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Chaim Soutine, Modernist Master of Flesh, at the Jewish Museum

The superb show of 32 paintings, opening this week, highlights the painter’s fascination with the dreadful spectacle of death, and the splendor of his artistry

Frances Brent
May 03, 2018
The Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation, on long term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey.
Detail, Chaim Soutine, Hanging Turkey, c. 1925.The Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation, on long term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey.
The Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation, on long term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey.
Detail, Chaim Soutine, Hanging Turkey, c. 1925.The Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation, on long term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey.

Empathy and brutality, appetite and hunger, reason and magic teeter in an unstable reality in Chaim Soutine’s paintings of flesh. The Jewish Museum has brought together 32 of his early still lifes of fish and fowl, his majestic slaughtered animals from the mid-1920s and ’30s, and his studies of farm animals, painted at the end of his life while he lived in hiding outside Paris, moving frequently because of the Nazi invasion of France. Although the Helly Nahmad Gallery presented Soutine together with Francis Bacon in 2011; Paul Kasmin put on a well-reviewed exhibition, Life in Death, in New York in 2014; and the Courtauld Gallery’s excellent show in London, Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys was on view last winter; there’s still a lot to think about when looking at this deep and tumultuous art. The Jewish Museum has done a splendid job of showcasing the paintings as masterpieces of modernism.

Soutine was one of those artists, like Monet and Cezanne, who moved serially through many subjects. Some of the things that obsessed him include: gladioli, self-portraits, liveried hotel workers, kitchen staff with chef’s caps, choir boys, the grand tree in Vence, Chartres Cathedral, and solemn children. If he painted something once, he returned to it, sometimes the very next day, and sometimes over several years, making changes that reflected the slow process of taking things in, of seeing an entirety, of resolving a set of complex feelings (the exception being the single female nude he painted in 1933). In this way he progressed from the early expressionistic tabletop compositions to his explosive mature work.

One of the pleasures of the current exhibit, Chaim Soutine: Flesh (opening this week and running through Sept. 16), is that it allows the visitor to follow the arc of his artistic development. Fish, Peppers, Onions, a rarely seen composition on loan from the Barnes Foundation, which until recently didn’t lend its works or allow color reproductions, contains a conglomeration of animate and inanimate objects in tableau, including a wooden spoon, a wine bottle, a freely painted figurine situated in an open-weave basket, as well as a turquoise-colored crockery duck displayed upside down on what appears to be a pedestal. The duck looks to have sustained a fall: the head with its encircled open eye and open mouth hangs from a string. As the exhibition curator Stephen Brown put it, you can draw a straight line from the crockery duck to the magisterial Dead Fowl from 1926, compositionally simplified, pared down, and dazzling. Painted in a seeming frenzy of layered scratches, strokes, splats, and drips, the upside-down bird nearly covers the entire picture plane. Its green-yellow splattered body, plucked breast and splayed legs, are luminous with color highlighted by the surrounding iridescence of blue-black feathers. At the very bottom, the head dangles and you see an open eye and open mouth. The effect is shocking.

The Plucked Goose from 1933 takes the subject even farther, amplifying the horror as well as the pathos of the severed head that rests almost parallel to its featherless body. Looking carefully at these macabre studies, the viewer is torn between the dreadful spectacle attesting to the agony of death, and the splendor of the artistry—the rich streaks of color with almost torn apart surfaces, slashes of brushstroke and the vibrant light. Sympathetic identification with these dead subjects is even more poignant when they’re displayed on tablecloths, as in the long horizontal study, The Great Pheasant, or Two Partridges on a Table where the birds rest like human beings who have mysteriously died together and have been laid out a on sheet in a death room, eliciting compassion.

You have to wonder, what is it that the artist wanted you to think and experience? Did he expect the viewer to anguish over the death or to experience his compositional beauty? The two things pull against one another in an unresolvable tension, which is also evident in the work of several Eastern and Central European Jewish writers at that time, for whom the butcher’s blood-stain cleaver was a coded symbol for a simmering violence in the “foundationless” moment when the savagery of history was lurking at the boundaries. Isaac Babel, almost Soutine’s exact contemporary, used the image of the goose in his famous text from The Red Cavalry Stories:

A haughty goose was waddling through the yard, placidly grooming its feathers. I caught the goose and forced it to the ground, its head cracking beneath my boot, cracking and bleeding. Its white neck lay stretched out in the dung, and the wings folded down over the slaughtered bird.
“Goddammit!” I said, poking at the goose with the saber. “Roast it for me, mistress!”
The old woman, her blindness and her spectacles flashing, picked up the bird, wrapped it in her apron, and hauled it to the kitchen.
“Comrade,” she said after a short silence. “This makes me want to hang myself.” And she pulled the door shut behind her.

