I first saw Chaim Soutine’s art in the Jewish Museum in New York in 1998. Unlike the abstract painters I knew and loved, who gravitated toward monumental and imposing panels, Soutine made work that seemed more traditional; his portraits and landscapes teemed with life. But they were also densely packed, and I was enthralled by every expressionistic brushstroke. Chaim Soutine was unsung in his day, but a new gallery exhibit in New York makes clear that his unique approach influenced many of our most celebrated contemporary artists.
Soutine was born near Minsk in 1893. He was one of 11 children. His father was a tailor’s assistant who, like many other practical-minded parents, was adamantly against his son’s artistic pursuits. And like many other young artists at the beginning of the 20th century, Soutine rebelled: He moved to Paris to find success.
But first he found poverty, keeping bugs off his bed with pans of paraffin wax. He took a small studio in La Ruche, a beehive-shaped building in which he met other artists and political refugees, including the Jewish Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani. He painted expressionistic images directly on the canvas, consciously refraining from refining his technique, as he believed anything overly considered and practiced would never appear truly raw. Like many other hopefuls, Soutine, too, seemed doomed to obscurity. But he made a name for himself, and not only because of his painting.
At the time, like most of his fellow artists, Soutine attended the École des Beaux-Arts, which offered a classical artistic education. For him, like for many of his generation, the school’s curriculum served more as something to reject than to follow. He and others knew of the grand tradition of painting, and they worked to challenge it. Soutine’s challenge focused on dead flesh: An image of a dead fowl, a la the Dutch masters, is one thing, but a decaying carcass is a whole other matter. Taking the tradition of memento mori paintings—reminding the viewers of death and symbolizing the chase that cost the prey its life—to a whole new level, Soutine’s work showed not just death but rotting flesh and rigor mortis, even as his brush strokes remained active and pulsing.
Shortly after Soutine moved into La Ruche, passersby and fellow residents began noticing a terrible stench pouring out from his studio. Irritated neighbors called the Parisian Health Department, suspecting something rancid. In a building teeming with impoverished artists, the stench must have been mighty pungent to be noticed. Upon their arrival, the health officials found blood smeared on the studio’s floor and walls. Hanging in the room was a decaying cow’s carcass. The police were summoned. It seemed like a horrible crime had been committed. But it was all just a part of Soutine’s creative process: His assistant, Paulette Jourdain, would pour blood over a decaying side of beef in order to keep the meat glistening as Soutine worked.
As rumors of Soutine’s unconventional methods, as well as his beautifully gruesome paintings, circulated through Paris, another young artist arrived in town looking to make a name for himself. Francis Bacon hailed from a home very different from Soutine’s—he was born in Dublin to an English army captain turned racehorse trainer and a wealthy heiress mother—but his fascinations were similar to those of the impoverished Belarusian Jew. “I’ve always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat,” Bacon wrote. “There’ve been extraordinary photographs which have been done of animals just being taken up before they were slaughtered; the smell of death.”
The smell of death became Bacon’s constant companion. He famously reworked Velazquez’s paintings of popes and cardinals, turning them into scowling, smeared portraits. The painted surfaces are lathered and fleshy; they look like dead meat. As late as 1945, Bacon described being entranced by one line from Aeschylus’ the Orestia, “The reek of human blood smiles at me.”
The Helly Nahmad Gallery has mounted an exhibition of these two extraordinary artists. (It runs through June 18.) “The present exhibition is based on the hypothesis that Soutine’s carcasses were a trigger for Bacon’s essential vision, possibly even the reason he was to become a painter,” says the show’s catalog. If not the ultimate reason for Bacon’s career, Soutine and Bacon’s paintings speak to each other in profound ways. Even as they age, the paintings still glisten and smear before our eyes: Bacon’s paintings shimmer like greasy oil, while Soutine’s paint is juicy like a rare steak. Throughout the exhibition, carcass and fowl paintings are compared, a simple matching of subject matter. But the affinity between Soutine and Bacon goes further: In Bacon’s 1969 painting Lying Figure, for example, we see a kind of chaise illuminated by a small hanging bulb. On the chaise is a figure splayed out, or flayed out, before us. The smeared deformed body is made legible more by its surrounding than by the figure itself. Soutine pulls the same neat trick with his 1925 work Flayed Beef: Even though his subject matter is not human, he, like Bacon, succeeds in presenting the stuff and lifeless subject in an energetic and charged manner. And the shock of Soutine’s carcass is tempered by seeing it in close proximity to Bacon’s abstracted body.
But Soutine’s meaty lineage extends far beyond Bacon. Lucian Freud, for example, is also in Soutine’s debt: His figures sprawl across the canvas lying limp, not quite languidly, upon sheets and furniture. Willem de Kooning has also professed his admiration for Soutine, saying that flesh is “the reason why oil painting was invented.” And, of course, there’s Damien Hirst, who put various dead and decaying animals on display in his popular and controversial works. “Without Soutine,” Hirst said, “there is no Bacon.” Without Soutine there’s also no Hirst. Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that these artists, who owe a debt to a poor Jew, acknowledge the master. Recognition of this sort exhibits admiration of a fellow artist rarely shared today. Soutine’s influence is great and will most likely prove to be greater still.
Ben Schachter is an artist and associate professor of fine art at Saint Vincent College in Pennsylvania. His work has been shown at the Jewish Museum and the Mattress Factory, among other exhibitions.