Sensuous Orgies of Luminous Writhing Paint: Chaim Soutine Still Lifes
Life in Death: Still Lifes and Select Masterworks of Chaim Soutine at Paul Kasmin Gallery
April 24 to June 14, 2014
515 West 27th Street
New York City, 212 563 4474
[The catalogue accompanying this exhibition, edited and introduced by the curators, includes a commissioned essay by Nobel prize-winning neur0scientist Eric R. Kandel and a 1952 story by Roald Dahl written in response to the Soutine exhibition at MoMA in 1950.]
Seventy one years after his death, Chaim Soutine’s work is vehemently alive. A few years ago the Helly Nahmad Gallery held a memorable exhibition, Soutine/Bacon, which made much of Bacon’s work look wan and perfunctory by comparison. Now, Paul Kasmin Gallery has assembled sixteen works, also curated by Esti Dunow and Maurice Tuchman, co-authors of the catalogue raisonné. At Kasmin’s West 27th Street space all but two works can be seen—as they were painted—in full daylight. You will be hard pressed to find richer works on view anywhere in the city.
Nevertheless, Soutine remains an outsider to the mainstream narrative of Modernism; he belongs instead to the still largely unwritten alternative history of modernist figurative painting. Well aware of all the developments from Post-Impressionism through Cubism, Soutine absorbed their lessons but rejected the language of abstract signs, and chose to develop his art out of the sensually rich tradition of nineteenth century naturalism: Corot, Courbet and their forerunners Rembrandt, Chardin and Goya. Foremost in this was his commitment to painting from life, which allowed him to connect emotionally to what he saw, to wed his strong temperament to a deep empathy with his subjects. Working directly from life also allowed him to evade academic solutions to depicting the world, instead paying attention to the complex nature of our seeing; how we map the world as we turn our head and our eyes. This essentially personal vision is quite different from the social metaphor implicit in Albertian perspective.
There is nothing routine or indifferent in a work by Soutine. He was an ecstatic and painting was his vehicle into rapture. Few so-called expressionists have had Soutine’s capacity to render painterly effects, no matter how crude, into emotions so fully felt, so convincing. And this experience is heightened by its crabbed and bittersweet aspect: at once joyous and anguished. Indeed, the kinesthetic rhythms that animate his landscapes and portraits, which also knead the hanging and splayed bodies of dead animals, suggest the bodily experience of dance and song, especially the plaintive cry of the human voice. This is the pictorial equivalent of García Lorca’s idea of Duende, a demonic possession that comes from a trembling in the moment, in being truly present in the work itself. Yet, this expressive ambition could strain the capacity of a painting to achieve coherence, and it is this negative capability that established Soutine’s avant-garde reputation as a man possessed by feelings beyond his control. This is the cliché about Soutine that suppresses any fair acknowledgement of his intelligence and his rare ability to synthesize opposing influences without succumbing to mere imitation.
Too often we have been told that Soutine was a man who painted without concern or interest in composition. After spending some time in this show, I came away with an opposing view. Moving from picture to picture, I was continually struck by the variety of successful pictorial inventions. In the early and uncharacteristic work, Landscape with Donkey, (1918) the motif is at some distance from us as it unfurls into an arabesque governed by the suppression of tone for color, a dusky orange/green dyad, evoking early Bonnard. In his most extreme landscapes, from his Céret period, it is El Greco who presides over the swaying alley of trees, the warped buildings and hills pressing up toward the surface in sensuous orgies of luminous writhing paint. In the brilliant wide panoramic view, The Rainbow, Céret, (1920) Cézanne’s rhomboid structure is used to simultaneously shape and destabilize the landscape. In another work from 1919, The Red Castle at Céret, space seems to curve in all directions, as the windblown trees are swept back and forth, yet pictorially pressed up against the surface, so that space seems to open up only at the edges. Isn’t this precisely what happens thirty years later in de Kooning’s great Excavation? Aren’t these the same exemplars that brought Braque and Picasso to similar structural qualities in Analytical Cubism a decade earlier than Soutine?
The show’s focus is on still life, especially the nature mort of rabbits and fowl. I wish this had been more truly the show’s focus, for it is here that we enter into the greatest intimacy with Soutine’s contemplation of being and non-being, of gazing in fear and wonder in the presence of death. This is what I would call his spiritual quest. Each of these works has something marvelous: the iridescent flesh of a rabbit being attacked by animate forks, the contorted twitching of a skinned rabbit made evident by the visual ripples of a table’s irregular shape, a brace of pheasants set like jewels upon a radiant yellow cloth, a glowing icon –perhaps an inspiration for de Kooning’s Montauk Highway. And in another mesmerizing work, we are made tolook down on two pheasants displayed against a white cloth, projected up to the picture’s plane by the delicate diagonal shaft of a small side table, the blue, orange and yellow hued bodies seem to swim in the cloth, propelled by their rhythmic contortions, like the souls in Pontormo’s drawings of nudes for his lost Deluge.
Most memorable for me is the Plucked Goose of 1933, which achieves a sublime, tactile presence, realized with a searching calligraphy. As I looked closely, opening myself to the painting, I was drawn inexorably into Soutine’s experience, into paint made most naked flesh. Framed by a blue-black table, the body’s flesh glows from within, subtle desaturated pinks and blue purples. The fragile but lustrous body is materialized by the action of the paint smearing into modeled form. Stabbings and streaks of purple whites and pinks describe the remains of the head, neck and wings. Here and there tufts of unplucked remnants heighten the immanent mystery of the body. It is less violent and less spectacular than his various depictions of a carcass of beef, but more profound. It is a stunning experience that stands with Gericault’s Anatomical Fragments and Goya’s The Butcher’s Counter.
It may also be significant that this is the only depiction of a dead fowl done in the thirties, and the only one shown decapitated. It certainly can stand as a symbol for that tragic year, the year Hitler came to power. Even if this work was produced without the slightest conscious thought to its potential meta-meaning, Soutine could not have been oblivious to the current political climate, as an Ashkenazi Jew from the Pale of Settlement, used to the contempt of Russians, and devoted as a painter to expressing his existential anxiety as a Jewish émigré.
When the Nazis overtook France, Soutine fled to the south, to shelter in Champigny-sur- Veuldre, where he painted one of his last works, Maternity, in 1942, shortly before his death. A distressed, petit young woman holds a dead or unconscious child in a pose that is essentially a pieta—yet another symbolic painting of martyrdom, like Marc Chagall’s painted protest after Kristallnacht. While the emotion in Maternity is quite palpable, it remains psychological and isn’t adequately sustained by the picture itself. By this time, Soutine was painting very little and his anxiety had accelerated the severe attacks from the stomach ulcers from which he had long suffered. In August of the following year, he collapsed and died after an emergency operation in Paris. Picasso was one of the few that followed the coffin to the cemetery at Montparnasse.