Christian Lemmerz & Norbert Tadeusz
Lemmerz MEAT Tadeusz
When we opened our space in Beijing in 2007, we believed that we could make a difference with our presence, contributing to cultural exchange in the global world. Robert Rauschenberg was already present in Beijing in 1985 – so far ahead of all of us – and had contributed more than anyone to global artistic dialogue. No artist had a stronger influence on the contemporary art scene in China than Rauschenberg. For me, personally, he shaped the way I look at art. It was, therefore, obvious that our inaugural exhibition in China should present works by Robert Rauschenberg.
Christian Lemmerz is one more artist who has influenced me greatly. His installations, involving dead pigs, the severed penis of Charles Saatchi in a urinal, or his own portrait in marble as a suicide bomber, have challenged my borders again and again. The pig installation was beautiful, Saatchi’s phallus was an astute comment on the art market, and the self-portrait carved in marble dealt with the topic before suicide bombing became a part of our daily lives. Since the 90’s, Christian Lemmerz has brought Michelangelo back into contemporary art and, throughout his career, has taken Duchamp and Rauschenberg a step further, together with Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn. But, while the two British artists continued the pop era, German-born Lemmerz drew his inspiration from further back in art history, bringing the craft of carved marble back to life. Lemmerz can draw and carve like no one else in his generation.
I am happy to bring Christian Lemmerz back to Beijing for his second exhibition at the Faurschou Foundation and to the Chinese audience. Being a space, in which culture and art meet, we have created an exhibition, in which Christian Lemmerz MEETs Norbert Tadeusz in a dialogue on the topic of MEAT – Two Germans in a Danish institution in China. A dialogue not just between two artists, but between two cultures. A dialogue between the artists and their audience. As a Dane, I am happy to bring people together without borders. This is the strength of art. It is in no need of an interpreter.
Norbert Tadeusz has also contributed to the cultural exchange in a dialogue with Chinese academics, who invited Tadeusz to give lectures in Chongqing, Chengdu, Xian, Shanghai, and Beijing in 2001. I met Tadeusz several times before he passed away in 2011. It has been a great pleasure to work on this exhibition and to learn more about this great artist who devoted his life to painting. It is also a special privilege to bring Norbert Tadeusz back to China: this time not for a lecture at CAFA, but for a visual lecture. I hope his many Chinese friends, colleagues, and students will be happy to meet Norbert Tadeusz again – not him in person, but to meet his life. Painting was his life.
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.1 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.2 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.3 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.4 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.” 5
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.6 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” 7.
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.8
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.9 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.” 10
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.” 11 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.” 12
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.” 13
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 breath-taking, 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.
(1): John Varriano, Tastes and Temptations. Food and Art in Renaissance Italy , (University of California Press, 2009) P. 36. (2): The MET museum, “Food and Drink in European Painting, 1400–1800”, Available from www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/food/hd_food.htm (3): John Varriano, “Tastes and Temptations. Food and Art in Renaissance Italy” , (University of California Press, 2009) P. 66. (4): The MET museum, “Food and Drink in European Painting, 1400–1800”, Available from www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/food/hd_food.htm (5): Kenneth M. Craig, Rembrandt and the Slaughtered Ox, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 46 (1983), Published by: The Warburg Institute, p. 236. (6): Kenneth M. Craig, ‘Pieter Aertsen and “The Meat Stall”’ Oud Holland, Vol. 96, No. 1 (1982), p. 4. (7): Kenneth M. Craig, ‘Rembrandt and the Slaughtered Ox’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 46 (1983), Published by: The Warburg Institute, p. 239. (8): John 19:26-27. (9): Maurice Tuchman, Esti Dunow, Klaus Perls, Chaim Soutine, Catalogue Raisonné, Benedikt Taschen Verlag, 1993, Germany, p. 16. (10): Maurice Tuchman, Esti Dunow, Klaus Perls, “Chaim Soutine, Catalogue Raisonné”, Benedikt Taschen Verlag, 1993, Germany, p. 342. (11): Wilfried Seipel, Babara Steffen, Christoph Vitali, “Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art”, KHM Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Fondation Beyeler, SKIRA, New York, 2004, p. 311. (12): Wilfried Seipel, Babara Steffen, Christoph Vitali, “Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art”, KHM Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Fondation Beyeler, SKIRA, New York, 2004, p. 311. (13): Wilfried Seipel, Babara Steffen, Christoph Vitali, “Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art”, KHM Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Fondation Beyeler, SKIRA, New York, 2004, p. 118.
Eternal life in the abattoir
Killed or murdered?
The beast is butchered, but there’s been no atrocity.
The animal’s new life began when its heart stopped beating.
Last summer, in green pastures under a windswept, sun-flashed sky, the young bull chewed the cud, whisked his tail at buzzing flies, bellowed iyearningly into the half-light of dusk. All of that was just a prelude to the abattoir.
That’s it, good lad, encourages the slaughterer as he guides the beast, faltering and oblivious, into a hall whose floor foams red with the blood of its kin. At the age of eighteen months a human child is still learning to walk but the steer carries his 600 kilos of flesh with ease towards its destiny: to feed us.
If we were cannibals, we would have a similarly civilised relationship to our own death. The slaughterhouse is the place where death is civilised. Conversely, our own death is civilization’s end-point. We are civilised right up to the moment of death, after which comes chaos and debasement; bloody bone shards piercing flesh in a traffic accident, a skull decorated with flecks of grey matter. Or death in a hospital bed where we lie with sunken cheeks, pallid skin, and bloated organs, begging for release from the confines of the body, blurting broken sentences that never get close to delivering those final words that are supposed to form a statement summarizing a life lived. Death as degradation, death as un-civilisation.
