Theses Doctoral

Rendering Bodies: The Abattoir in Modern Art and Photography

Ratch, Corey

The prevalence of images of the fragmented bodies of nonhuman animals is largely unaccounted for in the history of interwar European art, photography, and cinema, a result of the historical marginalization of the slaughterhouse to the edges of Western culture. But despite, and sometimes because of, the suppression of the visibility of the abattoir, visions of the grisly world of modern animal production form a sizeable and important subset of avant-garde art, photography, film, and literature beginning in the 1920s.

No significant studies have placed images of real, disassembled animals into a broader account of avant-garde photography, nor have they made the connection between the great increase in photographic and filmic art and media in the period and the simultaneously rapid growth of animal production leading up to and during it. I argue that the interwar period witnessed a profound interplay between the industrial slaughterhouse, visual culture, and avant-garde art, marked by the dual meaning of Nicole Shukin’s conceptualization of rendering as both the creating of images of and the material processing of nonhuman animal bodies.

I assert that through the use of animal-derived gelatin, the industrial processing of animals helped to fuel the explosive growth of photography, cinema, and thus visual culture in the period. I examine a number of examples of artistic and photographic works that picture slaughter animals, ironically through a medium (photography) that is materially tied to the history and conditions of the abattoir, revealing a poignant connection between the content of the images seen and the form of their material substrate. I further read the photographic projects under study in this dissertation as each in their own way turning our attention to the material precarity of the animal body, both human and nonhuman, and a questioning of the human/animal divide that had been accelerating since the nineteenth century.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Hutchinson, Elizabeth West
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 1, 2023