While peers experimented in abstraction, Chaim Soutine was faithful to the figure
In 1911, painter Chaim Soutine arrived in Paris and fell in with a group of Montparnasse bohemians, among them Amedeo Modigliani, who later became his roommate and closest friend. With little money and time to kill, Soutine began spending his days in the Louvre, taking in the masterpieces previously unknown to him. In particular, he was fascinated by Rembrandt’s Carcass of an Ox, an anatomic study in which the titular hunk of meat hangs split open, ribcage exposed. Soon, Soutine was producing similar works: still-lifes of slaughtered animals, from sleek brown rabbits limply resting on snowy white cloth to a pair of chickens.
In Soutine’s crowd, artists were expected to defy tradition. Modigliani, who shared many of Soutine’s retrograde tastes when it came to portraiture, was venturing into more experimental territory with his sculptures, exploring non-Western sources for inspiration; Chagall was painting dreamlike sequences of shtetl life; and Jacques Lipchitz was making sculptures that were decidedly cubist and, in the 1920s at least, entirely abstract.
Soutine, on the other hand, was paying homage to Rembrandt, Courbet, and Chardin. He was a “dedicated traditionalist of the purest vein,” Lipchitz—a close friend—said in a 1945 Partisan Review interview. Though his paintings clearly reflect the dominant style of his day—flat, abstracted forms and heavy brushstrokes—they also employ the lush, saturated colors of Rembrandt.
Over the course of his short career—he died in 1943, at age 49, of a perforated ulcer—Soutine painted hallucinatory landscapes reminiscent of Van Gogh (whom he said he loathed) and dark brooding portraits, but his slaughterhouse still-lifes have proved to be his most potent, personal, and enduring works. In the eviscerated fowl, flayed rabbits, gutted fish, and hanging cows, the depressive Soutine found his perfect subjects, which both gave form to his darkest anxieties and alluded to his cherished forerunners, the paintings he’d copied for tourists in his early days in Paris.
If he didn’t share the Modernists’ desire to slough off tradition, it’s because he’d never been shackled to it in the first place. Born in a Pale of Settlement shtetl, the 10th of 11 children, Soutine spent his early years in yeshiva. According to the Soutine myth—which may have been perpetuated by the artist himself—at 13 he attempted to paint a local rabbi and wound up in the hospital after being beaten by the rabbi’s sons. His assailants, upon threat of being reported to the police, paid Soutine’s parents 25 rubles, which the young painter used to run away to Vilna, where he lived for three years as an art student and projectionist before finding a patron and moving to Paris.
In that cosmopolitan city, he sought to free himself from the insularity of his religious upbringing and found refuge in the old masters his friends dismissed. And though they did not dismiss Soutine—his unbridled ambition and rare talent would not let them—his traditionalist values made him an anomaly and outsider in Montparnasse.
It’s ironic, then, that in the years after his death—particularly in the 1950s and 1960s—Soutine was championed by a new group of iconoclasts: the abstract-expressionists. Cheim and Read‘s New Landscape/New Still Life: Chaim Soutine and Modern Art is the latest attempt to parse Soutine’s influence on that group. The show, curated by Maurice Tuchman and Esti Dunow, opens with Carcass of Beef (1925)—Soutine’s bloodier, abstract take on Rembrandt’s Carcass—and, after a brief digression into pastoral landscapes of the villages of Céret and Cagnes, ends with some of the artist’s best slaughterhouse still-lifes. Scattered throughout are mostly abstract works by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Susan Rothenberg, Philip Guston, and Joan Mitchell, which serve, oddly enough, to make Soutine’s paintings look all the more modern.
In Still Life with Fowl (1918), two chickens lay next to each other, red gashes across their slim throats, draped together like lovers who’ve committed suicide. In Pheasant (1926-27), the animal’s extended body is attractively laid out as if it were a reclining nude. Soutine’s paint strokes are uneven and the heavy texture of the paint reminds the viewer of de Kooning or Pollock. The carcasses are maimed, ugly, bloodied and their ultimate end is always in sight. In Rabbit With Two Forks (1924), the utensils practically grasp the animal, reminding one of what it truly is: a meal. There’s a complex interaction between artist and subject in these paintings. Soutine recognizes that by taking the dead animals out of the butcher shop and painting them, he takes much of their essence away—transforming their grotesque appearance into art. Yet he also understands that in the act of painting, the artist must also recognize the harsh reality of the world.
What fascinates many painters, as the critic Clement Greenberg notes, is the way Soutine’s paintings speak “so vividly of the self-torture of modern painting, its inherent difficulties and frustrations, but also of the possibilities of triumph just within its reach.” Soutine himself knew more of difficulty than triumph. His health was poor. He made little money from his work and never in his lifetime gained the fame he desired. He tended toward depression.
“Doesn’t Chaim mean ‘life’?” Modigliani once asked his friend. To which Soutine replied: “I’ve forgotten.”