This is how we die. Biologically, under the tyranny of nature in all its implacable ugliness.
Death in the slaughterhouse: a celebration of the flesh.
Everything is thought-through and appropriate. The white tiles, the hoses, the meat-hooks, the knives, the cleavers, the splitting saws, the blue rubber aprons, the green waste containers all point in one direction: our palates, taste buds, champing jaws, and gullets, a simple requirement of survival transformed into culinary artistry, pleasure, experience, socialising, ritual. Brutality as an instrument of sophistication; death as a building-block of civilisation.
The beast’s skin is just clothing. Sentimentally, we project all manner of emotions onto an an animal’s dark eyes, or its silky, wet muzzle, or its ears, swivelling towards each new sound, or the temparemental twitches of its tail. There are too many temptations to anthromorphise. But in the abattoir, the charade is over. The cow, the calf, the heifer, the steer, the bull: that creature is not us. What emerges from it, in all its life-affirming glory, is edible flesh.
The end: the sudden crack of the pistol. The deep echo that follows. The heavy crash after the bolt enters the creature’s forehead. Are the wide eyes entreating, begging? No. There’s nothing recognisable. A tongue lolling thirstily out from black lips. Then a jolting, a final flailing gallop in thin air, and the creature’s heaved over onto its back and arranged on a low platform on the floor. A cleaver chops the bent legs short and the jutting stumps remain there, as if imploring. A swipe to the jugular and a cascade of burgundy foams out.
Precision. Tenderness, as the skin is divided with deft knife strokes and falls to each side of the platform. The beast lies on a sarcophagus draped in the heavy folds of its own flayed hide, the superfluous veil that will be sent onwards in the circle of life as clothing for us, under the pseudonym of leather; jackets, gloves, trousers, shoes, our borrowed hide, the beast in a new carnival costume, dressed up as human.
In the unveiled flesh, quivering pink and white nerves continue to perform their automatic twitches for a while, like aftershocks reacting to some internal quake or perhaps an impotent protest against the suddenness of death as the bolt struck. Lay your hand flat upon the quaking, still-warm flesh and feel the Morse code of life; a Mayday, Mayday from a drowning heart.
Now six hundred kilos hang from a hook, a monumental, suspended mass of meat. The abdomen, opened with a rapid slash, jets a torrent of loose entrails, all four stomachs, the soft sausage of the penis, the testicles like deflated balloons. Life must be propagated in some other way. Not in the bellowing thrusts of the rut but in the lure of the cold storage cabinet.
The splitting saw separates the carcass into two halves. Liberated from the disarray of the entrails, the exposed ribs protrude like guy ropes holding the taut canvas of its flesh in place. The transformation into the inviting aesthetic of cuisine is almost complete. Cut in pieces, the slaughtered creature becomes photogenic.
In becoming edible, Death is no longer Death.
There’s only one place for Death in the abattoir, in the green scrap container. Meat as garbage, the body as waste, as life inedible, as life rejected. The spleen, intestines and stomachs are sent to the rendering plant. Italians eat the intestines and stomachs. Danes do not. Even here, there is no consensus. Here, at the rim of the waste container, the ever-fluid boundary between life and death is drawn and its position is determined by a cultural struggle. To eat or not to eat offal? The offal that ends up on someone’s plate, having passed through all the refined processes of the kitchen, is still on the side of the living, whereas the entrails that end up in the green container unmistakeably belong to the realm of death.
Cooking is a protest against the great sin of allowing the living flesh to go to waste. Cooks are guerrillas in the realm of death.
These exiled anatomical elements used to be turned into meat and bone meal. Now it is not turned into anything at all. The tripe becomes dog food. Is canned dog food part of civilisation? Or, because we do not wish to touch it, part of Nature? When one animal travels to another via a can, are we seeing a biological cycle with humans as the middle man? What exactly is the philosophical status of canned dog food? And of cannibalism? Like life itself, the abattoir is full of unanswered questions. Would canned human meat be civilisation or barbarity? And what if a human were to eat canned human flesh? What if it were served to hungry wolves, endangered tigers or polar bears threatened by climate change?
“Daka” is the name of the company stamped on the abattoir’s trash containers. The tentacles of civilisation have a long reach. “Daka is your company’s guarantee for an effective, reliable collection of your industrial waste products,” the website proclaims. “We offer collection of horses,” it states. Death as a re-usable waste product. Death as green. Death as sustainable. Nothing comes closer to a modern version of the religious concept of eternal life. “Daka” markets the hereafter. The last shall be the first. Even meat scraps have a place in heaven.
Inside the abattoir’s open gate, the partially digested contents of the opened stomachs steams in the January chill. There’s green grass and straw, too, which the rectum did not get the chance to release. Instead, it was freed by a blade. An acrid smell emanates from it, not of decomposed plant matter but of excrement, as though the bolt pistol interrupted a process that had already begun.
It is hard to imagine a restaurant without a toilet. A toilet is just as important as a beautifully set table. When filled, the porcelain bowl has the same status in a life cycle as a filled plate.
The difference, of course, is the art of cooking, and this is the same as the difference between humans and animals. The all-consuming animal instinctively takes its place in the grand cycle. Discerning humans must be enticed.
