Fiercely Tilting Canvases 
The paintings of Chaim Soutine
By Amanda Davis

From Gadfly November 1998


Chaim Soutine was one of the truly outrageous in a long line of wild‑man Expressionists. A Lithuanian shtetl‑boy who painted in Paris for thirty years until his death in Nazi‑occupied France, his fiercely original vision redefined the way modern art would look at the world. For the first time since 1950, a traveling retrospective featuring fifty of Soutine's paintings has been mounted. They are some of the most agitated canvases from the twentieth century—cataclysmic landscapes, portraits of figures wracked by convulsions, and haunting studies of melting flesh and rotting animal carcasses. As expressions of personal anguish and cultural anxiety there are few works as powerful or as poignant. Fifty years since the last retrospective! Why have they waited so long? This is the question that arises after viewing this remarkable show.

Born in Smilovitchi, Lithuania, in 1883, Soutine was the tenth of eleven children in a poor Orthodox Jewish family. From an early age Chaim Soutine was possessed by a single‑minded, all‑consuming drive to paint in a community where depicting the human form was a transgression. As a child he stole money from his family to buy colored pencils, and was locked for two days in a damp basement as punishment. A few years later, when he gave the rabbi a portrait he had done of him, he was beaten for the offense. One version of the story recounts it was the rabbi who thrashed young Chaim, another reports it was the rabbi's three sons. Nevertheless, the end result was an out‑of‑court settlement of 25 rubles, enabling Soutine to leave Smilovitchi and study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vilna.

During the two years he spent in Vilna he met a Jewish doctor who became one among many people to provide him crucial financial support and emotional encouragement during his life. Unkempt and ill‑bathed, prone to moodiness and fits of temper, so self‑absorbed he would sell paintings to friends for cash and steal them back when he got half the chance, Soutine was a difficult character. But the power of his genius made him enormously attractive and he was rarely without a patron.

At the age of twenty, with travel money in his pocket from the doctor, he left for Paris and settled in the artist colony La Ruche—the first stop for many painters immigrating from Eastern Europe. When the doctor died shortly after his arrival in Paris, the funds immediately stopped and Soutine was reduced to a cliché—another struggling artist fighting off bedbugs in the cold of his garret. The parsimonious use of color and pigment in his still‑lifes from this period reflect the misery of his impoverished situation. In Still Life with Herrings, three scrawny herrings lie on a plate and gasp for air. Above them two forks are poised like predatory cat‑claws. At the edge of the barren table yawns an empty white bowl.

At the start of World War I in 1914, the artistic community in Paris scattered. Soutine volunteered to dig trenches in a work brigade but was soon released because of his poor health. He was plagued throughout his life with a raging stomach disorder, undoubtedly exacerbated by the stress of the times: waves of anti‑Jewish pogroms in Russia in his youth, immigration, poverty, World War I, the climate of anxiety and xenophobia leading to World War II, the Nazi occupation, and a life of hiding in Vichy France. Among the few photographs that exist of Soutine, one of him in a cafe‑bar reveals how much of his life, as well as his art, was defined by his unrelieved suffering. It is difficult to say whether he is grimacing with pain or smiling as he sits at a table with a cigarette in hand, nursing a glass of milk.

Chaim Soutine's 1918 self‑portrait reveals a developing Expressionistic style. The colors are richer, and the brushwork begins to show the agitation which would become the hallmark of his later work. Although the first strain of Expressionism was introduced by Van Gogh in the late 19th century, the movement never took hold in France as it did elsewhere in Europe. When Soutine arrived on the scene, French artists were settling into the shifting planes of cubism and quirky cut‑outs of Dadaism. But Soutine shrugged off the pull of the avant‑garde to become the lone expressionist in Paris.

Soutine's self‑portrait is an arresting study of an odd‑looking young man standing in front of a canvas. Although the face is intriguing, with bulbous nose, fleshy red lips and large ears, it is the intensity of Soutine's gaze that is most riveting. Soutine has omitted the hands to focus on the eyes. And what we see is the unflinching gaze of the expressionist, transported by the turmoil of his inner vision.

