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Is Chaim Soutine the Great Overlooked Jewish Painter of Modernity?

A new gallery show helps reassess the Lithuanian-born artist’s important work—and reveals it as anything but tragic

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Chaim Soutine, “Landscape at Céret, With Red Trees,” ca. 1919, oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 25 1/2 inches (54 x 64.8 cm), private collection. (All images courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery)
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On a quiet block in Chelsea, nestled among dozens of contemporary art exhibitions, a small but ambitious show has just opened seeking to give one of the great modern masters his due. Life in Death: Still Lifes and Select Masterworks of Chaim Soutine, on view through June 14 at Paul Kasmin Gallery, is the first in a series of exhibitions the gallery will present meant to re-contextualize the work of Lithuanian-born artist Chaim Soutine.

Soutine’s work was first introduced to American audiences in 1950 in his eponymous retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In his seminal essay, exhibition curator Monroe Wheeler wrote of Soutine, “from an early age he used his hardship, pessimism, and truculence to set a tragic tone for his painting, irrespective of its subject matter.” Looking at Soutine’s body of work, it does in fact emanate tragedy, from his flaccid blue chickens nailed to a wall, to his gaunt women whose twisted hands seem to contain the sadness of the world. Though further exhibitions, catalogs, and scholarship have emerged in the past half century—notably significant exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1968 and at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1998 that have contributed tremendous scholarship to his legacy—the vision of Soutine as a tragedian has nonetheless prevailed.

Through a selection of rarely before seen works, including paintings last seen in the MoMA show, Life in Death, curated by Esti Dunow and Maurice Tuchman, seeks to overturn this view of Soutine as an obsessive fixated on disturbing imagery, and to explore the vibrancy in even his grimmest paintings. By extension, the exhibition and accompanying catalog turn inward, highlighting the way in which Soutine’s subject matter, from his butchered animals to his weapon-like tableware, are abstract reflections on his personal history; even when evoking death, his images are nonetheless teeming with life.

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There is a certain enigmatic quality to Soutine; he was an introspective man who did not keep a journal, did not title or sign his works, left no significant collection of letters, had limited ties with his family (if at all), and died without a dealer to preserve his legacy. Much of Soutine’s personal history is the stuff of legend, composed of stories told frequently enough that one assumes them to be at least partially true.

What we do know is that Soutine was born to an observant Jewish family in 1893 in Smilovitchi, a small village near Minsk in the Pale of Settlement, and raised at a time when it was considered taboo for Jews to paint figurative imagery. Soutine was frequently admonished and often beaten by his brothers for his artistic inclinations and told repeatedly that “a Jew must not paint.” It was after he created a rendering of the rabbi and was subsequently attacked by the rabbi’s son—which resulted in a court case and a financial settlement—that Soutine was able to enroll in art school in Vilna, before moving on to Paris to pursue his dream of becoming a painter. It was there, after a brief stint at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, that Soutine installed himself in a studio on the Left Bank and began to fulfill the far-fetched dream of his childhood.

Life in Death takes as its focus a selection of Soutine’s still lifes created between 1919 and 1926, placing them in conversation with a handful of landscapes and portraits created during the same time. The exhibition opens with a series of Soutine’s “Céret” works, tremendously vivid landscapes painted in Céret, France, where he lived for three years. Discounted by early critics as wild and illegible and later targeted by Soutine himself as “primitive” works that he sought to destroy, in truth the Céret works are striking compositions. Rendered in deep greens, rich browns, and shocks of white, they depict natural beauty in all its infinite brutality, a “compulsive, throbbing, interweaving of trees and sky and houses,” as Dunow describes it, and are arguably some of his best work.

While these works are not still lifes in the traditional sense, under the careful gaze of Soutine, who insisted on painting exclusively from life, they read as such and provide a perfect entry point for exploring the liveliness that Dunow and Tuchman see as an overlooked component of his work. Soutine, by all counts, was an extremist when it came to his painting, known for beginning with roughly 40 paintbrushes at the outset of each work and then, red-faced and sweating, flinging them aside as he used them. “His intensity of purpose was such that it overrode all other considerations,” Tuchman says of Soutine’s practice, a sentiment the Céret paintings exude with their densely layered paint and thick streaks of vigorously applied color. “He smeared canvas with his fingers and hand sometimes. The act of painting was a truly violent exercise.”

This “violence” extended beyond just his painting process, spilling over into his preparation as well. Soutine was a great fan of the old masters, in particular Corot, Courbet, and most especially Rembrandt, and some of his best-known works are still lifes of animal carcasses—quarters of beef, hanging fowl, and splayed rabbits—drawn from paintings by these very artists. When Soutine would find a painting that he wished to emulate, rather than paint directly from the work, he would painstakingly recreate the scene, sparing no detail. He was known to drive through the countryside for days to find the right woman to depict, forcing his assistant to continuously pour blood over a side of beef to maintain its appearance of being freshly slaughtered, and insisting that his models remain still, even in the face of severe weather.

It was perhaps this intense preparation that enabled him to then focus all of his energy on the act of painting itself, a process that Dunow sees as integral to the animation of his work. “There is just this incredible richness which comes from his painting in front of the life,” Dunow says. “It was like a direct attack. He was looking at something and it was immediate–looking and transferring what he was seeing onto the canvas. And in these years especially we see this incredibly thick, loaded brush, a juiciness to the composition.” Dunow feels that showing these carcass works, images that seem to be capturing death, is essential in re-contextualizing Soutine. “We did want to show the tough pictures, the pictures that people tend to find unsettling,” said Dunow. “There were a lot of misconceptions about how people perceived Soutine. By including these works we want to show the life and the lushness.”