All cooking is a tribute to fastidiousness, the boundaries of which can always be moved. Each newly-invented dish represents another step forward for civilisation.
The butcher can be seen as a sculptor who creates a liminal being, poised between the pasture and the palate. The idea that life is only a transitional phase might remove the last shred of comfort unless we recall that death, too, is temporary. Life has its own voracious cycle, another kind of eternity. Life is so short, and we are a long time dead, we sigh. But the elementary particles of life, if we look at the micro level of bacteria, never die.
Which other sculptors does the body have? There is the butcher. And there is war. In the abattoir, death is an orderly utopia. On the battlefield, death is unmitigated chaos. Not the noble features of the self-sacrificing patriot, but the bloodied, pulverised face. Not the soldier’s muscular body, ready for battle, but the lacerated torso spilling its entrails. Not the proud general, but the war invalid. Perhaps the abattoir is the true escape from the battlefield, a chapel of inner peace and order, a place to worship the calming sight of the slaughtered animal, its flayed body a contemplative still life.
And the field surgeon? When he approximately reconstructs the features of a shattered face, stitches blown-up body parts back on and amputates others so that the severed limbs can be extended with artificial hands and feet, paving the way for humanity’s cyborg future, is he not a sculptor too?
The mummy is a tragicomic discount version of the dream of eternal life. Marble has only a slight advantage over the mummy: the beauty of the stone. But marble’s pallor is a concession to death, although our mentors, the Greeks, painted their sculptures in cheerful hues; a fact that we, for reasons unknown, have chosen to ignore.
Art and death. Marble as a battleground. A marble figure, even portrayed in mid-leap, always lies in state. The marble sculpture is the most final form of all, life captured in immutable rigidity. We tell ourselves that marble is the material of immortality, a triumph over relentless impermanence, but this victory is a mere parody of life. What is marble but a building material for the bunker where we hope to hide from our own fear of death, a mental reinforcement to protect our fragile skulls from exploding? It is not the artist’s hands that conjure all these perfect bodies and animated faces. They emerge from the mental cement mixer, where gravel and water is churned with the illusion of eternal life.
Life is not about solidification, but motion, and how can motion be captured in stone, a material that is the antithesis of movement? Not by illustrating the movement but by leaving the sculpture unfinished, awaiting a chisel stroke that may never come; a sculpture that protests against its own medium, highlighting the lambent flow of creative power rather than its final icy hardening.
An unfinished sculpture can be both an evocative becoming or its opposite:
a wounded and mutilated body. Decomposition. Destruction.
It is not a matter of making the sculpture perfect but rather of making it fluid.
CHAIM SOUTINE: MEAT AND PAINT
In the years 1923-1925, Chaim Soutine produced a series of paintings, each one painted from life, of a flayed beef carcass. These images were to become iconic, defining Soutine as an artist who revelled in the juiciness and physicality of his paint, as an acute observer who painted directly from life at all costs, as an expressionist who could evoke powerful emotions, and as a master who studied the art of the past – in this case, Rembrandt.
Soutine revered Rembrandt and, in fact, was overwhelmed by the Dutch master. Soutine had been inspired by Rembrandt’s painting in the Louvre museum: Slaughtered Ox (1655). He installed an immense beef carcass in his studio, which he purchased from the neighbourhood abattoir. To keep the colours and textures of the meat fresh, he poured fresh blood over it at regular intervals. His assistant, Paulette Jourdain, continually waved off the pestering flies. There was a tremendous stench of decaying meat and rancid blood, which dripped to the floor below. The Department of Health was called in and someone, called the police thinking a murder had been committed. Stories surrounding the making of these paintings created a legendary aura around Soutine.
Soutine worked directly from life. He had to have what he was painting in front of him, right before his eyes. He concentrated totally on his sensations and on the truth of their transference into paint, to the exclusion of all else. It was the sum total of these sensations, the layering of one upon the other, that formed the experience, and hence the image. Soutine’s immersion in the sheer physicality of the world and his feverish commitment to the very act of painting were complete and all consuming. His response to his subjects was visceral. His canvases rivet the viewer with their convincing physical presence and their kinetically charged substance, which embody the fervid inner need that compelled the artist to paint them.
For Soutine, the image was not static. The subject being painted was a changing fluid entity directed by the on-going flux and layering of sensation and material, the give and take of looking and painting. The exclusivity of this activity, his consuming preoccupation with looking, seeing, and painting, represents a direct and heightened contact with his subject, empathy of the most profound and revelatory kind. As the artist and critic Andrew Forge wrote:
“Every picture is like a discovery of painting, in the course of which the paint (mere coloured material) becomes one with the subject. Unless the double sensation—of feathers, say, and paint, of looking and painting—is fused, no picture resulted, nothing came….You have the feeling that Soutine is inventing painting while you look.” 1
Soutine’s paintings were described by the painter Jack Tworkov2 as being in a state of “process, with no beginning or end.” Also pertinent would be art historian Meyer Schapiro’s analysis of modern painting as “an ordered world, in which we are aware, at every point of its becoming, [calling] up more intensely than ever before the painter at work, his touch, his vitality and mood, the drama of decision in the on-going process of art.”
