Order in chaos: Chaim Soutine French Russian Painter

Atar was so smitten with Soutine’s works that on his return to his kibbutz, Ein Harod, in pre-state Israel in 1937, he initiated a building that was to become the Mishkan Museum of Art

Order in chaos: Chaim Soutine  at Ein Harod (photo credit: ELAD SARIG)
Order in chaos: Chaim Soutine at Ein Harod
(photo credit: ELAD SARIG)
Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), the Russian-Jewish painter, was not only an important artist himself but also a major influence on other artists, contemporaries as well as in the generations following.
He is probably best known for his large paintings of dead carcasses – oxen, chickens, rabbits, geese, whatever he could lay his hands on from the local meat market. These were his most mature works. Beforehand, he had painted portraits, landscapes and still lifes. His characteristic technique was in the use of impasto (thick paint applied layer upon layer) and the objects he painted, whether human or inanimate, were characteristically convoluted, twisted, and yet always within the bounds of realism. In this he showed the influence of Expressionism which took objective reality and infused it with a deeply subjective dimension without losing its essential form. Soutine, too, never painted a purely abstract painting.
Among those artists he influenced were a number of Israeli painters who came into contact with his work either through reproductions or, as in the case of Chaim Atar, by going to Paris – where Soutine worked for much of his life – and seeing his work up close.
Atar was so smitten with Soutine’s works that on his return to his kibbutz, Ein Harod, in pre-state Israel in 1937, he initiated a building that was to become the Mishkan Museum of Art. Although it began as a shack, it eventually turned into the present multi-galleried structure.
Landscape at Montmartre’ at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Credit: OFRIT ROSENBERG, ISRAEL MUSEUM)Landscape at Montmartre’ at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Credit: OFRIT ROSENBERG, ISRAEL MUSEUM)
Its present director and chief curator, Yaniv Shapira, has now created a unique exhibition called “Naked Soul: Chaim Soutine and Israeli Art” (running until March 21, 2020). The exhibition shows both original paintings of Soutine – 18 in all – as well as a roster of local artists who have been influenced by him.
Yet who was Chaim Soutine, why did he paint the way he painted, and how did he become such an influence on other painters?
He was born in about 1893 in a Jewish shtetl, Smilavichy (in present day Belarus), the 10th of 11 children. His desire to paint was met with fierce opposition from his very traditional father. But eventually, with the encouragement of his mother and the local rabbi, he enrolled in art schools in Minsk and then Vilna. In 1911 he went to Paris, then in the throes of an artistic revolution, where he met and befriended – among others – Marc Chagall, Jaques Lifschitz, Chana Orloff and Amedeo Modigliani. Unlike Chagall, who had a somewhat similar background, Soutine never painted nostalgic pictures of the shtetl from which he came or put any Jewish symbols in his pictures. And yet as art critic Gabriel Taphior wrote, there was no other Jewish artist who conveyed, as he did, the dark apocalypse that threatened the lives of the Jews of Europe. He noted that “his painting is ostensibly crude, ugly, rotten... but there is no other painter who sounded the alarm for humanity regarding the things happening and those about to happen... there is nothing ugly about his paintings because they carry such a storm of colors within them that one cannot resist the great truth embedded in his brush work.” According to Taphior, what appears to be twisted and convoluted in Soutine’s work, is the tortured soul of the Jew who looks out on the world and finds it bent and misshapen.
Modigliani also introduced him to Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera and poets such as Jean Cocteau, Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob. He persuaded his agent, Leopold Zbroowski, to take him on as a client, a move which brought him serious collectors. In 1923, he was introduced to the American Dr. Albert Barnes who bought 52 of his paintings and thus rescued him from dire poverty.
Despite his growing fame, Soutine remained a shy, introverted figure, deeply sensitive to his own paintings, destroying much of it which didn’t work for him, and absenting himself from exhibitions of his own work out of deep fears. One Israeli artist, Pinhas Abramovich described his experience of seeing Soutine from afar: “He always sat alone in a corner, in shabby clothes, looking absently around, probably inward.”
The British art critic, David Sylvester, noted of Soutine’s work that “this is an art of pure sensation.”
Israeli artist Haran Kislev wrote that “Soutine’s painting is alive, sizzling like butter on a skillet... it is alive, virtually breathing.” Jacques Lifchitz commented: “His paintings have the power to translate life into paint, paint into life.” His close friend, Modigliani, said: “Everything dances around me as a landscape by Soutine.”
All these critics seem to agree that one of the central dimensions of Soutine’s works was their vitality.
What appears to be chaotic turns out to be a triumph of color and light, an inner light moreover which appeared to emerge from within the painting. In this, Soutine was consciously following two of his own favorites, Rembrandt and Cezanne.
Nevertheless, Soutine remains a mystery even to many who knew him intimately. The sculptor Lifshitz, for example, felt that “Soutine was always an enigma, a mixture of such idiosyncratic impulses that he found himself constantly posing the question, ‘Is Soutine good or bad or just neurotic?’”
Girl in Blue’ (Credit: OFRIT ROSENBERG, ISRAEL MUSEUM)Girl in Blue’ (Credit: OFRIT ROSENBERG, ISRAEL MUSEUM)
Good or bad, it is interesting to find that his funeral (he died in an operating theater in Paris to where he had been surreptitiously moved during the Nazi occupation) was attended by a mere handful of friends, among them Picasso, Cocteau and, maybe, Max Jacob.
The major part of the present exhibition at Ein Harod is reserved for the Israeli artists who were influenced by Soutine. We have already mentioned Chaim Atar, whose paintings are not that removed from his avatar’s. It is true that Soutine – “the painter’s painter” – did influence many artists in the way he applied paint to the canvas, or twisted his subjects so that they appeared to hover between reality and abstraction. In the accompanying catalogue, for example, the names of many of the most distinguished artists in the West are mentioned as being Soutine’s heirs, including Francis Bacon, Leon Kossof, Lucian Freud, R.B. Kitaj and Frank Auerbach, but few of them – with the exception of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock – were purely abstract artists. So it is something of a stretch to talk of influences on Israeli artists as separate as Ori Reisman, Michael Gross, or Avraham Ofek. Nevertheless the juxtaposition of these varied artists does give some idea of just how influential Soutine was, if not directly as with Atar, then indirectly as with most of the other artists.