Painter of transfigured flesh, Chaim Soutine arrives at Ein Harod

In a new comprehensive exhibition, a forgotten legacy of Israeli and world art is redeemed

AMIR NAVE’S 2017 work ‘The Boy is a bag of needs.’ (photo credit: HAGAY HACOHEN)
AMIR NAVE’S 2017 work ‘The Boy is a bag of needs.’
(photo credit: HAGAY HACOHEN)
What turns a painter into a Jewish one? Take a walk down Chaim Soutine Street in Tel Aviv and you will embark from Rembrandt Street and stroll by Bezalel Street. Bezalel, the name literally meaning “In God’s shadow,” was tasked with creating the objects used to host the divine spirit of God in the material realm. The Tabernacle (known in Hebrew as the Mishkan), for which the multi-colored skin of the mysterious Tahash was used, was one such object. Rembrandt, who was not Jewish, depicted biblical scenes in his 1635 work Belshazzar’s Feast, for which he employed Hebrew letters, and the 1665 work The Jewish Bride – which had a stunning effect on Soutine when he saw it.
So we could make the suggestion that, broadly speaking, Jewish painters embark from the Western visual culture [Rembrandt] to discover hidden beauties and riches in the reality around them and, perhaps, in their own tradition as well [Bezalel]. Soutine, who was beaten by his father for painting and is among the trio of Jewish modern painters that open the 20th century – the other two are Marc Chagall and Amedeo Modigliani – is now restored to his rightful place in a first-of-a-kind exhibition at the Ein Harod Museum. In fact, the proper name of the museum is “Mishkan for Arts.”
In Naked Soul – Chaim Soutine and Israeli Art, three curators made the gathering of 18 original paintings by Soutine and works by 42 Israeli artists possible: Suria Sadekova, Yaniv Shapira and Batsheva Goldman-Ida. The exhibit begins with Chaim Atar, the main force behind the creation of the Ein Harod Mishkan in 1937, and ends with Amir Nave, who presents a massive work from 2017 titled The boy is a bag of needs. Allowing Israeli art-lovers to witness for the first time a decent showing of the paintings that inspired Picasso himself when he witnessed them, and to explore three generations of Israeli artists who were touched by the painter known as “an artist’s artist.”
Speaking with the assembled art reporters, Shapira describes how in 1937, Atar sailed to Paris with a mission to rescue as much Jewish art and Judaica as possible. The reason, Shapira explains, “is that a new society is being built here [in Israel] and there will be a need to show the past to the young generation, for them to understand their grandparents.” This is a stunning aspect of the kibbutz movement that is usually overlooked – the Jewish utopia of the future wants to remember what came before it, a far cry from the demand made in the Communist anthem “L’Internationale” to “make a clean slate” of the past.
IT IS NO coincidence that the inauguration of the art museum took place during Simhat Torah, regardless of the raging war of 1948 during which the Jewish society was gripped with fear and uncertainty.
Here, it is worthwhile to note that the art museum in Ein Harod, designed by Samuel Bickels in a clean modernist style that employed natural light to present art, with its lush green garden populated with sculptures and covered in ivy, is perhaps the most admirable face of the kibbutz movement. Not just a plow and a gun, but also a heart and a seeing eye. It is perhaps for this reason the late author Amos Kenan placed his “safe zone,” the one location that survives a dystopian military take-over of Israeli democracy in his 1984 novel The Road to Ein Harod, in that location.
Soutine left home when he was 17 years old and never returned, explained Goldman-Ida, “so we thought it would be like bringing him back to a home he never had.” She also named artists who were deeply touched by Soutine’s works. Francis Bacon and Damien Hirst are there, as well as Israelis who took the pilgrimage to Paris to learn what painting is, such as Menachem Shemi and Moshe Castel. Not all of them were actually lucky enough to meet Soutine in person; Ori Reisman, for example, looked all over for him and was never able to meet him face-to-face. Before the age of cheap flights and the Internet, many Israelis had to make do with postcards and black-and-white reproductions instead of seeing the actual paintings; essentially, they had to produce their own version of Soutine in their minds.