Soutine was an extraordinary painter, for whom the qualities of the actual pigment and the marks of the brush were as real and tangible as that, which was being represented. For him, paint was the very matter of life itself; in his hands paint became a throbbing, pulsing substance. The art critic, David Sylvester3 wrote of Soutine:
“The brush is a weapon, and the paint is a magical substance with which to obliterate and re-mould the contours of the object, and its identity. The object is not so much tortured as lovingly torn apart. It is no longer a hillside or a tree, a carcass of beef or a dead bird. It is changed by paint into a nameless organism writhing in the throes of love or death, heaving with life. The paint appears to act like a miraculous teeming substance that actually generates life under our eyes. It is as if matter and energy were being continuously churned out, were forever being renewed by the paint.”
There is a visceral quality to the paint in his works: a juiciness of pigment that transforms the surface in both, creating a surface of paint, which we read as the skin and flesh of the painting. The equation between oil pigment and flesh is emphatic when the analogy extends to the actual painting of meat. In his paintings of this subject, Soutine inspected and then captured the reality of each globule of fat, each piece of flesh, each dry and each wet area. Against the field of a carcass, each stroke and colour stands out with an almost abstract intensity. The paint becomes its own fabric, an abstract crust of sensations that function much like the coils of paint and strokes in his Céret landscapes. But in the Céret images, the jabs and thrusts of paint evoke the actual forms they are depicting from nature only indirectly or metaphorically. The marks of paint and strokes in the beef paintings, on the other hand, as much as they function autonomously, also function as literal depiction. The red paint is as much a pictorial substance as it is the actual blood of the animal itself. We feel the reds, violets, and deep purples soaking into the meat and pouring over it, enhancing form and vibrating the colours in much the same way that the buckets of blood freshened the colours of the meat in reality. Soutine’s main concern is with the flesh, and its character as primary element and primordial material.
Soutine sought out images in other artists’ paintings, which he then physically recreated and re-enacted in his studio, setting up: a carcass of beef after Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox (1665); a rayfish to reconstruct the Chardin Still Life with Rayfish (c. 1728); various dead fowl and rabbits to emulate so many of the Dutch masters. He did not paint or ‘copy’ the earlier painting, but set up the animals and objects in his studio and made the images his own.
It is in the great series of beef carcasses of the mid-1920s that the supremacy of the isolated motif, both pictorially and emotionally, is realised. Soutine eliminates Rembrandt’s interior setting, or any suggestion of environment, and focuses on the meat itself. The image is isolated, centralised, given the spotlight. The meat is presented to us close up; there is no distraction. It is heroic and imposing as well as a helpless victim of our close inspection. It looks as if it has been flattened and then stretched across the surface, as though it were the canvas itself. The identification between flesh and pigment here is maximised. Form, object, subject, content and meaning all coincide in this image, which is both an intense perception of quivering, decaying flesh and an abstract surface of matter, stroke and colour. The realism of observation works hand in hand with the energy of the paint fabric to communicate a reality that is at once so physical and so much more than physical.
From 1925 to 1927, Soutine was preoccupied with painting dead animals, particularly fowl and rabbits. This was most likely sparked by his museum visits, during which he saw so many images, particularly sixteenth and seventeenth century Dutch paintings of dead fowl and game. All these past still lifes, however, had included the dead animal within some context: usually in scenes of either meals or hunting. Soutine’s animals are devoid of any explanatory settings. The bare fact is the bird or the rabbit and its death. Occasional props – such as a cloth or table top – are there only for pictorial reasons. They serve to further contain and frame and, hence, spotlight and isolate the animal from the background. The images may be electric, vibrating with sputtering energy, representative of the step-by-step struggle of life passing into death, or more quiet and self-contained. In all of them, the convincing feel of the feathers of the fowl, or the fur of the rabbits, is combined with the luxuriance and virtuosity of the way the artist handles the paint.
These are not so much images of death or comments on mortality, but in the tradition of observation, a record of flesh, feathers and fur as the transition between life and death proceeds. Rather than morbid or depressing statements, these images capture the essence or vitality of a thing: the visceral sensation of meat, of blood, of flesh. Soutine is seeing the life in inanimate objects – flowers as they are placed across a table, the flutter of feathers as the birds hang – extracting the juice from the paint, bringing to life the very textures and movements of the matter being depicted. When he paints the mammoth beef carcasses, hanging in his studio, he has an assistant constantly pouring fresh blood on his meat carcasses to keep the colours of decay as fresh as possible.
Soutine demanded maximum intensity from each of the component elements of his painter’s medium. He revelled in the shape and sweep of the brushstroke, the tactile quality of the oil pigments, the expressive potential that lay within every colour. He heightened each of these and pushed them to the very limit. No other artist of his day tested the very properties and capabilities of paint to this extent. It was not sufficient for Soutine that oil colours merely describe what he was painting – he treated paint as if it were the very matter of life itself. In Soutine’s hands paint became a throbbing, pulsing substance.
His canvases brim with vivid details and are flush throughout with exuberant animation. Jacques Lipchitz praised Soutine:4
“He was one of the rare examples in our day of a painter who could make his pigments breathe light. It is something, which cannot be learned or acquired. It is a gift of God. There was a quality in his painting that one has not seen for generations – this power to translate life into paint – paint into life …”
The compelling energy of Soutine’s sweeping, loaded brushstrokes is essential to our experience of his paintings. It is by virtue of this energy that we establish intimacy with the subject, partake of its vitality and become engrossed in the on-going process of its transformation. The urgency of creation is felt in each stroke – its movement and rhythm, the pressure with which the brush strikes the surface of the canvas, the density and weight in the accretion of paint. Soutine stated: “l’expression est dans la touche du pinceau.” 5 (the expression is in the brush strokes) It is indeed in Soutine’s “touch” that his genius resides. The critic, Clement Greenberg said of Soutine: “One has to go back to Rembrandt to find anything, to which his touch can be likened.” 6
There are neither hidden techniques nor secret formulas in Soutine’s painting. The handling of paint, the movement of the brush, his deliberate working and reworking of the motif – the concrete manipulation and malleability of form, colour, and space – are all readily apparent. There is complexity only in his intensity, which manifests itself mainly in the elaborate layering of paint on the canvas. As we stand face to face with his paintings, their directness and sheer physical presence immediately engage us. For all his commitment to realism, however, Soutine did not paint an external reality of appearances. He entered deeply into those things he painted. He probed them relentlessly. In this process he opened up and spread before our eyes the reality of commonplace things, revealing them as we have not seen them before or since.
Marginalised both by art history and in his own lifetime, Soutine is, and has always been, in every respect, a ‘painter’s painter.’ The physical energy of the emotionally charged canvases, the fluid handling and juiciness of paint, the rich and dense texturing of surface anticipated many developments from the mid-twentieth century to the present day. Post-war artists whom one associates readily with the painterly and expressionist attributes of Soutine, such as Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston have acknowledged the artist’s influence on their work. Other artists, of very diverse sensibilities and style, who in terms of appearance seem to share little with him, revere him. His influence is clearly visible in the present exhibition: in the imagery and raw emotive power of the artists, Christian Lemmerz and Norbert Tadeusz.
Both Tadeusz and Lemmerz evoke Soutine in their use of images of carcasses and body parts, both human and animal, and in the metaphoric and symbolic associations these images provoke. Whereas Soutine focuses on observation, coming from a tradition of realism first, with emotions and metaphors secondary to the capturing and painting of sensations, Tadeusz and Lemmerz seize upon these images to make a statement. The image exists primarily to communicate a message.
In the same way that Soutine was haunted by the carcasses he painted, Tadeusz was haunted by painting actual animal carcasses and figures shown hanging like butchered slabs of meat. The Post-war artist worked with subtle art-historical references and dead meat. With Tadeusz’s colourful, dynamic scenes of playfulness and agony we have references to Hieronymus Bosch’s depictions of hell and allusions to both Francis Bacon and Georg Baselitz, with their intense moods and twisted figures, and to modern photography. His carcasses are placed in fantastic settings, inviting Surrealist associations and art-historical references ranging from Bosch to Bacon.
Tadeusz portrays the carcass as a studio object: not as an animal observed and presented objectively, but as an animal dying before our very eyes, with dripping blood to convey the dying process. The animal is no longer a subject, but a portrayal of a process. Tadeusz constantly refers to the scene as self-portraiture, and includes himself in the painting “Who is the viewer and who is the participant ?” he asks.
A generation younger than Tadeusz, Lemmerz is also fascinated by animal and human body parts. Lemmerz’s sculptures of carcasses and carcass-like forms evoke slaughter, revulsion and disgust. These are unsettling images of death. Lemmerz masters in at confronting us with images of what we do not want to see, presented in pure white marble, where the beautiful and the terrible become a kind of transcending aesthetic, which challenges us with what we usually want to repress.
In the works of both artists, images of death and dismemberment and bloody slabs of meat arouse gruesome and grisly feelings. But, thanks to the amazing transformation of craft and material, suggestions of beauty and life emerge, echoing the tensions that we find in Chaim Soutine.
(1): Andrew Forge, Soutine, Paul Hamlyn/Spring Books, (London, 1965) PP. 32-33. (2): Jack Tworkov, ‘The Wandering Soutine’, Art News, vol. 42, no. 7, Part I, (November 1950). (3): David Sylvester, ‘Chaim Soutine, 1893-1943’, (London: Arts Council of Great Britain. Exhibition catalogue, 1963). (4): Alfred Werner, Chaim Soutine, (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1977) P. 63. (5): Pierre Courthion, Soutine. Peintre du déchirant, (Lausanne: Denoel, 1972) P. 148. (6): Clement Greenberg, Chaim Soutine, (Partisan Review, vol. 18, no.1, January-February 1951
It has been more than 30 years since the German-born artist, Christian Lemmerz embarked on an investigation of the body, its materiality and its metaphorical and metaphysical nature. From the early 1980s he has used the body as both material and motif, exploring its flesh, liquids, fissures and limits in a variety of materials and modes of expression. He has combined meat with plastic and rubber, creating disturbing sculptural accumulations, and lowered animal guts into aquariums filled with formalin or into a soup of beer, blood and urine. Pig’s eyes have been into marinating jars and a bundle of blood-filled syringes spread across a light table.1 Lemmerz once even made a foetus out of his own faeces, creating a link to the early phases of body art in the 1960s, when artists such as the Viennese Actionists began their radical, transgressive actions and the performance artist, Carolee Schneeman presented Meat Joy, an orgiastic choreography in which male and female performers grappled with one another amidst a variety of fleshy, messy materials.
Originally trained as a classical sculptor at the Accademia di Carrera in Italy from 1978-82, Lemmerz relocated to Denmark in the early 1980s. He co-founded the experimental artist community Værkstedet Værst (“The Workshop Worst”), in which he and his fellow artists challenged the cool art of the previous decade, insisting on more expressive, messy and detached expressions. For Lemmerz this was a period of experimentation. He deliberately left his classical training to pursue the artistic possibilities offered by new forms of sculptural expression as well as media such as film and performance. He relinquished the eternality of materials such as bronze and marble in the search for more temporal sculptures, often only meant to last the time it took to make them.
In 1986, Christian Lemmerz attracted particular attention when showing the work Anamnesis 1-9 in the exhibition, Limelight at Charlottenborg in Copenhagen. The sculptural installation was made of anti-aesthetic materials such as polyurethane, steel wool, wire and large quantities of margarine that slowly melted in the summer warmth, resulting in a sculptural metamorphosis during the exhibition period as well as a nauseating stench, which permeated the halls of Charlottenborg – a stench probably not unlike the one Russian-born artist, Chaim Soutine’s neighbours experienced, when in the 1920s he insisted on painting slaughtered beef in his apartment studio, bathing it daily in blood from the butcher’s shop to keep it looking fresh.
Contrary to the body artists of the 1960s, who sought to liberate the body from the constraints imposed by politics and moral, aesthetic and social conventions, Lemmerz’s work was never about personal liberation. For him, the use of biological and organic material does not derive from political or personal idealism as much as from a search for an aesthetic of impact and effect: an artistic language, through which he can establish a confrontational situation between the work and the spectator.2 Lemmerz thus seems to be more connected to the American artist, Paul McCarthy who, in his 1975 performance Sailor’s Meat (Sailor’s delight), performs as a sailor having sex with hamburger meat and mayonnaise. Although much less interested in soma-aesthetics than McCarthy, Lemmerz showcases a similar penchant for absurdity and abnormality, and sets out to confront and disturb viewers in the reception of his work.
In the performance group, Værst (Worst) established in 1984, Lemmerz deliberately marked a break with established good taste, drawing inspiration from philosophy, psychoanalysis and literature, including James Joyce’s linguistic experiments and George Bataille’s morbid, surreal writings. Georges Bataille’s notion of l’informe, also rooted in a disruption of order via the dissolution of categories, seems particularly close to the strategies of repulsion and debasement in Lemmerz’s artistic practice.3 With his choice of materials, Lemmerz works to eliminate the distance between work and viewer, between dead matter and living life. In an iconic work such as Fettbaby from 1985, it is clear that Lemmerz articulates the organic material of margarine so it seems both present and associative, not intending to cause disgust, but to generate thoughts.4
In 1994, Christian Lemmerz took the symbolic bodily disintegration present in Anamnesis 1-9 a radical step further. In the exhibition, Scene (“Stage”) at Esbjerg Art Museum, he created a single, large-scale installation comprising three parts: blocks of expanded polystyrene standing as tall as a man and entitled Angel 1-3; the 11 metre-long Blutspiegel (“Blood Mirror”), a sequence of almost mirror-smooth aluminium sheets smeared with large quantities of blood; and Legeme (Spejl) (“Body (Mirror)”), six sealed glass coffins containing pig’s bodies that had been cut up and subsequently sown together, their chopped-up outlines reminiscent of human torsos.
One can argue that in Scene (Stage) Lemmerz challenged the spectator, as did Pieter Aertsen, when he painted his still life, A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms (1551). Aertsen’s painting depicts a meat stall, on which an abundance of meat is spread out. Sausages, a cow’s head and freshly slaughtered poultry dominate the foreground of the painting, leaving us with only a few glimpses of what is going on in the background. If we look closely, we can see two scenes from the Old Testament: one with the Holy Family giving alms; and one where the Virgin Mary is fleeing to Egypt.
Aertsen’s painting is a so-called ‘inverted still life’: at first glance, an essentially secular image, because the avalanche of dead meat in the foreground is obscuring the Christian motifs. This phenomenon has been interpreted in several ways. Some people have seen the secular elements pointed to the religious subject, showing the morally reprehensible blotting out of the spiritual truth by gross materialism. Others see the work as indicative of the growth of secular interests in the sixteenth-century Renaissance, and the consequent diminishing of traditional concerns with religion.5
By positioning a meaty motif in the foreground, both Aertsen and Lemmerz treat the subject of memento mori: a reminder of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure and the certainty of death. In Scene (“Stage”), the rotting animal carcasses called attention to the leaks and fissures of the body, and the dissolution of the flesh introduced (human) mortality directly into the exhibition space.6 The work was a clear manifestation of Lemmerz’s constant interest in the existential themes of life and death and a response to the horrors of the war in Eastern Europe that was going on at the time. For many visitors, however, their disgust at Lemmerz’s choice of material made it impossible for them to look past the decomposing meat, and to see the existential, spiritual and political essence of the sculpture.
In the early 1990s Lemmerz resumed his work with the classical medium of marble, creating an on-going series of sculptures, in which, with great mastery, he executed a range of modern, relevant and provocative themes. After his years in the experimental art scene of the 1980s, Lemmerz thus returned to the lasting materials of classical art, inscribing himself in a sculptural tradition with roots going back to the immortal masters of Antiquity, the Renaissance and Neo-classism.
In one of his most recent, monumental marble works, titled Reservoir, Lemmerz has created a sculptural pool of symbols and allegory. The sculpture’s motif is a haunting image. It portrays the body of a woman, hanging by her feet, and flanked by two animal carcasses. It is a raw, disturbing composition, almost a double-crucifixion, in which the bodies have been turned upside down, as if crucified on an inverted, Petrine Cross.
