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Cover Story: Raging Paint

My first sight of a genuine Chaim Soutine painting was unforgettable. He was, at that time, considered a rather secondary artist from the innovative early 1900s

By Fran Watson · February 18th, 1999 · Cover Story
  Chaim Soutine, 1926
Chaim Soutine, 1926

I knew little about him, beyond the name and a few reproductions in generic printed collections. But the painting was electric. On the wall of the entrance hall in the Barnes Foundation near Philadelphia hung one of the finest definitions of expressionism I've ever seen. Viscerally red, red, red, carved in gullies and mounds of raw pigment, and so expressive and fresh-looking that even now, years later, that painting of raw beef remains clear in my memory. And it was seen on a day full of great works by Matisse, Klee, Cézanne and others, making such an impact unlikely at best.

Several of my traveling companions wandered up to see what it was that held me so enthralled, then turned away with expressions of mild disinterest, possibly even disgust. One of them asked, "What's it all about, anyway?"

"It's all about paint," I answered softly. And about the artist whose works will be on display beginning Sunday at the Cincinnati Art Museum. No matter what the subject matter, the finished work is always about Chaim Soutine, its title merely a nod to convention.

Soutine was a passionate young man who stabbed paintings he did not like, who flung himself at paintings in progress, and who reacted violently to any criticism of or reference to his work as similar to that of any other artist. This, in spite of the fact that his remarkable "beef" paintings were inspired by Rembrandt's "Slaughtered Ox."

The meat of the issue
These very paintings gave rise to one of those anecdotes which follow eccentric artists as they become famous. Soutine would shop diligently for just the right piece of beef, the perfect dead chicken, which he would then hang in his studio for days, until it was ripe. A certain degree of decay was necessary to the subject's suitability, plus the fact that Soutine worked without sketches. He would study his choice for days, then furiously attack a canvas without preliminary drawing or guides, rapidly completing the painting in very little time.

The predictable result of such an agenda was pretty rank meat, and eventually, pretty ruffled neighbors, who complained loudly about the odors emanating from the artist's apartment. Soutine must have found the right words, because he convinced the gendarmes that art was more important than aroma. They allowed him to keep the carcass until the painting was finished.

The epitome of "the starving artist," he was thin, intense, and always short on funds. At least one shopkeeper was so moved by his hungry appearance that he tried to convince Soutine to purchase a fine plump bird, assuming he was shopping for food. But Soutine's choice was inevitably based on the length of the fowl's neck and its disreputable, underfed appearance. He would then fast for days while studying his subject, eventually attacking his canvas with hungry emotion.

His inspirations
Many of his ideas for paintings were drawn from the concise renderings of old masters' works.

He admired the perfection of Rembrandt, the classicism of Chardin, Tintorreto and Goya, as well as the exciting newer circle of contemporary French artists such as Monet, Cézanne and Courbet. While appearing to imitate other artists, his paintings were uniquely different, paying homage only to some composition or concept.

His landscapes, harking to Cézanne, flew outward toward the edges of the canvas with incongruous energy. His portraits were only vague references to other poses which he wildly reinterpreted with little thought for the original. When the media needed an easily recognizable reference point, they often chose Van Gogh to describe Soutine's style: a 1939 Newsweek article called him the "Van Gogh of Our Time," perhaps only because his painting defied the definitions which later accompanied the American Abstract Expressionists.

Soutine was in the right place at the right time, and with the right people. He was in Paris in the early years of the 20th century, the height of new artistic expression. Those who became his friends and patrons were eventually the stuff of history: Modigliani, Lipchitz, Chagall, Guillaume and his staunchest ally, Leopold Zborowski. The latter's support was the most tangible: It took the form of money, food and the sale of Soutine's work in his gallery.

