Catharsis Unfulfilled: The Art of Chaim Soutine

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Installation of Life and Death: Still Lifes and Select Masterworks of Chaim Soutine at Paul Kasmin Gallery; courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery

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The following article was originally published in the June 1998 edition of The New Criterion and is posted here on the occasion of Life and Death: Still Lifes and Select Masterworks of Chaim Soutine at Paul Kasmin Gallery (until June 14).

Walking through the exhibition An Expressionist in Paris: The Paintings of Chaim Soutine, I was put in mind of the philosopher Susanne K. Langer and her book Problems of Art, published in 1957. In a chapter titled “Expressiveness,” Langer differentiates between “the expression of feeling in a work of art” and self-expression. For Langer, expressiveness is experience given shape and vitality through the artist’s realization of form. “What [the artist] expresses,” she writes, “is … not his own actual feelings, but what he knows about human feeling.” The jumble of life, then, is not explicated but made recognizable and whole. Langer adds that this “knowledge may actually exceed his entire personal experience.” In contrast, she brusquely likens self-expression to a crying baby. Giving precedence to the artist’s psychological disposition, self-expression surrenders the artwork’s structural logic. That such logic reinforces the aesthetic—and, yes, emotive— capabilities of a work of art is lost on those who make self-expression their métier. Cézanne, for example, may have been a cold fish, but could anyone dispute the “expressiveness” of his paintings?

The paintings of Chaim Soutine (1893–1943) exemplify the dilemma of self-expression. I don’t mean to imply that his oeuvre is equivalent to a child wailing for its mother. Soutine’s work is, after all, credible and handsome. Yet it is rarely moving—at least, in a way that we feel we should be moved by it. Visitors to An Expressionist in Paris will, certainly, exit the show with a definite impression of Soutine’s art. Soutine’s imagery—with its page boys, pastry cooks, and carcasses—is forceful. The work’s tangled surfaces, heated colors, and roiling brushwork will leave their mark. Not a few viewers will ruminate on the instability of Soutine’s psyche and recall him as an artist given to violent emotions. Such observations have merit. But how many viewers will find themselves engaged with the paintings half as deeply as Soutine was himself? How many would want to go that far? My guess is very few. For what defines Soutine as an artist is a striving for catharsis that remained unfulfilled.

The last time New York saw a retrospective of Soutine’s work was at the Museum of Modern Art in 1950. An Expressionist in Paris will, in all probability, be the only opportunity a generation will get to see the work in depth. As such, it is a superlative chance to acquaint oneself with the paintings of this fierce, if problematic, artist. In an age of blockbusters one is tempted to remark that the exhibit includes a “mere” fifty-six paintings. Curators Norman L. Kleeblatt and Kenneth E. Silver, however, make their case for Soutine with uncommon diligence. Kleeblatt and Silver posit Soutine as a “liminal” figure—an outsider both in relation to the European avant-garde and as a Jew in Paris. More importantly, they celebrate his paintings as painting. Given the luxuriant nature of Soutine’s art, any other approach would be tantamount to fraud.

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Chaim Soutine, Plucked Goose (1932-33), oil on panel, 19-1/4″ x 16-1/2″; courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery

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An Expressionist in Paris is divided into three sections, each devoted to a different critical interpretation of Soutine’s art. We are led through galleries featuring Soutine the primitive, the master painter, and, finally, the prophet—prophet, that is, of Abstract Expressionism. It is debatable whether such categories add to our appreciation of Soutine’s work. As topics for inquiry, they are better suited to a catalogue essay than to the arrangement of pictures, which is likely to result in a misrepresentation of the art. The installation, however, underplays the regimentation of the exhibition’s thesis. Even so, the show is somewhat misleading. It ends, for example, with a gallery of landscapes. They are among Soutine’s most emphatic pieces and make for a knock-out finale, but the paintings date from the early 1920s. Works that post-date them are included in the beginning and mid-point of the exhibition. Accustomed as we are to chronological surveys of artists’s careers, An Expressionist in Paris leaves us with a misleading assessment of Soutine’s progress as an artist.

Then again, how important is a straightforward assessment of Soutine’s progress? In her catalogue essay, “The Late Works: Regression or Resolution?,” Esti Dunow considers the distinctions between Soutine’s early and late work. Until I read it, however, I had not given Soutine’s development a second thought. The show’s tripartite structure doesn’t, as one might suppose, cloud Soutine’s maturation as a painter; rather, it divulges the constancy of his vision. One could speak of pictures that are more composed—or, should one say, less frenzied?—than others. This might lead to an analysis of how he approached his chosen art form at different times in his life. But Soutine, in a sense, came to us whole. An Expressionist in Paris reveals an artist both self-confident and monomaniacal. There is no sense of evolution or exploration to the work. His is an art without scope. Soutine’s paintings are flawed by the tortuous confines of his own world view.

