This Was Tomorrow: Pieter Aertsen's Meat Stall as Contemporary Art

Article excerpt

How can the individual work, which positivistic . . . history has determined in a chronological series and thereby reduced to the status of a "fact," be brought back into its historical-sequential relationship and thereby once again be understood as an "event"?-Hans Robert Jauss1

Art history books are filled with images that were novel in their day, and one perennial activity of scholarship has been to describe what constituted the new in a given image or era. Newness described, however, is not newness experienced. How can we reenter imaginatively the mental frame in which an old master painting was the latest salvo of contemporary art? The attempt to re-create an image's original viewing context through historical research can provide crucial information but must inevitably be incomplete. To catch a glimpse of what a now-venerable work looked like on its first day requires both a willful forgetting of what came next and a conscious letting go of the search for definitive answers. One great pleasure of confronting contemporary art is the awareness that the work is not yet burdened by consensus-its present is fluid, its future unknown, its implications still unformed. It is not clear which elements "mean" and which do not; everything (potentially) signifies. Each viewer faces the contemporary artifact alone, without a safety net, intrigued or offended or exhilarated according to individual predisposition and tolerance for the uncircumscribed. In approaching a contemporary picture, few would question that the effort necessary to construct meaning from it is part of the pleasure of experiencing it. The task I set myself as a historian is to render the interpretative limits of artwork of the past similarly unpredictable-to return to an old chestnut something of its original capacity to startle.

In this article, I undertake to convey the sense of newness, of sixteenth-century contemporaneity, that informed the reception of Pieter Aertsen's Meal Stall, painted in Antwerp in 1551 (Fig. 1).2 In this image, Aertsen turned a millennium of artistic convention inside out by bringing objects forward to dominate human actors: the picture's vivid display of freshly butchered meat (a subject unthinkable previously in panel painting) all but obscures a tiny background scene of the Flight into Egypt (Fig. 2), and the largest person on view is smaller than a sausage. Art historians have granted The Meal Stall canonical status as the initiating work in not just one but several genres: market paintings, "inverted" morality pictures, paradoxical encomiums, and-ultimately-the entire field of modern still life, in which role it enjoys a half page (color) in H. W. Janson's History of Art.3 This notoriety, however, carries disadvantages. The image is complimented as originary but tamed. Indeed, it is impossible for a specialist to approach The Meal Stall today without an awareness of its niche in the tradition and the formal trajectories that proceed from it. As a consequence, it is routinely treated as the first installment in one or another artistic genealogy.4 But, like the rogue outsider at the head of many a now-distinguished family tree, The Meat Stall has a story far more colorful than that of its offspring. Accordingly, I will consider this picture when it was-emphatically-alone of its kind.

Aertsen's painting has generated many (often conflicting) art historical interpretations. Some have contended that its subject matter is resolutely secular, while others have read in it a sacred, indeed, Eucharistie message.5 While many have argued that its tone is moralizing, a few have described it as unabashedly festive, even Rabelaisian.6 Scholars have found sources for its imagery in authors as diverse as Pliny, Desiderius Erasmus, Saint Augustine, Martial, Juvenal, and Saint Luke.7 One reason that The Meat Stall can support such varying interpretations may be the total absence of surviving documentation concerning its original function or meaning. …