In his posthumously published memoir, A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway describes going to the Musée du Luxembourg during his early, lean years as an expat in Paris: “The paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry.” I wonder how Papa Hem would have reacted to the still lifes of Chaim Soutine, had he seen them in such a state of caloric deficiency. Soutine, after all, learned a lot from Cézanne, and he was working hard and hungry in France when Hemingway arrived in the country in 1921. But Soutine’s preferred subjects— half-plucked turkeys, disemboweled stingrays, putrefying carcasses of beef—are a harsh aperitif next to the voluminous apples of Cézanne.
Though to varying degrees revolting, these still lifes are fascinating objects.
Though to varying degrees revolting, these still lifes are fascinating objects—a fact to which “Chaim Soutine: Flesh,” an exhibition currently on view at the Jewish Museum, firmly attests. The exhibition includes thirty-two paintings by the Russian immigrant, nearly all of which are still lifes . . . though I suppose it would be more fitting to use the French version of the phrase—nature morte—because the great majority of objects depicted here are, in fact, dead.
The organizers of “Flesh,” led by the Jewish Museum’s Neubauer Family Foundation Associate Curator Stephen Brown, suggest that Soutine’s morbidity was developed in response to the violence he encountered as a child and young adult. Chaim Soutine (1893–1943) was born in a small town in the outskirts of the Russian Empire to an impoverished clothes-mender. As the exhibition’s opening wall text recalls, thousands of Russian Jews were killed during sporadic pogroms that took place throughout Soutine’s childhood. The tenth of eleven children, he also faced an abusive father and an at-times repressive Orthodox Jewish community that frowned upon his compulsive doodling. One story has young Chaim being beaten to within an inch of his life for drawing a portrait of an old man—strictly verboten in a religious culture that forbade visual representation of the human figure.
But such biographical tidbits can only reveal so much about paintings whose concerns were, as it turns out, chiefly aesthetic. Dwelling too long on an artist’s upbringing leads one towards the occult hocus-pocus that is psychoanalysis. This trend has especially affected Soutine scholarship. The painter, it must be admitted, was a walking caricature of the bohemian nutcase: poor, antisocial, slovenly, destructively perfectionist. But fundamental misunderstandings of Expressionism, combined with Soutine’s eccentric personality, have caused critics to cast Chaim as a tortured soul whose paintings were shaped by—and, indeed, created because of—emotional instability.
Happily, the Jewish Museum largely avoids this spurious approach. Wall texts present biographical anecdotes as explanatory background information for Soutine’s gruesome subject matter, rather than as some sort of master key to the paintings’ ultimate meaning. Primarily, the texts address the visual and material concerns of Soutine’s art.
Greeting us upon entry to “Flesh” is a powerful, emotive painting. Borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and titled Still Life with Rayfish (ca. 1924), the work is a modernist adaptation of Chardin’s Ray (ca. 1725). Instead of copying the work directly, Soutine set up his own scene— inspired by, but not slavishly imitative of, Chardin’s eighteenth-century example—to work from observation. Soutine’s ray, red guts spilling out onto a dirty yellow tabletop napkin, is a fittingly grim subject to introduce “Flesh,” but the work itself is an orgiastic feast of painterly interest. Soutine makes us feel the surfaces of the ray’s skin and innards—their viscosity, their slime-like wetness, their indeterminable “whatness.” Soutine’s objects crowd towards the edges of the canvas, departing from Chardin’s more classical composition. Whereas Chardin’s balance and intellect invites us to look, to involve ourselves with the illusion, Soutine shoves us into the room, an arm’s length away from the living-dead textures.
Soutine shoves us into the room, an arm’s length away from the living-dead textures.
In an applauding and perceptive review of the Museum of Modern Art’s 1950 retrospective, Soutine’s first in the United States, the painter Jack Tworkov wrote that “Cézanne’s art is essentially spatial. Soutine’s, an art of movement, has temporal overtones.” It’s an intriguing comparison, and Tworkov’s understanding of Soutine is validated by the current exhibition. These paintings ask you to move around them: Stand back. Get up close. Look at them askew. See how the light reflects unevenly off their mottled dark passages. Follow those trembling lines and see if you can find the same mark twice. You get the sense that you’re looking at an image in time, that things shift and change when you notice new details or concentrate on specific areas. The effect is closer to that of cinema than still photography.
Because of its focus on still life, “Flesh” elides perhaps the painter’s most electrifying period: his three years, from 1919–22, painting the landscape in Céret, a small town on the southern border of France in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains. In Céret, Soutine flung paint at his most frenzied, self-obsessed, and anarchic. The landscapes represent Soutine’s attempt to push the expressionist manner to its illogical extremes. But Soutine turned sour on the works soon after leaving Céret, even embarking on a feverish campaign to destroy the lot of them. The painter’s subsequent stylistic shift was a look back, towards the old masters. Hence the Chardin-derived Still Life with Rayfish. Hence, too, the Rembrandt-inspired Carcass of Beef (ca. 1925), which is also on view at the Jewish Museum. To be sure, these works, though more organized, still evince an uncommon openness to chance and contingency. There’s a clear uninterest in following plans or building spatial form. I wouldn’t trust Chaim Soutine with the construction of a sandcastle.
Modern critics partial to the Céret landscapes (which made Soutine a posthumous hero in the 1950s world of gestural abstraction) have seen Soutine’s later work as indicative of an emotional exhaustion caused by Hitler’s occupation of France and debilitating health issues. The paintings currently on view at the Jewish Museum suggest otherwise. Duds are to be expected by a painter so inclined to risk everything, and a few snuck into this exhibition, but the majority of these works bear the mark of an artist who, though cognizant of the limitations of his medium, wields powerfully its evocative possibilities. In this way, dead matter comes to life.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 10, on page 48
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