A friend once stated that Edward Hopper was a great artist but a so-so painter. The converse is true for Soutine: he was a so-so artist but a great painter. Soutine avoided the theatrics typical of Expressionist art. He achieved this feat chiefly through his extraordinary gift as a paint handler. Who can doubt his love of oils? Soutine’s scraping, dabbing, dotting, and slashing of paint is fervent and expert. The blouse of the reclining woman in Siesta (c. 1934) and the frock of The Pastry Cook (c. 1927) have enough gusto to sustain an entire painting. In Soutine’s pictures, the world is rendered as flesh. People, animals, houses, hills, and kettles all share the same membranelike skin. Consequently, the images have a fragility, as if they were capable of being bruised. Yet even when a flurry of brushstrokes approaches the hysterical—as in Group of Trees (c. 1922)—we never question its veracity. Soutine’s French Expressionism makes German Expressionism look thin and mannered. It reminds us that what we may admire about, say, Ernst Kirchner is not his passion, but, rather, his style.

Soutine

Chaim Soutine

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Soutine’s authenticity does, however, have its limits. The paintings are unremitting. However breathtaking their surfaces, bravado alone cannot compensate for the one-note character of the work. And what a note! Each painting is pitched at such a level of intensity that one is grateful for the respite offered by a negligible work like Young English Girl (c. 1934). Oddly, though, the work doesn’t grate. We savor each painting’s sumptuousness, but remain distanced from raw emotionality. A wall label informs us that “Soutine’s painting was the residue of a ‘process’ in which the artist seemed to lose all sense of self in the ecstatic moment of creation.” I don’t doubt the bit about “the ecstatic moment of creation.” But the loss of “all sense of self”? Soutine’s sense of self is omnipresent and indomitable. In painting after painting, he imposes himself on the subject. This accounts for the cloistered tenor of the work and explains why Soutine was classified, at one time, as a primitive.

That Soutine’s art had little room for anyone but the artist himself is particularly blatant in the portraits. However soulful his subjects may appear—whether it be the village idiot or Madeleine Castaing, Soutine’s patron—they remain anonymous. Rembrandt may have been his hero, but Soutine lacked the Dutch Master’s empathy. Soutine blanketed his rage onto the sitter. The portraits, ultimately, have nothing to do with the other person and everything to do with Soutine. The two finest portraits in the exhibition are atypical. No one would mistake Portrait of a Man (Emil Lejeune) (c. 1922–23) or Woman in Red (c. 1923–24) for works by anyone else but Soutine. Both are characteristically stormy with contorted figures made up of so much Silly Putty. They are also, however, real people. Looking at the supercilious expression on Monsieur Lejeune’s face, one gets a good idea of how highly he esteemed himself. One gets a good idea of what Soutine thought of him, too. This give-and-take is rare in his work.

Soutine captured more personality with the title figures of Still Life with Herrings (c. 1916), and, in fact, dead animals gave rise to some of Soutine’s lushest painting. But his best paintings are the landscapes. Like van Gogh, an artist whom Soutine supposedly hated and without whom his art is unimaginable, Soutine found in landscape a subject pliable enough to withstand his vision. He saw in nature underlying rhythms that echoed the turbulence of his temperament. The landscapes have the sinew and sweat of a wrestling match. Trees stretch arthritically over the expanse of the canvas. Houses pulse, thrust, and dip with malevolent force. Hills are writhing masses of brawn shoved into the viewer’s space. A few of the pieces are near-abstractions, as brushstrokes snarl into clotted skeins of nubby paint. What prevents them from being too much is their pathos. Van Gogh, one feels, found solace in his cypress trees and starry nights. Soutine was not so fortunate. His paintings evince an artist arduously longing for a release that was never forthcoming. Frustration gives these tumultuous paintings their power; it also explains their marginality.

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Chaim Soutine, Landscape at Céret with Red Trees (c. 1919), oil on canvas, 21-1/4″ x 25-1/2″; courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery

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To come to the conclusion that Soutine was a failed artist is as unjust as claiming that he made the world safe for Francis Bacon. In our culture of diminished expectations—where, as one wag had it, Morris Louis begins to look like Michelangelo—we are likely to esteem Soutine’s struggle highly, even if that struggle remained largely unrealized. Still, the merits of his art are not all negative. His knack as a painter—a pure painter one is tempted to append—is irrefutable. That’s why a lot of us will come back to him with respect, if only for one painting at a time. Soutine, like his friend Amedeo Modigliani, will continue to rest as a minor light in the pantheon of twentieth-century artists—an honorable painter good for a modest charge. For what An Expressionist in Paris confirms is that Soutine, too, is a stylist rather than a fully rounded artist. That his work shows us what talented stylists are capable of is true enough. It also shows us why they don’t fly as high as the masters.

© 1998 Mario Naves

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