Wandering Jew

“An Expressionist in Paris: The Paintings of Chaim Soutine”
The Jewish Museum, New York City
April 26-Aug. 16, 1998

Click on any image to see an enlargement.

By Christopher Benfey

(posted Tuesday, May 5, 1998)

You’re greeted at the door by the page boy from Maxim’s, his hand extended for a pourboire (Page Boy at Maxim’s, circa 1925). At first the figure looks almost cute in his fire engine red suit, but is that a roll of bills in his left hand or is he making an obscene gesture? And those hollow black eyes, scarred hands, and sunken chest–don’t they seem just a bit sepulchral? Is he welcoming us to Maxim’s or to the underworld?

For the moment, at least, he’s guarding the entrance to the stunning show at the Jewish Museum devoted to the work of Chaim Soutine (1894-1943), the Lithuanian-born Jewish painter who worked in Paris between the world wars. This is the first major exhibition in a New York museum to be devoted to Soutine’s work in nearly 50 years–since, that is, the epoch-making retrospective of 1950 at the Museum of Modern Art. The timing of that show, mounted just seven years after Soutine’s death, was in one sense perfect and in another highly problematic. It coincided exactly with the extraordinary rise of Abstract Expressionism and the seismic shift of the center of the art world from Paris to New York. Artists and critics were eager to see in Soutine a Parisian precursor of Willem de Kooning–who claimed to be “crazy about Soutine”–and Jackson Pollock. The extraordinary landscapes that Soutine painted around 1921 in the provincial town of Céret, with their swirling wreaths of thick paint and decentered structure, could easily be mistaken for early de Koonings. (Click here for an example.) “Was Soutine at this time what might be called an abstract expressionist?” the critic and curator Monroe Wheeler asked rhetorically in the MoMA catalog.

But in other ways, the timing of the MoMA show was awkward and even potentially embarrassing. As France was welcomed back to the postwar community of nations, no one felt like asking tough questions about French acquiescence in the Holocaust. In the 1950 catalog, Wheeler implied that Soutine’s death in 1943 had little to do with the Occupation. “Soutine,” he wrote, “suffered no specific persecution or violence during the war. In 1940, he was offered an opportunity to come to America, but he would not take advantage of it. He lived with a friend … in Touraine.” And so on. But, as the art historian Remy Golan notes in a catalog essay for the current show, “after having provided hospitality to Soutine and thousands of Jewish immigrants like him for three decades, the French essentially abandoned them to their own fate during the years of German occupation.” Soutine wasn’t just “living with a friend” in the countryside. He was in flight from the Nazis and their French functionaries, hiding and constantly on the move. He returned to Paris only when a severe stomach ulcer condition necessitated a last-minute operation. It came too late, and he died.

So the current show at the Jewish Museum offers an opportunity both to re-evaluate Soutine’s connection to de Kooning and Pollock and to dig more deeply into Soutine’s relation to French culture and to his own Jewishness. The show is arranged in a manner to do just that, though with a resulting wrenching of chronology and little attention to Soutine’s life. The 56 paintings in the show are hung in three sections, each corresponding to one of the three ways critics have viewed Soutine: Soutine as an untutored “primitive” painter, which is how he was seen in the 1920s; Soutine as a master and the last great hope for traditional painting in France–his reputation in the 1930s; and Soutine as a prophet of Abstract Expressionism, which is what critics thought in the 1940s, when they “rediscovered” him. It is this third phase that leads to the biggest dislocation in the show, since visitors see the “abstract” paintings of the Céret period last, though they were among the earliest Soutine painted. The first two phases–from primitive to master–happen to follow pretty much directly from the circumstances of Soutine’s life, to the extent that we know them.

The youthful Soutine seems to step right out of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story. Since he left almost no paper trail–few letters, no drawings, no artistic manifestoes–the same stories gleaned from friends and dealers have been recycled over the years. Soutine was born the 10th of 11 children to an impoverished tailor (or more precisely a “mender”) and his wife in Smilovitchi, a village near Minsk. Legends about his childhood–of which he may have been the source–include his theft of some kitchen utensils to buy his first colored pencil, and his early portrait of a local rabbi. The rabbi’s son, evidently responding to the Jewish injunction against graven images, beat up Soutine, then paid a reparation of 25 rubles toward Soutine’s education. Soutine trained first with artists in Minsk and Vilna, then made the journey to Paris, where he studied briefly in a formal art academy while living in the most abject poverty.

