Sara Rex

Having been familiar with Eldzier Cortor’s delicately layered, nostalgic painting style, I was shocked and moved by his viscerally intense print series, L’Abbatoire. The imagery was drawn from a strong memory of a rustic, open-air abattoire, or slaughterhouse, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which Cortor visited in 1949 during his Guggenheim Fellowship. The frenetic energy, the awful smell, and the gore as men worked naked in the heat to hang the carcasses and butcher the cattle inspired a series of prints that Cortor began in the 1950s and continued through the ’80s.

Years after his return to the US, Cortor learned that several colleagues he met in Haiti had been murdered under the corrupt and repressive regime of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier (president from 1957 to 1971) and his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier (president from 1971 to 1986) by the Tonton Macoutes, the militia that savagely killed an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 Haitians. With this horrifying news, Cortor revisited L’Abbatoire as a metaphor for such brutality. L’Abbatoire No. III writhes with violent imagery: ghoulish forms burst from the paper among details of body parts, meat hooks, howling mouths, and the low-arched stalls of the Haitian slaughterhouse. The hues exude a sense of intense heat, with flames licking the figures. Scenes of death by Dante, Bruegel, and Goya come to mind, as does the sickening prevalence of violence in modern history.

Cortor lived to be 99. In one of his last interviews, he was asked about L’Abbatoire. Recalling events from 60 years ago, he spoke of that visit to the Haitian slaughterhouse, but did not mention his later connection of this scene to the murder of his friends. After reading the interview, I must ask: Could the creation of art in response to a traumatic event be cathartic, or even help a violent memory to fade? For me, Cortor’s L’Abbatoire prints seem like an attempt at personal exorcism—a response to incomprehensible violence that deeply seared his soul.

Painting featuring abstract figures in front of bright red background
Eldzier Cortor, in collaboration with Sekino Jun’ichirō, L’Abbatoire I, 1955. Color woodcut. Gift of Eldzier Cortor in memory of Sophia Rose Cortor. © Eldzier Cortor; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY. 2012.1475

Update January 25, 2017 10:50 pm

Among the 803 likes and individual comments on this Instagram post, here is a highlight:

roulotfineprints Fantastic print and great essay.


Sara Rex is an MFA Associate and chairperson of the MFA Associates weekend guides.