Aertsen’s Cook in front of the Stove (1559)
A genre scene, if art, is not photojournalism before its time. By appearing to depict everyday life, the artist suggests that close attention to nature helps reveal a truer reality behind appearances, specifically the interior life of the human mind which when seen clearly - and rid of individual ego-illusions - is an exact copy of God's mind. In modern-day, secular terms, the mind contains the creative power of nature and the universe. It is the quintessence of everything.
Pieter Aertsen, a Dutch artist, painted kitchen scenes for the growing mercantile class of his day. However few of his patrons would have guessed his underlying intentions. Linked to art's traditions, his views, though superficially external, are imaginal and, thus, internal. Here, the cook as a painter stands in profile, her arm extended towards her unseen canvas on the left. She seems to be turning her head to check herself in the mirror (both the image we see and what she paints).
Note how her distinctively impossible eye is painted as though it was flat on the canvas facing us.1 Just as Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) famously preached that "the eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God's eye are one eye”2, so here Aertsen's maid sees him through the same eye that he sees her. His eye and her eye are one eye.
A few observations follow but, as always, bear in mind that they are highly selective. They are only a fraction of the content.
Click next thumbnail to continue
The cook's other hand (forget the handle she does not hold3) reaches for food in a basket, a roundish item often used to represent palettes.4 In it, though is a severed hand. See how the chicken mimics in reflection the shape of her own. This, then, is no ordinary palette but the imagination seen as a palette, a basket from which to select forms or ideas instead of colors. (Plato's word for form was idea.5) The chicken-hand represents craft while the cabbage above it is an eye and represents vision. The chopped stem in its center is not a pupil but the optic nerve because this is a view from behind his eye, ie. in his mind. The diagram below shows how an actual nerve extends like the stem of the cabbage from the back of the eyeball.6
Click next thumbnail to continue
Beneath her palette-hand is another cabbage (above). It is highly suggestive and pre-dates Georgia O'Keefe's paintings of the vagina-like vegetable (below) by nearly 400 years. And just as vision and craft are side-by-side so, just below the feminine cabbage, are phallic radishes. Together they represent the male and female parts crucial to (pro)creation and conception as well as the androgyny of the artistic mind. Aertsen's own conception (the pun is always intentional) is therefore not the 16th-century equivalent of a photograph.
More Works by Aertsen
Original Publication Date on EPPH: 23 Oct 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.