany’s post-war art scene. It was the crucial year when Pop Art broke out in New York while, simultaneously, a young generation in Paris and Düsseldorf moved from Abstract Expressionism and Informel towards a Nouveau Réalisme.

Though becoming a student of the Joseph Beuys’s class, he resisted the emerging tendencies of conceptualism such as Fluxus and Zero, so virulent in Düsseldorf. It is proof of Beuys’s prolific tolerance as a teacher that he formed, besides Tadeusz, artists such as Katharina Sieverding, Felix Droese, and Jörg Immendorf, who developed pictorial narratives, whose manifold can be labelled as post modernist. In this regard, Tadeusz was the most radical painter. He performed a back somersault to 19th-century symbolism, involved with all kinds of speculative subjects in philosophy, hermetics and occult doctrines. His pictorial method was syncretistic, inspired by the Dubliner, Francis Bacon, who blended academic painting with Picassoesque Cubism and elements of Pop Art.

Together with Andy Warhol, Tadeusz shared a clandestine delight for turn-of-the-century kitsch, collecting bric-a-brac from flea markets and junk-shops. His affinity to a Wunderkammer aesthetic connects him with Surrealism. The former window dresser, like Andy, by the way, conceived of pictorial space as a scenographic entity. On imaginary stages, human flesh is literally exhibited in its naked immediacy and contingency. When depicting nudes, Tadeusz avoided conventional poses. Some of their positions look grotesque, between acrobatic posing, exaggerated pornography and torture scenes.

Pornographic fantasy catches fire by a collision of appealing nakedness and a surrounding that does not secure a safe place for intimacy: offices, public spaces and even the open window of a bedroom, whose glaring light kills the cosy twilight, preferable for an amorous tête-à-tête. Tadeusz constructed his Düsseldorf studio as sort of a public space. Here, as in a circus, the artist and animal tamer directed his naked models in a show, then photographing and painting the performance. The scene looks as if it were not intended for any eyewitness. The actors in the picture are absorbed in their posing, as if protected from unbidden onlookers by a fourth wall à la Denis Diderot. The spectator on the other side of the stage, filled up with absorbed actors, feels like an involuntary voyeur who has interrupted an enigmatic ritual of carnal sacrifice.

The scene is surrounded by ladders and scaffolding, amongst which the bodies interact like drilled circus horses and lions in a menagerie. No less distorted than the bodily poses are the perspectives, where the diagonal prevails. It is reminiscent of the experimental photography of the 1930s with its predilection for a vertiginous sloping camera positioning: from bird’s eye to worm’s eye views. Tadeusz, the painter, certainly studied photographic compositions by Lázló Mohly-Nagy.

But one could not label him a post-modernist, if his visual strategy were limited to the avant-garde. Tadeusz also studied mannerist compositions by Tintoretto. The Venetian painter leads to Italy and invites us to a digression on the Catholic background of Tadeusz, a son of Polish immigrants. The Düsseldorf student filters into the post-war generation of German artists who worshipped Italy in the romantic tradition of the Deutschrömer: the Nazarenes, some of them once- fervent converts to Catholicism. Tadeusz’s predilection for Tuscany got fleshed out in 1983 by the Villa Romana Prize, which included a stay at the homonymous villa, endowed in 1905 by the German Symbolist sculptor, Max Klinger. It inspired Tadeusz to instal a second studio in the Tuscan district of Castelnuovo d’Elsa.

When working in Tuscany, every modern artist is aware of sojourning in the native country of Michelangelo, the master of the human figure. His frescoes in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel show the Great World Theatre from the creation of Earth and Sky and all living creatures to the Last Judgement, orchestrated by nudes as a jubilant celebration of human flesh in the praise of God: the intrinsic blueprint of Tadeus’s theatrical scenes.