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Beyond Soutine’s formal approach to these paintings, a closer look at his biography sheds further insight into the truly animated nature of these works. Soutine was the son of a poor mender, the 10th of 11 children. Growing up, hunger was likely his only constant, and it is probable that the ulcers that plagued him his entire adult life, and that ultimately killed him, were the result of the extreme poverty in which he was raised. By the time Soutine had money for such luxuries as chicken or beef, he was physically unable to consume them, limited to a diet of bread, potatoes, and milk. Unlike his idol Rembrandt, for Soutine food was a very personal matter, one that had long defined his life. His dealer Léopold Zborowski said that Soutine would often fast in front of one of the pieces of meat he had procured for a still life, waiting until he was sufficiently starved before he began painting it, perhaps recalling the hunger of his early years.

As Dunow and Tuchman write in the catalog of life in the shtetl, “Food and the rituals associated with it played a dominant role in family, community, and religion. … In a community in which distinctions between holy and secular were often blurred, food was the most important visible symbol of the link between religious and daily life.” For Soutine, who was raised with a religion in which holidays and food were closely tied, rather than an image of death, the carcass was in many ways an image of life, celebration, and sustenance, and the gravity with which he considered food is reflected in his very composition.

Unlike Rembrandt, or even Soutine’s contemporary Marc Chagall, both of whom would portray a scene surrounding the piece of meat they were painting, for Soutine the meat itself was the entirety of the composition. Gone is the deli counter, the place setting, or the tablecloth. The subject at hand is all that matters, displayed at the foreground of a flat plane. Here it is not the three-dimensionality that matters, but rather the vigor with which the image was composed, the hue of the animal, the way its limbs fall, recumbent on the table. In one of the most striking images on view in the exhibition, “Hare With Forks,” an unskinned rabbit lies on a white cloth with two anthropomorphized forks, placed like claws on either side of its body. It is not the death of the animal that we are to concern ourselves with, but the animal—the food itself—placed before our consumptive eye.

Soutine’s singular approach to composition may also reflect his response to a deeper problem rooted in his shtetl upbringing. Michel Kikoine, a fellow painter-in-exile who first went with Soutine to Vilna, said that “no painter from the shtetl could ever completely overcome the absence of a pictorial tradition.” Dunow and Tuchman suggest in their essay “Soutine at Work: The Passion of a Painter” that Soutine compensated for this deficiency through his formal approach: “He concentrated on the inner harmonies of the image, the power of the image itself, with less regard for the relationship of the image to the picture frame.” Coming from a community in which superstition abounded about mis-looking and the evil eye, in Paris Soutine was finally able to truly “look,” and he did so with great gusto.

While artists like Chagall are readily accepted as distinctly Jewish artists, Soutine, whose imagery is much less overtly “Jewish,” has not been canonized with the same vigor. As Nobel prize-winning neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel writes in the catalog that accompanies the exhibition, in contrast to Chagall “Soutine approached his art from the opposite end of the Jewish ideological spectrum, concerning himself with the underlying uncertainty and existential anxiety that characterized Jewish existence in Europe. … Thus, in contrast to Chagall’s romantic fantasies of life, love, and marriage in the shtetl, Soutine dwelled on the tragic, lonely, and melancholy anxiety of the Jewish experience in the Diaspora.”

This comparison, however, risks reducing Soutine, once again, to the figure of the tragic artist. Norman Kleeblatt, who co-curated with Ken Silver the Soutine exhibition An Expressionist in Paris at the Jewish Museum, sees a risk in too definitively placing Soutine in one single category. Because of the mythology that surrounds the painter’s biography, Kleeblatt feels that “Soutine was a bit of a blank slate on which you could project your own anxiety.” In conceiving of their exhibition, Kleeblatt and Silver opted to approach Soutine through the different ways that his work had been explained by writers and critics, confronting his artistic legacy by exploring three iterations of Soutine’s reception history: as the insider artist expanding upon the long tradition of classic European painting; the outsider artist or exotic foreigner; and—as distilled from MoMA’s 1950 retrospective—an avatar for emerging Abstract Expressionism and a cipher for the Holocaust.

Art history has not been generous to Soutine. More than that of any of his contemporaries, Soutine’s work has been overlooked and under-recognized, perhaps due to the uncomfortable duality that pervades his life and work. An outsider in the shtetl but a foreigner in Paris, an expressionist painter surrounded by Cubists, Fauvists, and Dadaists, a man shunned by his Jewish community yet discriminated against for being a Jew in France, an artist fulfilling his life’s dream by painting images of death, Soutine was in many ways always a liminal figure. Like the Yiddish writers of the time who eschewed Hebrew in favor of a language that could more aptly capture the nuance of their particular sorrow and anxiety, Soutine seemed to use his painting to capture and express his innermost feelings—feelings that veered wildly from exuberance and enlightenment to depression and deep anxiety.

Soutine’s exhibition opened at MoMA just as Abstract Expressionism was gaining footing in New York, and it had a tremendous effect on American painters at the time, leading critics to suggest that Soutine’s work heralded abstraction. If one looks closely enough, buried within Soutine’s densely layered paint, in his vigorously applied brushstrokes there does seem to be the nascence of Abstract Expressionism, a deeply felt and emotive precursor to the artistic movement that went on to captivate America in part through the break with the representational tradition in painting that Soutine helped to begin. Yet Soutine’s paintings, even at their grimmest, are not simply formal exercises or ways of exorcising deep anxiety—they are also vibrant celebrations of life. Each furious brushstroke was a step further from the misery of his tumultuous and tragic childhood, and the angst, torture, and anxiety they convey are more than anything a celebration of the human experience, no matter how tragic it might be.

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Chaim Soutine: Life In Death

Still lifes and select masterworks, through June 14 at Paul Kasmin Gallery
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