With your hands behind your back, you gingerly wander around the gallery, chewing over the works. First you arrive at the Dutch Masters, ogling at Rembrandt’s Beef displaying a gloomy room with a headless cow strung up on a crucifix. You gawk at the decapitated, flayed horse’s head in Pieter Aertsen’s Meat Stall and digest the many Vanitas - warning of the transiency of life.
In the adjoining room you come to contemporary art and stroll past Hirst’s Mother and Child (Divided), a sculpture of embalmed bovines floating in turquoise tanks, winner of the ‘95 Turner Prize and the eponymous statement of art in our time - whether we particularly like the work or not. Then there’s a whole room devoted to Bacon - including John Deakin’s shot of him segued between two hulks of beef.
Heading down a flight of steps, you find yourself in the catacombs beneath the gallery. Under the light of an open fire, you notice the walls are illustrated with gigantic cows and wooly mammoths that move under the hearth’s flickering; the art and food of our ancestors. Since our beginnings, artists have been depicting meat in all its varied wonder - so why do we talk so verbaciously about depictions of flowers, Jesus, nudes, when we do not speak of meat?
Gardens of Meat
With flowers, there are shared analogies. Both are taken from nature, both fade; wither and rot. Butcher shop windows and florists share a similar colour palette; from rude pinks and marbled whites to fatty yellow ochres. Nature draws her parallels - there’s the Amorphophallus for example; found in the jungles of Sumatra, the species is known as a ‘carrion flower’ due to its odour of rotten flesh for fly attraction. We even use it in our gardens with many modern fertilisers containing MBM (meat and bone meal). From our bodies; watch the flowers grow.
Meat flower is a term a schoolboy or 50 pence erotic poet might use for his/her nether-nether regions. From visualising of the vulva to the sex words articulating the act; there’s an overlapping of the vegetable and animal kingdoms. Mother of American Modernism, Georgia O’Keeffe explored this sensual world in her paintings; the pink petalled orchids and inflamed crevices of canna lilies. One of her later paintings, Ram's Head with Hollyhock places a dessicated skull next to the fleshy petalled flower, creating a wonderfully free-flowing association of sex and death; sensual flesh and cold bone.
Feminism, meat and art have had a long standing relationship; posing questions of appetites, rituals, gender and the male gaze that turns women into meat. Carol Adams calls this latter term anthropornography and finds it a prevalent part of advertising both in language and imagery. A pig drawn with lipstick and a voluptuous rump or chicken at a supermarket with the tagline ‘nice legs, great breasts.’ In the Pornography of Meat, Adams suggests ‘Anthropornography gives you a hooker on your plate. Nonhuman animals are whoring for you. Nonhumans want you, too. Suffering? Slaughtering? Inhumane acts? No. They want it.’ This proposition is brought to the foreground in the flank steak dresses of Linder Sterling or Jane Sterbak (30 years before Gaga) and Schneeman’s Meat Joy, which films a writhing orgy of bodies rolling in wet paint, raw fish; dead chickens and sausages. Here, the hidden misogynistic associations of women and meat are plated up and handed out, forcing the viewer to question our rotten social norms.
More recently, German artist Heidi Hatry has constructed sublime sculptures of flora out of offal, a twist on the old familiar of ‘organ-ic.’ By placing them into natural environments, Hatry possesses the innocent; seductive body of feminine beauty and stares out with malignant eyes; defiling the very idea of ‘flower.’ No birds and bees settle on these blooms, just a regatta of flies.
Pounds of Flesh
Touring a slaughterhouse is comparable to moving through a gallery or studio: the clean, sterile walls; the well-lit work areas, the deli / gift shop - Warhol’s Factory springs to mind, churning out an abundance of packaged commodities ready for human consumption. And who can tell the meat from the butcher? Take the well-loved image of the suffering artist, packaged like a cow; prepared and giftwrapped for the distinguished tastes of the bourgeoisie.
In the days of the Dutch Masters, meat was used to symbolise life’s shortness, but also demonstrate their patrons’ wealth, trade and luxurious dinner tables through the ultimate commodity - the pound of flesh. Meat has always had its associations with aristocracy and some, like the corpulent Henry VIII with his carnal feast of women; sex and execution, ate nothing but.
With our growing awareness of mass-production and exploitation of Earth, can renderings of meat in art be wrestled back from simply representations of wealth? One look at the bloody photography of Dimitri Tsykalov would argue yes. Crafting bazookas, gas masks and kalashnikovs out of mince; frankfurters and bacon, Tsykalov arms his nude militia in a way that’s both ridiculous and terrifying, force feeding his audience the blinding parallels between the wholesale slaughter of war and animal processing - the capitalist butchers of men and beast.
This begs the question, Is there a humane way to butcher? In Japan, the treatment of Wagyu sounds like a fancy day at the spa. While rarely used today (seeing as it makes little difference to the quality), farmers would massage their livestock; whispering sweet nothings as they grazed on beer, sake or red wine in the hope that, like Greek sculptors; the muscle would be further marbled - increasing the flavour of the fatty steak.
Bodies of Christ
One of the world’s masterpiece works in marble must be Sanmartino’s Veiled Christ, the legend goes that the masterful depiction of the flowing veil was created with alchemy, changing the cloth into marble through a scientific process over time. This process of mythic transformation is at the very heart of the Christian story and lo; it is one embroiled in meat. Matthew 26:26: "And as they were eating, Jesus took bread and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body’." The Messiah himself is a form of sacrificial lamb for the mouths and bellies of his followers. Today, believers across the globe indulge in a prime cut of unadulterated Christ every Sunday; a spot of pseudo-cannibalism for the weekend.
Religious transformation is also at the core of Francis Bacon’s painting Figure with Meat, only here the flesh has spoiled. Appropriating Velasquez's portrait study of Pope Innocent X, Bacon transforms the painting’s rich reds and golds into scabby maroons and sickly whites. Behind the pope’s throne, he strings up spoiled animal carcasses (playing on Rembrandt’s Beef) and contorts his papal face into a choleric scream. Stipples and stripes of black leak from the eyes and nose of the pope, as if this Innocent sits corrupted and his spirit damned in hell.
In Three Studies for a Crucifixion, another of Bacon’s works, the parallels between the slaughterhouse and religious iconography continue. In the right panel of the triptych, a mangled body is held up and spread open; displaying a pink ooze of sloughed muscle and bone. The work defies a simple narrative reading and reaches out to the viewer on an emotive, sensual level - like the figure in the middle panel; wide open; raw and naked.
Bacon was an early influence on Hirst’s work and it is perhaps with him that we reach a conclusion and answer to the initial question as to why meat is not a focus of art criticism and popular debate. A thirteen foot tiger shark is suspended in the blue formaldehyde fluid, the sea monster’s mouth gaping wide as if ready to take a mortal chunk out of its victim. The work’s title, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Somebody Living, gives us this food for thought; that perhaps it is our eventual transformation into meat; our closeness to the carcass that makes us turn up our noses at discussing flesh and art. The grim reminder which our fates hold all of this in store for us. That, as soon as consciousness escapes our bodies, we become tender prey for the writhing underground beasties.