The exhibition does a fantastic job of presenting all aspects the myth of Soutine, the visionary artist who was so unhappy with the landscapes he did in Ceret in the early 1920s that he hunted down such works and destroyed them [not all, some are on display here]; the reclusive man who never got along with Chagall and avoided attending the opening of his own shows; and the man who suffered terrible ulcers, a disease that would eventually kill him, and was lifted from poverty to comparative riches thanks to a wealthy American collector, Albert Barnes, who co-created the antiseptic Argyrol with Hermann Hille.
SOUTINE WAS NOT the only person rescued by Barnes, Bertrand Russell was another, but the excellent biography provided at the exhibition and the impressive accompanying catalog is a first-ever Hebrew introduction to the allusive painter from which anyone who is interested can do his or her own further research.
So what, then, is the glory of Soutine? Why is it that, when he died in 1943, one of the few people to attend his funeral was Picasso? What led the residents of Moscow to flock to the Pushkin Museum when Sadekova curated the first Russian exhibition of his works two years ago?
We will suggest three wide-ranging reasons for this undying interest in Soutine, his innovativeness as a painter, his insight into the pain of modernity, and his emotional grasp of Jewishness.
As a painter, Soutine had an on-going conversation with the great painters of the past, which included not only Dutch master Rembrandt, but also Jean Fouquet and Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin. In the case of Fouquet, painter Jacques Lipchitz remembers how Soutine informed him that the 1445 portrait of Charles VII by Fouquet was “the most beloved thing” [by Soutine] in the Louvre. Chardin’s 1728 painting Still Life with Rayfish is a likely inspiration for the 1924 same-titled work by Soutine, suggests Esti Dunow in her 2006 essay “A painter’s painter” included in the catalog.
Soutine’s profound vision of the pathos-filled relation between life that becomes food, such as rayfish, herrings and beef, and how this blood-shedding and cruelty are inescapable – is what makes him unique. Soutine – who experienced actual hunger and was literally a starving artist before he was discovered by Barnes and others – dealt with food. The material we look at and then consume. The matter that used to be a living being – a goose, a cow – but we as a society kill it and break it apart. Clean the goose from its feathers or butcher the cow into sirloin and tenderloin. In his 1933 work Plucked Goose, the contrast is fierce as the head of the goose, containing its persona so to speak, is laid next to his already plucked body, which is on the way to become a meal for the civilized. In his 1924 work Rabbit and Two Forks, the dead rabbit is almost opened by two large forks, tools shaped by humanity to make the consumption of life more excusable.
FORKS, AS A matter of fact, are mentioned in the Bible in connection to gluttony and wickedness. In Samuel 1 2:14. a corrupt priest is presented as someone who takes for himself “Whatever the fork brought up” [New International Version]. In his 1981 work Kapparah. Michael Sagan-Cohen depicts a living cow with the Hebrew word for a sacrifice given unto the Lord painted on it. A reference to the function all of Bezalel’s hard work was meant to serve – the consumption of offerings by God, and the eating of meat by the people of Israel.
In a 1948 painting by Castle, untitled (Crucifixion), we see the ultimate sacrifice in Western culture, that of Jesus. It is also in the Catholic rite that wafers and sacrament wine are transformed to his flesh and blood. Castle, an Israeli painter, replaced the usual I.N.R.I [Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum, or “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews,” with his own name.
This sensitivity to the unheard cry of those who are slain to provide substance, and whose pain is shrugged off as an unavoidable cost to keeping things going, was admired by other artists who shaped the art world in decades to come. Francis Bacon’s 1953 work Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X might be seen as a successful attempt to capture that scream. Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child (Divided), in which the bodies of a heifer and a calf are split open, preserved and displayed, might be another.
When faced with Reisman’s massive Slaughtered Chicken, which becomes as big as a mountain in the painted landscape, one cannot help but wonder if the Jewish experience of being a victim and suffering pain had not really been overcome in the new society built in this land, but rather reproduced. Yet each viewer will have to make the pilgrimage to the Mishkan in Ein Harod and see for his or her own self.
Naked soul – Chaim Soutine and Israeli Art will be on display at the Ein Harod Art Museum until March 21, 2020. Sunday-Thursday 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Friday 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and Saturday and holidays 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Guided Tours are on offer via Phone 04-6486038 ex 4 or [email protected] Cost of admission is NIS 50. Visitors are advised to visit on the weekend and enjoy the delicious catering of Galia Rafman, who operates Fresco Café located in the art garden mentioned in the article.