21 December 2010

Beef

November was slaughter month. You'd kill the beasts before the winter. That way, you wouldn't have to feed them. Young women, their arms incarnadine, made blood sausage first. Blood spoils the quickest, and no sense in wasting it.

Rembrandt painted this slaughtered ox. While butchered animals had languished in the corners of paintings before him, he was the first to put the carcass front and center, to make it the subject of a painting -- to grant it the same attention as St. Mary or the king or the Lord Jesus Himself.

Rembrandt painted this after a particularly rough year, filled with misery, debt and sadness. Speaking of Jesus, some critics see a parallel here with the crucifixion. It's easy to make out. Only, this is an earthy, lowly crucifixion: just a humble ox laid open. Not Jesus dying for our sins. Mere suffering -- if pain can ever merely be pain.


Soutine took the subject a few years later. Soutine, beaten back home in the shtetl for the sin of making images. He was said to be the filthiest man in Paris -- he never bathed. While he worked on this canvas, the stench filled the apartment building. He sent his assistant out for fresh blood to keep the meat fresh and shiny over the weeks that he painted it. After a brief period during which Soutine was filthy rich rather than just poor and dirty, the Nazis hunted him. They wanted to pack him off in a cattle car. Soutine died on an operating table, the arena where we learn best how like the slaughtered ox we can be. If you have witnessed an operation with the surgeons stainless steel tools, you know how close the good doctors are to butchers.

The Nazis, devotees of efficiency, didn't bother with flaying or crucifixions. Suffering as individual and hand made is a classical notion, mythic, now that thermonuclear bombs can annihilate in seconds. In Africa and Cambodia, though, they pursued the old ways until recently.

Perhaps it was realizations like that which inspired Francis Bacon. The wreck of the Church, wretched and retching, a mad ecclesiastical howl below and between hunks of meat, the Lord absent and replaced with a cow's hollow ribs.


This photograph, from Lettres de Moscou, stands up to the burden of its subject. For once we see the butcher, a craftsman, unemotional, doing his job. We have the implied horror of death, together with the harsh colors and lights of the slaughter house, our modern hell. The crucified animal hangs on its hooks. But the butcher's confidence gives us a balance. If he's the executioner, then we're complicit. We need his skill in the kill. We need it to eat. But is he confident in the face of all that, a stoic? Or just callous? A master, or simply another part of the machine?

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