Lashed by their feet, the animal carcasses in Reservoir bear a similarity to Rembrandt van Rijn’s painting, Slaughtered Ox (1655), in which a dead animal, suspended by its feet, hangs like a pitiful body, lacerated and truncated. Rembrandt’s nature morte resembles a crucifixion: a meditation on Christ’s death on the cross. Isolated in a dark room, a majestic, human-like carcass refers to Christ’s death, but, as in Reservoir, the slaughtered body is also a reference to the subject of materiality. The subject is Christ’s incarnation and God becoming mortal flesh, and that relates to physicality and worldliness. The death of Christ is made poignant by the presentation of God as dead meat.
In the twentieth century, Chaim Soutine took up Rembrandt’s subject and turned it into an expressive vision of suffering.7 Stripping away any narrative or allegorical setting, he laid bare the animal and its death with viscous, heavily loaded brush strokes, and almost with the same carnality as the butchered animal itself. Soutine’s paintings speak of both his era’s despair at the loss of meaning and purpose in living, and the artist’s personal desperation.
In the same way that Soutine’s paintings were painted with violent brushstrokes, the carcasses in Reservoir are marked by chopped, carved forms, making the figures look like victims of torture or war. These are recurring themes for Lemmerz, as can be seen in earlier works such as Selbst (suicide terrorist) (2000-02), and Abu Ghraib (2007), the latter being based on the image of Iraqi prisoners stacked on the floor by U.S. soldiers in the infamous prison of Abu Ghraib.
Partly embedded in the un-carved marble block, the human figure in Reservoir seems to emanate from the material, as if appearing from a hidden position inside the stone. This style is referred to as “non-finito” (or incomplete), and is a working practice attributed to the Renaissance artist, Michelangelo.
Non-finito works appear unfinished, because the artist only sculpts part of the block, the figure appearing to be stuck within the marble. Inspired by sculptures such as Michelangelo’s last sculpture Pietà Rondanini (1952-64), his Aurora (Dawn) (1524-27) in the Medici Chapel and the Slaves in the Academia Gallery (in particular the figure of Atlas) (1530-34), Lemmerz has worked with this rough, unfinished style, leaving visible grooves from the mallet and pointed chisel on the marble. In preparation for his sculptures, Lemmerz often works with sketches and models, but works free hand when carving, starting from the front and working back. His figures emerge from the marble “as though surfacing from a pool of water”, as Vasari described Michelangelo’s method in Lives of the Artists.
In the case of Lemmerz, the non-finito style is a direct result of his technique, in which carving becomes a way of thinking, a way of seeing what is not yet there. Each tool leaves the surface rich in suggestive forms.
In addition to the many classical references in Reservoir, the motif also has a disquieting filmic quality about it. As in a scene from a horror or alien movie the human figure is enveloped in the sculptural material, as if cocooned in a mass of flesh and matter. Caught between two slaughtered animals, the figure also bears similarities to the work of Norbert Tadeusz, such as his Nude in Animal Half (1985), or to Francis Bacon’s Figure with Meat (1954), in which two suspended sides of beef provide a raw and disturbing visual analogue for the seated Pope’s epic scream. For Bacon, the animal carcass, with its mangled flesh, served as a powerful emblem of the frailty and brutality of the human condition.
The human condition also seems to be on the dissecting table in Lemmerz’s monumental marble sculpture, Traumfleisch. Reminiscent of the formal language of Baroque tombs and monuments, the sculpture portrays a butchered, stretched and hollowed-out animal carcass. Though not human flesh, this sculpture reminds the viewer that bodies ultimately are flesh, and flesh is meat. Meat is the ultimate symbol of materiality. It is the body prepared for consumption by another body, which thus will be sustained. We kill in order to live; in this regard, we share something with animals. This point is underlined by a woman’s head rising from the carcass: a Medusa’s head, which, in this case, is only able to reconnect to a body and resurrect as the dead animal disintegrates. It is an image of resurrection, but one that demands a sacrifice. The sculpture thus seems integral to a vision of reality, in which destruction and renewal are different sides of the same coin, as Lemmerz weds the imagery of resurrection, salvation and carnal sensuality, contrasting those subjects with his own far more palpable, existential view of damnation.
In the smaller, but no less powerful sculpture, Medusa (2014), Lemmerz has based his motif on the French painter, Théodore Géricault’s painting, Le Radeau de la Méduse (The Raft of the Medusa) (1818-19). It is a larger-than-life-size painting that depicts a moment from the aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse, which ran aground off the coast of today’s Mauritania on 2 July 1816. At least 147 people were set adrift on a hastily constructed raft, and in the end only 15 survived. Those who survived endured starvation and dehydration and practiced cannibalism as the flesh of their fellow travellers was their only means of survival. In Lemmerz’s sculpture, the bloody horrors of this event are kept partly hidden under a skilfully carved piece of drapery, leaving visible only pairs of bundled-up arms, legs, fingers and feet, wrinkled as if they have been lying in water for a long time. By wrapping the limbs in white cloth, Lemmerz replaces Gericault’s dramatic, nightmarish depiction with a momentary monumentality and sense of peace. There is also a reference to one of his earlier marble sculptures, Tabernakel nr. 3 (Tabernacle no. 3) (2005), in which what seems to be a foot is similarly covered by a draped cloths.