The so-called torso of Belvedere served as the prototype for Michelangelo’s for his fleshy nudes all’antica. The fragmentary state of the sculpture, devoid of his members, allows to imagine all kinds of poses that amended the torso. It is a Hellenistic highlight in the papal collection of the Belvedere garden. Michelangelo manifolds the prototype to a garland of Ignudi, the style forming types of cowering male nudes, which quote the contorted posture of the Greek model, framing the scenes of Genesis with their fleshy shapeliness. Modern archaeology provided evidence that the appealing fragment (a headless bundle of energy, consisting of a sublime hilly landscape of back muscles, an immaculate six-pack, bottom cheeks, perfectly built and splayed thighs) is probably about the relic of a Marsyas in bondage. In a scarily cowering posture, he waits to be flayed alive by Apollo. The humble satyr had the audacity to challenge the Olympian god to a contest, trying to defeat the heavenly patron of music and master of the Cithara with a hollow reed: the flute. This hybris had to be punished.

Titian depicts the flaying of the satyr as a mystery. A calm pagan ritual is performed: no one cries out, no one triumphs. Marsyas suffers the torture as a chosen one, and Apollo’s Cnidian knight absorbs himself in the sacrificial process as an instrument of necessity. He wields the knife much as the engraver guides his burin over the plate. Marsyas is a martyr for the sake of art. His humble skills in music are meant to radiate through an agonising death, as does the assurance of salvation through Jesus’s self-sacrifice. Marsyas possesses the pious abandon of Christian saints. His faith is contained in the simple tone of the flute, through which he pays homage to music. For this, he suffers all.

By having the skin stripped from his flesh, Marsyas prefigures Saint Bartholomew. In Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgement, the resurrected martyr stands in the epicentre of the trial. He has to crouch, because the divine curse against the damned thunders over his head. Bartholomew’s left hand holds the stripped skin, in the morose crinkles of which Michelangelo has painted a cryptic self-portrait. By alluding to the myth, he stays within a humanist tradition of allegorising Justice. However, the extent, to which he pursues the parallel is unique. A pagan antetype also appears in Michelangelo’s figuration of judging Christ, whose gesture quotes the Belvedere Apollo; like the Torso just another famous Hellenist sculpture in the papal collection. Bartholomew’s posture indeed quotes, the Belvedere torso, recognisable by the forward-bending body and gently angled thighs. Represented by two antique statues he revered, Michelangelo conflates and opposes Apollo/Christ and Marsyas/Bartholomew. In the second, the judged figure, the artist mirrors himself. He wittily weaves his existential image into the Last Judgement: a theological matter of highly dogmatic meaning.

In the late 1530s, the period of the fresco’s genesis, Michelangelo wrote a sonnet to Vittoria Colonna, his spiritual friend:

Lord, in the final hour

stretch out thy pitying arms to me,

take me out of me, make me one

that pleases thee.”[1]

The poem invokes the moment, in which a benevolent Apollo might grant the artist’s request to take him out of himself : an intervention that releases Marsyas-Michelangelo from the narrow skin of the self, by allowing him to enter a mystical union with God. In doing so, Michelangelo was paraphrasing a topic in the Divina Commedia by his Florentine compatriot, Dante Alighieri. Upon entering Paradise, the poet exclaims:

“O good Apollo, for this last task, I pray

         you make me such a vessel of your powers

         as you deem worthy to be crowned with bay.

 (…)

 Enter my breast, I pray you, and there breathe

         as high a strain as conquered Marsyas

         that time you drew his body from its sheath.” [2]

Michelangelo Christianises the pagan cult of the body, as much as he paganises Christian dogmatics. He blends the antique models of bodily beauty with the last passage of the symbol of faith: to believe in “the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection from the dead and the life everlasting.” This ecumenical English translation alters the early Christian belief, expressed in the Nicene Creed, which professes carnis resurrectio: the resurrection of the flesh.  By feasting on the painterly creation of fleshy nudes, Michelangelo was emphasising this Paleochristian dogma, later emasculated by the modern belief in a skinny revival of souls.

Michelangelo’s Last Judgement turns a divine trial into an artistic process. In modernity, religious content vaporises, but the ritual topoi – the cathartic judging and cleansing, the self-abandonment, the release from the cage of individuation, the mystical union with a superior principle – are preserved as secular metaphysics in modernist art theories.

