"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." Francis Bacon
The theme of raw meat, the bleeding flesh of the slaughterhouse, has exercised a strange fascination on many artists throughout the history of art. Francis Bacon, an Irish-born, English painter and one of the 20th century's most celebrated and controversial existentialist artists, in his conversation with David Sylvester in October 1962 explains: "I've always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the Crucifixion. There've been extraordinary photographs which have been done of animals just being taken up before they were slaughtered; and the smell of death".
The paintings below reflect the evolution of this subject matter, starting with Annibale Carracci, one of the leading figures of Italian Classical Baroque painting and the pioneer of Bolognese school. His Butcher's Shop (c 1585) is a great example of Carracci's early style, which is marked by a revolutionary naturalism and elimination of the artificiality of Mannerism. This work left me speechless when I first saw it in the Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford, as it shows completely different Carracci, an Italian artist with the eye of the Northern-European still life painter. Another marvelous artist, Chaim Soutine, called both a late Impressionist and an early Expressionist, commonly known for being Modigliani's close friend (he never allowed his patrons-to-be to look at his paintings before buying them, consequently he did not sell many paintings and lived in desperate poverty and lack of notoriety) created a series of iconic beef paintings. And finally Bruno Cassinari, a member of the Italian anti-Fascist movement Corrente, whose intention was to express a cultural freedom in painting, also created a remarkable scene of a butchered calf.
According to Bacon, it was the theme of the Crucifixion that introduced these artists with the motifs of meat carcasses, butcher's slab and their dramatic inception. I believe not only Bacon but all of these artists, fascinated by the sight of the raw meat, strongly felt, maybe even unconsciously, a connection between the tortured and mutilated human flesh of Christ and butchered carcasses of animals.
Chaim Soutine. Flayed Beef, c. 1925
Annibale Carracci. The Butcher's Shop, 1580. Oil on canvas. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.
Annibale Carracci. The Butcher's Shop, c 1585. Oil on canvas, 185 by 266cm. Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford.
Chaim Soutine. Carcass of Beef, c 1924. Oil on canvas. Minneapolis Institute of Art, USA.
Bruno Cassinari. Butchered Calf, 1941. Oil on canvas, 87 by 63 cm. Musei Civici Fiorentini- Raccolta Alberto Della Ragione
Francis Bacon. Painting, 1946. Oil and tempera on canvas, 198 by 132 cm. The Museun of Modert Art, New York
Francis Bacon. Figure with Meat, 1954. Oil on canvas, 129.9 by 121.9 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago
John Deakin (1912-1972). Bacon, 1952. The Conde Nast PL. Vogue
Andre Kertesz. Butcher at Les Halles, 1927
Richard Avedon. Blue Cloud Wright, slaughterhouse worker, Omaha, Nebraska, 1979.