Some of his earliest still lifes, dating from 1916 to 1918, look like little parables of deprivation: three anorexic herrings on a plate with two forks (why two?) groping across them (Still Life With Herrings, circa 1916). The table is tipped upward, almost meeting the picture plane. Such paintings, along with the swirling Céret landscapes, struck collectors of the 1920s as “naive,” just the sort of unschooled stuff you’d expect from a Slavic child of the shtetl. The critic Waldemar George wrote in 1928, “Is this not the art of an exile, or even a savage?” Soutine’s big break came in 1922, when one of those connoisseurs of the “primitive,” the eccentric Philadelphia art educator Dr. Albert Barnes, bought up 52 of Soutine’s paintings, making Soutine an art world celebrity almost overnight.

But almost as soon as he had experienced this Cinderella-like reversal of fortune, Soutine developed second thoughts about his work up to that point and tried to destroy as much of it as he could get his hands on. No longer the wild and visionary improviser, Soutine now apprenticed himself to the great painterly painters of the past: Courbet, Chardin, and Rembrandt. If you preferred his early landscapes, it was easy to regard this new Soutine as–in the words of Clement Greenberg, who reviewed the MoMA show–“a victim of the museum.” But if you liked the later paintings, as French critics of the ‘30s tended to do, they seemed like the next step in the great French tradition. Soutine the Slavic-Jewish outsider quickly became Soutine the quintessential insider, a masterly upholder of the standards of sophisticated French art.

Never able to paint anything unless he had it before his eyes, Soutine set about re-enacting some of the classic paintings he loved most. He persuaded peasant women to hike up their skirts and stand in cold streams, just as Rembrandt had demanded. He acquired a skate from the fishmonger and painted a loose paraphrase of a Chardin still life. In imitation of Rembrandt’s flayed ox on display at the Louvre, Soutine hung a carcass of beef in his studio. In a carnivalesque reassigning of roles, he hired a model to sweep away the flies from the decaying meat. To keep the colors fresh, he dabbed the carcass with blood from a pail, then grabbed his paintbrushes to capture those lurid reds on canvas. This was the kind of scene that an action painter could relish. De Kooning could have been thinking of his idol Soutine when he observed, “Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented.”

You’d think Soutine, with his obsessive delight in flesh, would paint nudes, but no; he painted only one in his whole career, and it’s a minor painting. But at the same time he was painting his carcasses of cattle and fowl, around 1925, Soutine painted a series of portraits of uniformed workers–bellhops, pastry cooks, grooms–of which the Maxim’s page boy is probably the best known. This parallel obsession elicited the interesting suggestion, from the critic Maurice Tuchman, that both animals (especially sacrificed animals) and uniformed domestics were scapegoats of sorts. While Soutine–unlike Chagall, to whom he is sometimes compared–did not paint stereotypically Jewish subjects, he may have been alluding, with those dangling fowl, to a Yom Kippur rite in which a slaughtered chicken was whirled around a rabbi’s head in a ritual of absolution. It may also be worth noting that with their red or white uniforms, these servants allowed Soutine to retain his lurid, fleshy palate.

It has been tempting to see in Soutine’s flayed forms a premonition of things to come. The curators of the Jewish Museum show, in a volley of questions, invite such a response:

Mightn’t the eviscerated cows and the fowl in the throes of death be experienced as modernist mementi mori, fetishistic reminders of the darkest, cruelest, and most primitive human instincts? Couldn’t Soutine’s eruptive, vertiginous landscapes be construed as recollections of a ravaged Europe, or even as the foreshadowing of an apocalyptic, post-atomic future?

And so on.

The irony is that Soutine seems to have viewed the arrival of the Nazis, at least initially, with a certain equanimity, more cheerful than fatalistic. Perhaps he had so thoroughly identified his art at this point with French national traditions–was he not the legitimate heir of Courbet?–that he hardly imagined himself to be a potential victim. One of his mistresses recalled him reading with admiration editorials by the collaborationist idealogue Charles Maurras, of Action Française, and explaining that he approved of social inequality “because it presented magnificent opportunities for everyone.” One day she said to him, “You have had great unhappiness in your life, haven’t you, Soutine?” He replied, “No! What makes you think that? I have always been a happy man.”

Nonetheless, the image from his late work that stays with you is a little picture from the Phillips Collection called Return From School After the Storm (circa 1939). Here the paint is as swirling and thick as in Soutine’s earliest landscapes. The two children hold hands fearfully as storm clouds hover ominously above them. The two vulnerable figures are literally molded of paint; the girl’s left hand juts out a quarter-inch from the canvas in one thick dab. The title is not Soutine’s. I don’t think it’s a school that these children are running from, and I don’t think the storm is behind them.