While walking through a gallery, I once asked an artist with me to define her disappointment in some elegant landscapes. There was something hollow about them, she said, then added: “They don’t seem necessary.” Her observation haunted me as I went through the Chaim Soutine show that opened last week at the Jewish Museum. Few artists in this century have made work that looks so necessary. Each Soutine is an avowal as well as a picture; in this respect, his work resembles that of his masters, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. At the same time, Soutine’s interest for us is not merely that of a cri de coeur, as it would be if he were just a passionate eccentric. Soutine also matters in a more emblematic sense – as one of those necessary figures who set modernity itself into stark relief.
Organized by Norman L. Kleeblatt and Kenneth E. Silver, this is the first museum exhibition of Soutine’s art in New York since 1950. The show of 56 paintings is small by contemporary standards but includes characteristic examples taken from each of his major series: the Céret landscapes, the animal carcasses, the portraits of friends and uniformed servants. Instead of stressing chronology or theme, the curators emphasize the three main ways of regarding Soutine that have evolved during the course of this century. He was by turns a Jewish primitive, a master in the French tradition, and a “prophet” of Abstract Expressionism. This curatorial approach can be awkward – many pictures fit all three categories – but it has the important advantage of stressing the wide-ranging role that Soutine plays in the modern mind.
The tenth of eleven children, Soutine (1893? 1943) grew up in a small shtetl not far from Minsk. His family was impoverished and his childhood miserable. He received little encouragement as a young artist; indeed, a religious distrust of the visual in his community led to constant criticism and, on one occasion, to a severe beating. Not surprisingly, Soutine fled the shtetl, eventually settling in Paris in 1913. In many ways, his art represents a violent rebellion against the culture of his childhood. Yet it also reflects the intense emotional fervor that was one characteristic of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. Extremes of feeling rarely have much shading: It is part of Soutine’s genius, however, to have infused his heated art with such ambivalence. He himself was aware of this, telling his biographer, “Once I saw the village butcher slice the neck of a bird and drain the blood out of it. I wanted to cry out, but his joyful expression caught the sound in my throat.” Soutine then patted his own throat, according to the biographer, and said, “This cry, I always feel it in there.”
Soutine tried always to “liberate” that cry, he said, whether the subject was a person or a beef carcass. In a small picture of a girl clutching a doll, for example, he can convey a powerful sensation of inchoate longing; even the girl’s doll seems wrapped up, mummified. And no pictures of dead animals, of course, are more alive than those by Soutine. In Rembrandt’s great depiction of a beef carcass, which inspired Soutine, the animal is turned to one side. But Soutine unflinchingly confronts the splayed carcass dead-on. Here is a revelatory image of the twentieth century, one that conveys a shattering vulnerability. (The carcass could almost be a bloody heart torn from a chest.) In the indignities of death, Soutine found a way to express the shaming terror of being utterly exposed – and of suffering a kind of psychological castration. He seems to reach gut bottom.
Of course, Soutine does this not through imagery alone but through turning the paint itself into a kind of turbulent human clay. The paint seems tangible, literal, basic. It could be mixed with mud and blood; it looks as undeniable as clotted earth. That makes the metaphysical tremors in his art – the fiery wind whipping through his landscapes; the burning eyes and churning bodies of his portraits – all the more powerful. Soutine’s own life enhances the impact of his art, for it unites the same opposites. He often seems both mired and inspired, trapped in the muck of poverty while painting hot-eyed visions. He never really finds a point of quiet or safety. His death from perforated ulcers – a painfully telling end for this most visceral of painters – came in 1943, during a period when he was forced to hide from the Nazis.
Soutine helped inspire many of the painters who began making important work in the late forties and fifties, notably Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon. Young painters today can also learn a great deal from him. The radical way Soutine handles paint is captivating; yet one of the fascinations of the show is how schooled, how carefully constructed, his pictures actually are. (Some are even too tasteful.) In stark contrast to those painters who think it enough to splatter their feelings across the canvas, Soutine was a perfectionist who worked hard to create what look like spontaneous eruptions of paint. Soutine’s approach to being an artist also seems particularly radical today – more naked in its way than all the pierced and poked flesh in the galleries – because he denied himself the smart and fashionable protections of irony.
Soutine is one of the essential outsiders of the twentieth century, an artist without final home or place. He doesn’t fit the conventional categories of art, as the curators suggest. He insists upon what his society ignores, rejects, or forgets. He is a figure like Nietzsche, Dostoevski, or Kafka, one whose heated imagination seems to flare out – prophetically – from marginal rooms and cramped circumstances. In many of his pictures, there is something ungainly, even goofy, which is why the public has never really taken to his art. That lovely awkwardness – like a badly tailored suit – only deepens the contrast between Soutine and his society. Soutine cannot finally adjust to a materialist culture losing both its earthly rootedness and its spiritual power. His paint refuses to settle and speaks for a century of loss and abiding restlessness.