The intrinsic message in the Sistine chapel is about a familiarity between sacrifice, image making, and salvation. An amazing modern example is Lovis Corinth’s In the Slaugther House. Far from being just a simple genre painting, it seizes us with the frenzy of the butchers gutting a sow, acting like the mythic personnel in Titian’s punishment of Marsyas. The circuses, painted by Tadeusz, are places where bodies get exhibited and executed: as gladiators and as martyrs of ritual carnage. Early Christians proved their faith with the readiness to sacrifice their bodies for Heaven’s sake. Their model was Christ, the mortal god who sacrificed his human flesh in order to redeem a sinful humankind, thus fulfilling the will of his Eternal Father.

Christian theology, as sole heir of polytheist Mediterranean culture, established an initial dogma, heretical in the view of monotheist principles. In fact, it seems blasphemous to visualise God in the shape of a bloody human body. Occidental art is based on this infringement of a taboo, strictly observed instead by Islamic and Jewish monotheism. Occidental artwork is the result of secularised theology, furnishing the flesh with religious and aesthetic imagination.

Hoc est enim corpus meum [For this is my body]: the priest pronounces the words of Christ at the Last Supper, when raising the bread for consecration. As a former altar boy, I understand this murmured sentence when looking at Rembrandt’s Carcass of an Ox, hanging in the Louvre. The picture evokes both the crucified Son of God and the flayed Marsyas, the martyr and patron of artwork. Rembrandt’s painting transforms ox meat into the flesh of our spiritual imagination. The ritual shiver is also echoed in the painted carcasses by Tadeusz and Chaim Soutine. Francis Bacon’s porc halves, floating like fleshy wings on either side of Pope Innocent X, confirm the neo-pagan practice of visualising spiritual significance with the carnal matter of eviscerated fatstock. His pictures evoke the transubstantiation of flayed meat and contorted human bodies into the painterly living flesh of aesthetic experience.

To paraphrase Leonardo, the painter is a master over life and death. He is able to morph bare meat into the flesh of hermeneutic interpretation. In an ordinary procedure of slaughter, animal flesh gets trimmed into consumable meat. But these paintings of disembowelled ox carcasses and sides of pork, literally abstracted from fur and skin, split among their spin, these chromatically modelled fingerboards forming the chest, resurrect as painterly living bodies towards a limited eternity for which the art world, as we know it, may persist.

[1] Signor, Nell ore Strme

Stendi ver me le tue pietose Braccia,

Tomm’ A Me Stessa E Fammi Un’ Che Ti Piaccia.

Cited from: Complete poems and selected letters of Michelangelo, Transl. by Creighton Gilbert, Ed. By Robert N. Linscott, New York: Vintage Books, 1970, P. 106

[2] O Buono Apollo, All’ultimo Lavoro

Fammi Del Tuo Valor Si Fatto Vaso,

Come Domandi A Dar L’amato Alloro.

(…)
Entra  Nel Petto Mio, E Spira Tue

Si Come Quando Marsia Traesti

Della Vagina Delle Membra Sue.

Dante Alighieri: The Paradiso, Translated by John Ciardi, New York: Penguin Group, Signet Classic, 1961, Paradiso 1, Lines 13-21, P. 395


MEAT throughout art history

Food and feasts in the cultural scene

Historically food and feasts has been a recurring factor in the cultural scene, depicted in a countless number of contexts.  The depiction of food and feasts is a motif and symbol rooted in literature, mythology, metaphors and religions, and dates back to the Middle Ages and to Ancient Greece and Rome.

In the 15th century, artists drew inspiration from the antique and the natural world, and began to depict objects such as food. During the Renaissance, with the emerging middle class and the pursuit of higher social and intellectual status, individuals wanted to display their talents. Artists wanted to present their artistic ability of turning elementary food ingredients such as meat into artistic creations.