The back of the canvas that Soutine paints in his self‑portrait reveals his habit of reusing old canvases. He haunted flea markets in search of old canvases because he liked applying fresh paint on a richly textured surface. This technique of applying thick impasto over textured surfaces enabled him to move beyond painting into a variation of sculpture. He perfected this technique in his later works where the mounds of thick pigment he shaped seem almost like bas‑relief.

It was during this period that Soutine met the Italian‑Jewish artist Amedeo Modigliani, who was to prove a valuable friend and ally. Already a popular and influential figure in the Montparnasse art circles, he introduced Soutine to the art dealer Leopold Zborowski and convinced the two to work together—Chaim did so begrudgingly, he was by nature contemptuous of art dealers. In 1918, as the situation deteriorated in Paris, Soutine escaped German bombardments and fled to southern France with Modigliani and the Zborowskis.

At Zborowski's suggestion, he remained in the south for two years, settling in Ceret, a village in the Pyrenees near the Spanish border. Similar to van Gogh's experience in Provence, Soutine found in the jagged rocks and deep ravines contortions wild enough to echo his inner world—the landscapes he disgorged in Ceret are the most startling in modern art. But he was emotionally isolated, financially destitute, and suffering from excruciating stomach ulcers; the time he spent in Ceret was painful.

The landscape Gorge du Loup is a scene of violent upheaval. Whorls of raw color rise from the surface of the canvas in dense impasto, jagged peaks and swirling eddies of orange, yellow and green pigment. Soutine's brush strokes are so convulsive that the foundations of buildings seem to crumble and heave with motion, trees wave like rubber and the earth buckles and splits in two. Hill at Ceret churns in a maelstrom of dense color that nearly obliterates the line between representation and abstraction. The only identifiable forms amidst the chaos are the wind‑blown sky and the red roof of a collapsing house.

He would attempt to excise the Ceret landscapes from the body of his work later in his life, coercing friends, dealers and art collectors to locate the canvases so he could destroy them. Although he was always obsessive about editing and reworking canvases, he was particularly ruthless with works completed prior to 1923. Since he left no journals and wrote few letters, it is not clear why he wanted to expunge his remarkable landscapes but stories abound of Soutine attacking these paintings with scissors, knife or razor blade, ripping out sections, dissecting and transplanting, even shredding the canvas on the frame in a paroxysm of rage.

Thirty years before Francis Bacon fixated on the dripping images of the slaughterhouse, Soutine began a series of dead animal paintings in homage to Rembrandt: sides of beef, a hanging skate‑fish with dangling entrails, rabbits and birds suspended in air by cords. Soutine attacked these new paintings with his characteristic single‑mindedness of purpose and utter disregard for convention, in one instance dragging a dead cow to his garret to paint en plein air. When the neighbors complained about the stench to the police, Soutine's defense of his art was so impassioned even the health inspectors were convinced. They let the dead cow hang in his studio and showed him how to preserve it even longer with injections of formaldehyde. When the skin began to wither, Soutine was obliged to return to the slaughterhouse for buckets of blood. He and his assistant would splash fresh blood on the beef whenever it dried as flies swarmed in the air overhead.

Soutine's artistic method approached physical assault in the Ceret landscapes and the dead animal series. He stabbed the canvas with a palette knife and ground in color with his bare hands. He scrubbed, scraped and slapped on pigment with such force he tore holes. As important as the finished work was the process itself—the rapture of artistic creation. Thus, Soutine never did preliminary drawings but waited to be seized by a vision of the completed work. In order to induce this heightened awareness, Soutine would fast before beginning each new piece, then attack the work in a frenzy, slathering the paint in thick wet globs, layer upon layer of swirling colors.

The painting Head and Carcass of a Horse glistens with a plasma‑thick smear of liquid red, and a brilliant overlay of orange paint speckled with daubs of yellow, like moisture collecting on a fatty layer of skin. Faint streaks of blue and green trace the fine net of veins and arteries that run below the surface of the raw flesh. In Hanging Turkey, the yellow bird seems to thrash in a darkened void in the throes of death, its beak open in a last horrified gobble. With their strong currents of atonement and sacrifice, these meditations of mortality captured after the carnage of World War I are haunting: as intimations of the systematized slaughter of World War II, their prescience is ominous.

