Object Lesson: Grotesque, Advanced Flesh-tone Study, or Commentary on Ancient Myth ?

Europa’s Revenge Auseklis Ozols, Oil on Linen, 2000. Private Collection

Painting raw meat is an advanced still life lesson that is directly related to movement toward study of the figure and painting flesh tones. It is an exercise that occupies an important and specific place in the curriculum and course of study for painting the human figure in both Realist and Classical oil painting techniques.

It is grotesque, pungent, and excruciatingly difficult. It needs to happen fast, before decomposition sets in. The chase of finding this form exists under extreme pressure created by time constraints not only from the atmosphere, sun and normal pressures of painting from direct observation (which change by the minute according to the constant turning of the earth and accompanying lighting situations,) but also from the affect of observing flesh turn to rot. The exercise accelerates the movement and desire to finish the painting as quickly as possible.

These conditions are erased when working from a photograph. Creating from direct observation has an important relationship with realism and the artist’s point of view as they render any form in any medium or genre.

This skinned cow head was painted quickly by Auseklis Ozols in 2000. It was brought to him in a black plastic bag (also rendered in the composition) by one of his apprentices who was a local chef. Ozols painted it that same day, pulling a canvas sitting in his studio and painting the entire thing.

This painting is a masterpiece of a la prima technique, of the mixing of flesh tones, and the rendering of a head. He later added the additional objects: nautilus shell, vase, and ghostly rendering of Corregio angel in background.

If nothing else this painting is a study of textures: the garbage bag, mother of pearl, the white linen cloth, the antique vase. The density, reflective quality, and symbolism of each of these objects in combination with the skinned cow head offers endless opportunity for insight.

The title is a response to the story of Rape of Europa. One of the most famous depictions is by Titian and illustrates the Zeus disguising himself as a cow and raping a young woman named Europa as described below in this passage from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Book II, 846-875 and translated by Darryl Hine.

As the god very slowly   
Inched from the shore and the dry land he planted his spurious footprints   
Deep in the shallows. Thus swimming out farther, he carried his prey off   
Into the midst of the sea. Almost fainting with terror she glanced back,   
As she was carried away, at the shore left behind. As she gripped one   
Horn in her right hand while clutching the back of the beast with the other,   
Meanwhile her fluttering draperies billowed behind on the sea breeze.

The Rape of Europa, Titian. Oil on Canvas, 178 cm × 205 cm (70 in × 81 in) Collection of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

Below is Rembrandt’s study of raw meat in his painting the Flayed Ox which hangs at the Louvre in Paris. The brushstrokes, colors, subtle temperature shifts and masses of piled paint that sculpt the form show a direct relationship to the manner in which Rembrandt rendered the human figure and face.

Rembrandt’s understanding of the color mixtures relate to the pulsing life-force. The delicate task of creating myriad variations of both value and temperature (not just a tube of pre-mixed “flesh tint”!) for painting skin exists beautifully in his extensive body of work incorporating the figure. A great example of this is Return of the Prodigal Son, when comparing the colors on the bare, dirty, tired feet of the returning son to the glowing flesh tones in the hand and face of the father.

Flayed Ox. Rembrandt, 1655. Oil on Wood, 94 x96 cm Collection of the Louvre, Paris
The Prodigal Son, Rembrandt. Oil on Canvas, 262 X 205 cm. Collection of the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

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