Still life paintings

By the 17th century, still life paintings had become an independent genre, especially in Northern Europe.   In Italian, the term “still life” is natura morta, which means “dead nature”. Painters in the 16th and 17th centuries did not only paint transience and decay.  Instead, elements of still life were incorporated into religious and allegorical works.

Feasts and heaps of food lying on tables were associated with a wealthy lifestyle and, to some extent, gluttony. It was a privilege, and not something, to which everyone had access.  In strong Christian societies, for instance, meat as a foodstuff was considered a privilege. Moreover, it had a bilateral meaning. Meat was eaten at special and joyful occasions, but the Christians were also faced with the morality of eating the decaying meat.

The Dutch painter, Pieter Aertsen (1508–1575) is known for his pioneering still life paintings. His famous painting A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms (1551) depicts an abundance of still life in the form of meat, and subtle Biblical subjects. Aertsen has painted an inverted still life, in which the still life elements are placed in the foreground and the telling subjects in the background.

Earlier, religious or mythological scenes had been the focal point of paintings, and everyday objects served as additional components, but that now seemed to have changed:

“The prominence of the ox and the curious ritual solemnity with which the butchers carry out their task might, at first seem an inversion of what is important in the Biblical account. The celebrants are given much less dominant visual role than the ‘genre’ activities of the slaughter.”

In the foreground we see the meat stall where focus is on the gluttony represented by meat. In clear contrast to the meat displayed, behind the prominently scalped ox head, is the Flight to Egypt: Joseph is leading the donkey that is carrying Mary with the swaddled baby Jesus.  The traditional way of representing has been reversed.

With Aertsen’s meat stall, and the still life painting as an independent genre, paintings with meat markets and kitchens filled with food had paved the way for artists to make more frequent use of the subject of meat.

The Dutch painter, Rembrandt (1606-1669), did not often choose still life as a subject for his paintings, but one of them is the famous painting of the stretched out carcass, Slaughtered Ox (1655), exhibited at the Louvre. It is not known for sure why he painted this particular ox and how to interpret this powerful painting, though the painting has religious references to the crucifixion of Christ: “The viewer is quietly but firmly reminded of sin and death, but also of the forgiveness of God” .

In the foreground, in an intense, dimly lit room, hangs an ox on a beam with stretched out legs, like the crucified Christ. The woman in the background carefully watches the ox, alluding to the Virgin Mary and her presence at the Cross.

by Cecilia Pedersen + Katrine Winther


Meat in the art

The image of the slaughtered ox forms a long tradition, which can also be seen in the Jewish Lithuanian artist, Chaim Soutine’s (1893-1943) paintings. Soutine found it intriguing to explore and paint forbidden things such as dead animals.  He created his own style of painting: colourful and passionate, with vigorous brushstrokes. In Jewish religion the kosher diet is based on minimising the suffering and pain of animals, and quickly getting rid of the blood. Soutine, on the other hand, had a carcass hanging in his studio for days to examine and paint. Such a procedure would not normally be acceptable in the Jewish religion.

By the end of the 1920s, Soutine had focused on particular food items such as beef, rabbits etc. It was during this period that he painted the series of beef carcasses, which capture the isolated object to perfection. His paintings of carcasses were very much inspired by Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox. In Soutine’s Carcass of Beef (1925), the carcass is in total focus. It is the only subject that has been painted, with no distractions. Through Soutine’s passionate brushstrokes and use of colours he gives the carcass a sense of new life: “Even in death, his birds, fish, rabbits and beefs retain a ‘living’ quality; they are very much alive, organic, active substances.” 

The Irish artist, Francis Bacon (1909-1992) was also fascinated with meat and often used it as a subject in his art. In one of his many conversations with David Sylvester, Bacon commented in 1962: “I’ve always been very moved by pictures of slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the Crucifixion.”  Bacon was an atheist; for him the Crucifixion did not have any religious meaning. Instead, it represented the dismemberment of the flesh, slaughter and death. He found the human body as a raw piece of meat with many colours and veins, much more fascinating. He said: “Well, of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses. If I go into a butcher’s shop I always think it’s surprising that I wasn’t there instead of the animal.” 

