Critics’ Picks

Chaim Soutine, Carcass of Beef, ca. 1925, oil on canvas, 55 x 42".

Chaim Soutine, Carcass of Beef, ca. 1925, oil on canvas, 55 x 42".

New York

Chaim Soutine

The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue
May 4–September 16, 2018

At the entrance to “Flesh,” a survey of Chaim Soutine’s meat still lifes, we are greeted by an oil on canvas of a dead rayfish (Still Life with Rayfish, ca. 1924), inspired by a Chardin painting. The titular creature hangs flag-like, facing the viewer with empty eyes and a wide-open mouth that wavers between song and scream—an ecstatic martyr for the dinner table.

Like all of the paintings in this show, Rayfish reminds us that the pleasure of consumption relies on the pain and sacrifice of others—an understanding that should prompt us to give meals the solemnity of ritual they deserve. This is a simple message, but Soutine delivers it with exquisite beauty and force. Take the pair of fowl laid gently on a white tablecloth, as if on a silken casket veil (Two Partridges on a Table, ca. 1926), or the painting of three silvery fish on a plate, flanked by forks (Still Life with Herrings, ca. 1916); the entrée shimmers like the cutlery waiting to descend upon it. Soutine’s images of chickens have a decidedly Jewish inflection: Plucked and strung-up, the birds recall kapparot, a Yom Kippur tradition in which human sins are symbolically transferred to a chicken that is later killed in atonement.

Yet the exhibition’s centerpiece is the beef—much like a hearty supper. One section features pictures of butchered cows and oxen, their exposed bones and innards a gruesome tangle of black, jaundiced yellow, and a lacquered red so deep it appears to have the stickiness and gleam of congealed blood. These images, especially Carcass of Beef, ca. 1925, are haunting. The slaughter is still fresh.