Saturday, March 25, 2006

Two Interiors

















Two interiors by David Teniers the Younger (1610-90), one a kitchen scene, the other, witches preparing for a sabbath. What amuses me is, which is the scene of horror? Mrs Teniers sitting peeling apples among a hecatomb of slaughtered animals, or Mrs Teniers getting ready to meet Satan? The swan pie, decorated with a floral crown and (I think) with the bird’s beak gilded (for that was the classy way to serve swan) is scarcely less grotesque than any of the zoomorphs and serras in the witchcraft picture. The dead things hanging overhead are merely brought back to life as transitional beings in the sabbath scene, the hag making witches’ brew is just another cook preparing soup, in both interiors, the chimney has prime importance: wide enough to roast birds on spits six in a row, or to fly up, preceded by a spirit in animal form. And Mrs Teniers, demurely looking round in both pictures: is that her husband arriving, or is it the Devil?

That the ‘embarrassment of riches’ looks so like the chaotic accumulations of witchcraft perhaps indicates that Teniers was doing these pictures rapidly, reproducing poses that he knew, quoting himself. I see that he is the 9th ‘most stolen’ painter in a list inevitably headed by Picasso: lots of minor, ill-guarded galleries must have pictures by this indefatigable and long-lived artist. What he lacked in outright quality, he made up for in quantity. Yet Teniers could be subversive: another kitchen scene is populated solely by macaques, as if he did see the strangeness of ordinary things, and then the ordinariness of the strange.

The town of Reading still has a proper game butcher, Vicars: not everybody is affronted by meat still in its fur, or feathers. Black blood shows at the nostrils of hares, sometimes a few redder drops show in the sawdust. Tell me, I say to my students, lecturing on Hero and Leander (‘Even as a bird, which in our hands we wring / Forth plungeth, and oft flutters with her wing…’ – that most subversive appeal to common experience, as Leander finally gets his way with Hero), has anyone here ever had to kill an animal to eat? And sometimes, someone has had to do that, in the normal course of things on the farm. That kitchen, in the painting, is so close to the exterior world - in through the open door and onto the spit it goes. In supermarkets, the meat counter is always far from the daylight, the rain and the wind.

(The Teniers picture of the kitchen and that of the apes are at http://www.wga.hu/index1.html

if you enter 'Teniers' in the 'Author' search box.)

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