The tabernacle is a structure referred to in the Bible as the centre of the worship of God. The term is used to refer to one part of a larger complex: a tent-like structure that stood within a court enclosed by linen curtains, where God was understood to be especially present for his people. In Medusa however, the quest for God’s presence is not found behind the curtain, as it only acts as a partial cover for the bestial nature of Man.
Medusa is a good example of Lemmerz’s unique talent to create a work with enigmatic allure, drawing in the spectator, who is unprepared for the monstrous stories and subjects that the sculpture might reveal. In Lemmerz’s work there is no contradiction between the horrifying and the beautiful. Like the greatest works of the Baroque period, his work has an immense beauty, but is nonetheless powerful. Lemmerz himself has noted that when we look at historical depictions of Christ, we see an incredible aesthetic in the way, in which the blood is shown running down Christ’s legs, and how the sculpting of His hair falling creates a visual line to a bloody wound on his body.8 It is a violent aesthetification of what is horrifying and repulsive, and Lemmerz sees no contradiction in sculpting a dismantled body High Noon (Hiroshima Mon Amour) (2010) or a dismembered dead prostitute (Untitled (Virginia) (1998) with such a finesse that it becomes breathtakingly beautiful, making us look even more closely at what would normally make our stomachs turn.
Lemmerz’s sculptures are truly a reservoir of references: from Greek mythology and Christian imagery to art history. Intelligently, they combine contemporary imagery from kitschy B-movies, horror films, video games or cartoons with references to the Bible, Dante and the thinking of philosophers such as Heidegger and Kant, to name but a few. Lemmerz thus not only creates surprising and thought-provoking works, but also plays with the status of marble, an archetypical material rich in tradition, which, when used today, risks appearing out-dated and kitsch. It is perhaps this multi-mythology of marble, its classical and contemporary use intermingled, which keeps it interesting for him, with the option of activating its classical references, while also being ironic about them. By uniting classical and modern themes, Lemmerz seeks to create a complexity in both form and content, delivering an unexpected element to the materials he uses.9
The early still life painters loaded their canvases with religious symbolism, and meat was a handy visual metaphor. A leg of lamb could be a stand-in for gluttony or decay; while a slaughtered animal could symbolise spiritual death, or represent the body of Jesus. Contemporary artists such as Norbert Tadeusz, Bruce Nauman, Damien Hirst, Belinde de Bruyckere and Christian Lemmerz have subsequently used meat to explore themes of morality and mortality, while at the same time making statements about violence, technology, visual culture, sex and much more.
In the 1980’s Lemmerz manifested his artistic statements with a visual and expressive forcefulness through the materials and forms he chose for his sculptures. In the later marble works, this violence has been restricted to the subject matter itself, leaving it to be discovered beneath the sculpture’s classical exterior. The effect of his work is, however, no less forceful and thought-provoking today as it was 30 years ago. In sculptures such as Reservoir, Traumfleisch, and Medusa, he shows us that even marble can be meaty, and that his messy, fleshy motifs express a personal view on art and human existence: purity cannot be achieved in either art or life – not even if it is carved in pure, white marble.
(1): Mikael Wivel, Dansk kunst i det 20. Århundrede. (Gyldendal, 2008), p. 846. (2): Ann Lumbye Sørensen, Memento. Christian Lemmerz – erindring, krop, død. (Informationens Forlag, 2009), p. 8. (3): Regarding Kristeva and contemporary art, see: Craig Houser, Leslie C. Jones, Simon Taylor, and Jack Ben-Levi, Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993). Regarding Bataille and contemporary art, see: Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Kruass, Formless: A User’s Guide (New York: Zone Books, 1997). (4): Mikael Wivel, Dansk kunst i det 20. Århundrede. (Gyldendal, 2008), p. 846. (5): John Varriano: Tastes and Temptations. Food and Art in Renaissance Italy, (University of California Press, 2009) p. 37. (6): Nipper, Marie: Ways, not Works, in, Christian Lemmerz Ghost, ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, 2010, pp. 14-19, p. 15. (7): Berkeley, Calif: Tastes and Temptations. Food and Art in Renaissance Italy, University of California Press, 2009, p. 43. (8): Rasmus Bo Sørensen. Massemord i marmor. Interview med Christian Lemmerz, in Informationen, 27 January 2011. (9): Marie Nipper, Every paradise needs a serpent. Interview with the artist Christian Lemmerz, in, Paradiso, Narayana Press, 2014, pp. 17-19.
Flesh and Meat – An imaginary transubstantiation – Notes on Norbert Tadeusz
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 install 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 Tadeusz’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.
Signor, nell ore streme
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
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.
The Team at Faurschou Foundation Copenhagen
The Team at Faurschou Foundation Beijing
Published on the occasion of the exhibition:
MEAT Christian Lemmerz & Norbert Tadeusz
Organised and presented at:
Faurschou Foundation Beijing
16.09.16 – 15.12.16
Faurschou Foundation Copenhagen
2150 Nordhavn, Denmark
Faurschou Foundation Beijing
P.O Box 8502
798 Art District
No. 2, Jiuxianqiao Road
Chaoyang District, Beijing, China
Kristian Eley & Cecilia Pedersen
Michaela C. Di Cancogni
Anders Sune Berg
Kristian Eley & Cecilia Pedersen
Culturebites / Zoe Diao
Galerie Art Gloss 200G
Munken Kristall 150G
Printed in Denmark by Narayana Press