PRINT Summer 1968

Soutine and the Problem of Expressionism

THE LIFE OF CHAIM SOUTINE is a harrowing fable of aspirations impossible to realize, emotions impossible to appease, appetites impossible to satisfy. It is all the more harrowing for being so familiar, not only in the particularities of the artist’s own biography but in the archetype of the suffering Jew which that biography evokes with such intense drama and despair. No matter that this archetype has become a slightly shopworn fixture of our commercial culture. Soutine recalls us to its essential shape and substance—to an adversity of spirit that is unalterable and unremitting even in the face of worldly acclaim and success.

At the same time, Soutine is—above all—a painter, an artist of a certain type, dreaming the dream of the museums, bending his will, his talent, the very marrow of his vitality, to the realization of an art which the dimensions of his own temperament and the desperation of his quest almost preclude him from carrying to its exalted conclusion. In Soutine, the suffering Jew and the peintre maudit conspire against the disinterested artist who would like nothing better than to be a classic, and in the process, they turn him into a classic of another sort altogether—a classic of Expressionism, where the tradition of the Old Masters he venerates is not so much upheld as swamped by the pressures of extreme emotions.

Soutine is, indeed, a crucial example of the paradox of Expressionism. In the pantheon of modern styles, Expressionism is—after Realism—the most conservative. It is the least adventurous in the pure inventions of mind, the most hesitant to tear asunder the basic constituents of the traditional easel painting, the most eager to reform rather than to revolutionize what it inherits from the past. Yet it is the most fastidious in sustaining—even, it might be said, in celebrating—the momentum of raw emotion in the picture-making process. Thus, Expressionism aspires to a pictorial ethos to which Expressionist priorities of feeling inhibit direct access.

To this basic paradox Soutine added his own special imperatives. He seemed to go through life with all his nerve-ends exposed, and certainly not least while he was painting. The visual equivalent of a kind of physical pain seems—at least in his most extreme paintings—an abiding constituent of his pictorial style. Yet his style was founded on the inventions and refinements of Post-Impressionism, in which—in varying degrees—feeling was carefully mediated by attentions to form, architecture, design. In the Expressionist painters of Northern and Central Europe, a similar debt to Post-Impressionist esthetics was turned to quite different account. The best of these painters—Munch, Kokoschka, Beckmann—were intellectuals, connoisseurs of social crisis and sexual neurosis, acute observers whose profound comprehension of modern life turned them into tragic elegists. These men painted from the inside of the culture they inhabited, whereas Soutine remained an alien to that culture, unconcerned about anything beyond the difficult equations he was able to effect between the art in which he had invested his entire human substance and the emotions which threatened that substance with immanent dissolution.

All in all, a problematic case. Soutine disrupts, unsettles, amazes. He puts us through something like his own intense dislocations. The physical pain he conveys has a way of turning into a form of ecstasy. Just as he often invests more emotion in a painting than its materials—the pigment, the motif, the frenzied process verging on hysteria and incoherence—can quite bear with total esthetic equanimity, so does his work often compel our emotions to a response in excess of the intrinsic merits of the individual picture. He conducts a kind of artistic blackmail on the innocent spectator, and exacts from him an involvement, an absorption, a submission beyond the ordinary because Soutine’s own absorption in the transaction is total.

In saying this, I realize that I am speaking primarily of the Céret landscapes. It is now several months since I have seen the great Soutine exhibition which Maurice Tuchman organized at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There were some ninety paintings in that exhibition—the largest Soutine exhibition we have had in this country. Certain portraits—or rather, certain faces in those portraits—I shall remember as long as any painting I have ever seen. I have no doubt at all that the Beef (ca. 1925), from the collection of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, is a far greater painting than any single example from the Céret series. Yet it was the ten Céret landscapes that remained, for me, the crux of this exhibition, prompting a response more urgent—I will not say more enduring—than that elicited by exhibitions of artists (Matisse, say, or Bonnard) whom I hold in much higher esteem.

Is this a response to the painting or only to the man? “Soutine’s art has, from first to last, a genuine as well as obvious capacity to move us. But, as I have hinted, this does not always accord with the art of painting.” This observation, from Clement Greenberg’s essay on Soutine—the best essay on the painter I know—is itself a virtual definition of the Expressionist esthetic. Earlier, Greenberg noted of certain of Soutine’s landscapes of the 1920s—it isn’t clear whether he means the Céret paintings—that they “do not stay in place the way pictures should. They do not ‘sit’ decoratively.” And still earlier in this same essay, Greenberg wrote: “Perhaps he asked too much of art, perhaps set too high a value on the unimpeded expression of feeling. Certainly, he discounted to an excess the obligation to organize a picture decoratively; and even in the latter part of his life, when he became less high-handed in this respect and produced his most completely satisfying works, the decorative ordering of a picture remained something he submitted to rather than embraced.”

Now I think there can be no doubt about the fact that Soutine did ask too much of art and that he did “set too high a value on the unimpeded expression of feeling.” This “too much” and “too high” are what make the Céret landscapes—even now, half a century later—so difficult to accept as pure painting. There is an investment in them beyond the esthetic. Yet for myself, I know that when Soutine becomes “less high-handed,” when his whole approach to picture-making becomes relatively tranquillized, he interests me far less. The drop in intensity has a sedative effect that is indistinguishable, at times, from ennui. The pressure is reduced; the painter is less emphatically there; there is only the painting. And in the dialectics of Expressionism, where only the painting is present, there is something essential left out.

It would be a mistake, though, to think that this view implies an involvement with the artist’s biography at the expense of his art. In a sense, Soutine had no biography outside his art; one might even say that his art was a substitute for a biography. In this respect, the attempt made by Maurice Tuchman—in his essay for the catalog of the Los Angeles exhibition—to portray Soutine as a shtetl personality fails utterly to illuminate the art of Soutine. The comparison of this art to the writings of Sholom Aleichem is simply vulgar. For the suffering Jew was not, in this case, a Yiddish artist. He was a homeless cosmopolite, and his very homelessness was one of the pressures that carried certain of his pictures—the Céret pictures above all others—to their extremes of inwardness.

Hilton Kramer