From the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, meat has become the dominating subject in the art of Bacon. This could be a result of the influence of Soutine, whom Bacon admired. They both painted with expressive, spontaneous brushstrokes, creating dynamic, intense compositions. They were both clearly fascinated with the same subject – carcasses. They both acknowledged the importance of Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox.

Bacon was also highly impressed by the Spanish artist, Diego Velázquez (1599–1660). Bacon worked on papal subjects, and especially on Velázquez’s Pope Innocent X (1650). He said of this painting: “I think it’s the magnificent colour of it… Because I think it is one of the greatest portraits that have ever been made, and I became obsessed by it…. because it just haunts me, and opens up all sorts of feelings and areas of – I was going to say – imagination, even in me.” 

The Crucifixion has always been an important subject in Western art. In Bacon’s famous painting, Figure with Meat (1954), he portrays a man, dressed like a pope, in the centre; the same as in the painting by Velázquez. Here, instead of the red drape behind the pope, a carcass is hanging behind him. The slaughtered, opened carcass and the position of its spread legs make clear allusions to the crucified Christ. In this context, there is also reference to Rembrandt, Soutine and the hanging carcass.

Bacon is known for his enclosed, intense rooms, in which he captures his figures and meat with the use of dark, vigorous colours. The pope’s face is smeared out, screaming in pain, like the opened carcasses. If Soutine’s paintings imbue carcasses with life, the paintings of Bacon, portray expressive figures and carcasses, which are exposed, in scenes of violence and pain.

This is a fragment of a long art historical tradition of depicting meat. Throughout art history, the subject has played a major role in the work of some of the world’s greatest artists. The two German artists, Christian Lemmerz (1959-) and Norbert Tadeusz (1940-2011) are no exception. Therefore, they take their place in an important tradition in the history of art. 


Christian Lemmerz & Norbert Tadeusz

For many years, Christian Lemmerz has used the dead body in his works. In 1994, he shocked not only the art world, but also the general public by exhibiting what we normally consider part of the natural food chain: pigs. Lemmerz has since transferred his interest in fragmentation and transience to his marble sculptures, often including female bodies: another art historical fascination, which goes as far back as the Belvedere Torso. In his large marble sculptures, which combine the classic, white aesthetic with a morbid theme, in turn challenging notions of art, beauty and death, Lemmerz draws the observer closer and seduces them with technical perfection, which, after the first glance, overshadows the brutal themes of the works like death and mutilation. Lemmerz manages to keep the viewers’ attention and create a vibrant, present whole, despite the small fragments and revelations that arise from his works.

In the 1980s, Norbert Tadeusz devoted his love and perseverance to the carcass as a subject in his paintings. His studies of the human and animal body are manifested in his overwhelming works. Tadeusz was inspired by the impressions of everyday life, giving these motifs a surreal twist, which made his paintings ambiguous and profound, and created a narrative of life.

Norbert Tadeusz painted his own intense and colourful atmospheres, but was also inspired by great masters of art history. A strong inspiration from Rembrandt can be seen in Cavallo Balbano II (Ochse knapp am Boden) (1987), where the stretched out carcass is hanging up on a beam, and in the background, is a woman discreetly watching the hanging carcass, just like Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox.

Other important sources of inspiration for Tadeusz were Soutine and Bacon and their expressive style of painting and use of colours. Tadeusz captured the life and death of the hanging carcass in his breathtaking, challenging paintings.

Lemmerz and Tadeusz therefore follow a profound art historical legacy of using meat and food items as a motif. Others have done it symbolically, some with a more scientific or immediate approach. Lemmerz and Tadeusz both use the carcass in their own way. The impressions are the same despite their different expressions; the raw and brutal meat, stretched out, hung up and studied, in an intense and investigative way. Both artists with their work on the human and animal body have enhanced the carcasses’ various meanings, that is up to the viewer to interpret.