In 1922, Dr. Albert Barnes, the wealthy Philadelphia art collector who made his fortune from a cure for conjunctivitis, spotted Soutine's paintings in a Paris gallery, bought fifty of them, and presented them alongside his other new discoveries—paintings by Picasso, Modigliani and Utrillo—at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1923. Not unexpectedly, the show was criticized for its artistic excesses; Soutine in particular was singled out and lambasted. It would take another thirty years before an American audience could fully assimilate the visceral colors and emotional fury of Soutine's creations. Indeed, his particular brand of Expressionism would take hold with a vengeance after a 1950 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, inspiring the Abstract Expressionists to follow the wild paths he carved out of the Ceret landscapes and push color and form to complete abstraction.

But in Paris, being singled out by the eminent Dr. Barnes had immediate consequences for Soutine. He was suddenly considered a serious artist, and as a result he vaulted from the fringes of bohemia straight into the art world's leading galleries and salons. People began to collect his work and reviewers began to vent their opinions. In 1927, Soutine befriended Elie Faure, an art critic and physician, who treated him for his stomach ailments at the same time he wrote rhapsodically about his "tragic Jewish vision." He met the Castaings the same year, a wealthy couple who would assume the lifetime role of benevolent patrons to his demanding genius.

The portrait he painted of Madeleine Castaing in 1927 is one of his most appealing. In it there are shades of his old friend Modigliani—the elongated face, the twisting neck and tiny pursed lips. But the comparison ends here, for Modigliani's elegant and stylized figures with their arch smiles and uplifted eyebrows inhabit a coy and modish world. Soutine's world rocks on the edge of disintegration, full of palsied people who shake with tics and other syndromes. They are largely the characters that lived and worked outside the society of privilege, bellboys and butchers, bus hops, servant girls, and pastry chefs, all denizens of a world on the periphery that Soutine knew most of his life.

As his reputation grew, Soutine, the peintre‑maudit or wild artist, transformed his image. Photographs of him from the 1930's show off his dapper suits and suave accessories. As he acquired money, respect, and stature, his paintings began to reflect the changes in his lifestyle—windswept landscapes dotted with laughing children, picturesque cottages, churches and little girls in communion dresses. Although he continued to scour the past for ideas, his palette toned down, and his once maniacal brushwork become more subdued—the previous feverish intensity had dimmed to an edgy and nervous oscillation. Perhaps retreats to health spas, weekends at the Castaings' country estate, and the curative Vichy waters he was regularly taking had finally provided him with a temporary respite from the rages he had long experienced. Another factor attributing to this pastoral phase in his art was his relationship with Gerda Michaelis, a young Jewish woman who had fled Nazi Germany in 1935 and settled in Paris at the age of nineteen. As his companion cum housekeeper and nursemaid, she cleaned his home, dusted his paintings, dispensed his medicine, and shined his shoes for nearly three years. When World War II broke out in 1940, Gerda was interned in a camp with other German nationals in the Pyrenees. The following November, Soutine met Marie‑Berthe Aurenche, the young ex‑wife of Surrealist painter Max Ernst, and she moved into his life where Gerda left off.

In 1940, the Nazis invaded and occupied France, and though life for Soutine became increasingly dangerous, he continued to paint whenever he could. Forced into hiding and wearing the yellow star, he and Aurenche spent the next few years trying to avoid arrest by moving from town to town with false passports. The constant fear and threat of exposure aggravated his ulcers and his health began to deteriorate rapidly. On August 7, 1943 he was secreted into a hospital in Paris where he died two days later at the age of 50 from a perforated ulcer.

His funeral at Montparnasse cemetery was attended by only a handful of people. But standing beside his companions Aurenche and Gerda Michaelis (she had made her way to Paris using a false French passport supplied by the Castaings) were the two most powerful icons of French culture, artists Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau. Their presence at the ceremony was a telling tribute to Soutine's genius—his wildly expressive distortions had set things in motion and the world of modern art would never be quite the same.