Exhibit of the week
Chaim Soutine: Flesh
The Jewish Museum, New York City, through Sept. 16
To the extent that Chaim Soutine remains an obscure figure in the history of 20th-century Western art, “it’s probably because of the beef,” said David D’Arcy in Observer.com. After all, the short-lived Russian-French painter (1893–1943) never lacked admirers: Willem de Kooning cited him as his favorite artist, and Pablo Picasso actually walked in his funeral procession. But though Soutine painted many subjects, he had a special affinity for dead fish, fowl, and other fauna, reaching his pinnacle with a series of canvases depicting butchered cattle. Many of the 32 Soutine paintings currently showing at New York’s Jewish Museum are too gruesome in their imagery to be beloved by a wide audience, but “you can see why artists envied what Soutine could do with paint.” A writer once said you get the feeling from a Chaim Soutine still life that the artist is inventing painting as you look. “You certainly feel that here.”
If only we’d stop worrying about how to categorize him, said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. Born into a poor Jewish family in today’s Belarus, Soutine briefly became a star in Paris in his late 20s and was celebrated again shortly after his death from neglected stomach ulcers. But he’s “occupied a blind spot in contemporary tastes” because art historians haven’t known where to fit his figurative work into their stories about modernism. “That should end now.” Yes, his carcass studies echoed Rembrandt’s and in turn influenced the abstract expressionists. But expressionism is a style, and Soutine “tore style to shreds.” Surrounding himself with plucked chickens and slabs of beef, he aimed for deep realism, striving “by any means expedient—palette knife, sticks, his thumbs—to transpose the forms and the substances that he saw directly into the stuff of paint.” Some of the images are horrific, while others are tender. Every one of them, though, aims for more than a place in an insular conversation about art.
“You have to wonder, what is it that the artist wanted you to think and experience?” said Frances Brent in TabletMag.com. Did he want the viewer to see beauty, savagery, or both at once? A story is often told that Soutine was almost shut down by his neighbors because he kept carcasses in his Paris studio for so long that the stench became unbearable, said Will Heinrich in The New York Times. The anecdote may or may not be myth, but the tale “captures an essential truth.” Soutine didn’t care what people thought of his process. For him, “it was about using his brush as a scalpel to reveal the immaterial force of the material world.”