His patron
But it was an American, one of the nouveau riche, Albert Barnes, who actually launched Soutine's international recognition with the purchase of "The Pastry Cook," shown to him by Paul Guillaume. Guillaume then took Barnes to Zborowski's apartment, then serving as his gallery, where Barnes bought every Soutine he had. Barnes had made his fortune in patent medicine, but he had an instinctive eye for art, worth more than the formula which made possible his purchases. A few years ago, with the death of the last of Barnes' appointed guardians for his foundation, there was a concerted effort to break up his massive collection by the "art powers," during which at least one "expert" attempted to raise questions about the authenticity of the collection, saying that some of the works were fakes. The rumor died almost as quickly as it was uttered, since provenance places Barnes in Paris with the artists themselves and the people who were brave enough to support them.

Barnes' excellent taste in art was not always appreciated here in the United States. Four years after purchasing his first Soutine painting, he exhibited much of his collection in conservative Philadelphia, showing only the most avant garde works he possessed. Public reaction was extremely negative to Soutine and his peers Lipchitz, Derain and Modigliani, and critics labeled the exhibit one of "deranged" artists.

Modigliani is the artist most often associated with Soutine. They were close friends until Modigliani's death, and his rather idealized portrait of Soutine is often connected with Soutine exhibits. As is usual with Modigliani's work, his friend is depicted as elongated, surprisingly neat, and somehow more open than he was known to be.

While Soutine's list of mistresses is formidable, those who knew him were aware of his social shortcomings. During the two years he lived at Ceret, France, the site of most of his landscapes, he had almost no human contact, possibly due as much to language barriers as to reticence. The residents spoke Catalan, a dialect of Spanish, and Soutine didn't understand them, adding to his usual inability to make new acquaintances.

Things picked up for Soutine during the 1920s. He is often referred to as a "between the wars" artist, a time when the art market was steamy. In 1930, three of his works were included in the new Modern Museum of Art's exhibit curated by Alfred Barr. Barr used a language of violence to describe Soutine's work, speaking of "the grotesque aspects of reality," "crazy, twisted landscapes" and "extravagant gusto," perhaps the most apt descriptions of the paintings thus far.

An unmistakable implication of speed in his brush work can be explained by Soutine's favorite painting support. He would search the Paris flea market for cheap, mundane 17th-century paintings, scour them and paint over them. When admonishing friends to help him in his search, he would explain that only that particular historic era featured the quality of canvas he preferred. He liked the feel of these slick surfaces, saying, "I like my brush to slide."

His impact on the world of art
Only a few years after Soutine's death in 1943 was New York acknowledged as the new art capital of the world, ushering in new names and drastic changes in perception, many of which can be traced directly to Soutine's vision.

William Seitz, an abstract painter of the 1950s, pointed to Willem de Kooning as Soutine's standard bearer. This connection between a purportedly "new" abstract expressionist movement and the vigorous paint quality in Soutine's paintings had earlier been discounted by Jack Tworkov, another of de Kooning' s contemporaries, but Seitz pointed out that de Kooning was vocally grateful to the influence of those works. De Kooning's "Women" series provides a most obvious visual link with Soutine. Clement Greenberg's touted "action painters" were vocal about their appreciation of Soutine's paint freedom, evident in many of their works.

Delving into Soutine's life and work is a historic banquet. His was the time of most drastic alterations in all aspects of society, the arts just one of many. His friends, lifestyle, Paris and the politics he lived with, so colorful-seeming in retrospect, are important components of the world as a whole today.

Historians will always wonder what great talents were lost in the Holocaust. While there is little in the actual painting to identify Soutine's ethnic background, his origins became of paramount importance during the Nazi occupation of France. The continual harassment and limitations placed upon him were debilitating to his health, exacerbating bleeding ulcer attacks, the ultimate cause of his death in 1943.

The extent of Hitler's anti-Semitic actions in Europe during the early 1940s wiped out creativity in the Jewish community, without regard to the incredible loss. In recent years, new attempts to bring the works of Jewish artists of this period to public attention, particularly on the part of the Jewish Museum in New York, have been met with universal approval as a valid method of keeping the horrific consequences of that time alive in our memory.

It's quite possible that, next to Cézanne, Chaim Soutine was the greatest influence on modern art. Reproductions fall impossibly short of the immediacy of these paintings, where every stroke comes loaded with a living energy seldom so easily transmitted across time.



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