Unlike Babel, Soutine, of course, wasn’t a Bolshevik. According to his contemporaries, he was a painfully shy and eccentric misfit, secretive, restless, susceptible to destructive rages (he destroyed much of his own work), encased by depression and tormented by ulcers that reprieved him from the duties of digging trenches during World War I but eventually became the insurmountable cause of his death. He didn’t write a memoire or keep a journal and there weren’t any letters to clarify his intentions. We have only a handful of second-hand recollections, paraphrases of things he might or might not have done or said to explain the gruesome subject matter and brilliant use of color.

Some biographers have connected the fish and fowl, rabbits and beef to hunger. Soutine most probably experienced some form of deprivation during his childhood in the market town of Smilovichi, about a day’s distance from Minsk. His father was a clothing mender and there were 11 children in the impoverished family. Perhaps they went hungry from time to time but we don’t know that exactly. As a student at the Vilna art academy, he was penniless and he was destitute when he came to Paris at the age of 20 and lived first at La Ruche and then at Cité Falguière. But the food in his paintings doesn’t appeal to human appetite in the slightest. Even his tomatoes and peppers seem to exist as opportunities for the application of throbbing vermilion pigment or as reminders of the food that was placed on offering trays in the tombs of the ancient deceased, never intended to be eaten by the living.

On several occasions, Soutine was said to have described a seminal memory from his childhood: “Once I saw a butcher cut the throat of a goose and bleed it out. I wanted to cry out, but his look of joy caught the cry in my throat. I always feel it there. … It was this cry that I was trying to free. I never could.” Critics have often assumed that his many paintings of dead animals (he produced about 30 paintings of dead birds) were intended to repair the childhood trauma and its nightmare memory.

Soutine always worked from life studies. From about 1916, when the dealer Léopold Zborowski took him on, we have accounts of this from the dealer’s domestic servant and assistant Paulette Jourdain who also became a model for Modigliani and Soutine. Paulette helped to take care of Soutine and purchased the birds for him at market when he was in Paris or from neighboring farmers when he was in the country. Soutine staged his compositions, hanging the fowl from ropes tied to hooks, like a private tragic theater or, as some art historians have pointed out, a sacrificial altar. You look at his Chicken Hanging in Front of a Brick Wall with swipes of black paint slapped across the neck to represent rope encircling the wound, and you see how the kinetic activity of painting literally recreated the motion of the butcher’s knife and validated what the little boy had seen and remembered. In this way, the art stood as a link allowing for the reenactment of the traumatic moment and the completion of its scream.

To many people, the painted carcasses of beef (Soutine completed about ten of these over the period of a year and a half; three are on view in the exhibit) represent the pinnacle of his achievement as an artist. It’s well-known that they’re modeled on Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox in the Louvre. Just as with the turkeys and geese, Soutine instructed Paulette to purchase the flayed beef and beef blood. The story goes that after he suspended the first animal from butcher hooks in his studio, he worked so slowly that the carcass began to decompose. Over time he poured more and more blood over the body so it would retain its color. Flies collected around the putrid flesh and the odor must have been horrible. Neighbors complained and Paris health department workers were called in and threatened to take out the rotting beast. Paulette claimed that Soutine hid from the police and she had to explain that the artist needed to finish his work. The officials disinfected the studio and called in a veterinarian who showed them how to inject the meat with formaldehyde to preserve it until the painting was completed. “It’s not for the eating, it’s for the color…” Paulette was said to have told the butchers and these compositions indeed represent a mastery of coloration, the surfaces churning like Turner’s frothy waves and burnished like Titian’s clouds. They convey both a solemnity and monumentality.

The portrayed death of these larger animals, especially the painting with the calf’s head, loaned from Musée de l’Orangerie, is far more disturbing that the studies of the birds. The beast’s head, which is positioned frontally, faces out at the viewer without eyes, imparting the story of grotesque savagery.

It was a wise decision for Brown and consulting curators Esti Dunow and Maurice Tuchman to bring closure to the show by including the small, late paintings, The Donkey, The Bull, and Sheep Behind a Fence, all from private collections and rarely on loan. When Soutine painted them, his own death was closing in. After his lover, Gerda Groth, a Jewish refugee from Germany who had taken care of him with generosity from 1937 to 1939, was sent to Gurs as an enemy alien, he took up with a new companion, Marie-Berthe Aurenche. Eventually the two went into hiding with false papers; Soutine was often agitated and he and Aurenche squabbled.

In the countryside, far from his Paris doctor, Soutine’s ulcers went untreated. He was often in agony. We’re told that in Champigny, he was given the yellow star to wear but he continued painting. In the past, Soutine had found his subject matter in the depiction of dying animals, studying their suffering and enshrining it. Now he painted working farm animals, capturing them with a lyrical and expressive delicacy. While the earlier paintings were permeated with deeply private and somber meaning, these were serenely empathetic and more directly autobiographical. The final work in the exhibit, The Duck Pond at Champigny, was painted in July of 1943, one month before his death. It may have been the last he ever did: two geese swimming across a reflective surface, the water shimmering with light and color. Perhaps the tranquility and calm of that moment represented a resolution from the torment he had carried forward all those years.

Frances Brent’s most recent book is The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson.