New York

Chaim Soutine

Galleri Bellman

In 1951, in a brilliant yet fundamentally wrongheaded essay on Chaim Soutine, Clement Greenberg wrote about his “astounding capacities” but “delayed and incomplete realization of these.” Soutine “set too high a value on the unimpeded expression of feeling,” discounting “to an excess the obligation to organize a picture decoratively.” From the viewpoint of this now bankrupt ideology of abstract purity, Soutine was never anything more than a “sublime illustrator,” who made the serious mistake of turning “his back on Cubism and refused . . . to like anything but the Old Masters.” “Only an outsider and newcomer” could have believed that “Old Master pathos and naturalism” would lend themselves “to the directness of ‘pure’ painting,” and “attempt to wrest from paint matter itself what other artists got from relations.” Today, Soutine’s efforts look less “utterly exotic and largely futile,” for the Procrustean bed of pure painting has been broken up and discarded on the junk heap of history, with other instruments of tyranny. Green-berg’s assertion that the “paint and handling” of Soutine’s pictures “can be savored, but not their unity,” thus forfeiting “that final exhilaration which is the most precious thing in art’s gift,” ignores the fact that pictorial unity is more a psychological creation, based on the spectator’s expectations, than a physical fact. The experience of pictorial unity is the end result of a deepening relation to the work, regressing from conscious cognition to unconscious involvement with it. Unless this regression can be carried through, like a self-conscious trip to the labyrinthine underworld of the work—and unless the work itself can survive such unconscious “investigation”—the work becomes meaningless, or, rather, stuck on the superficial level of meaning represented by Greenberg’s conception of pictorial unity as defined decoratively. Soutine’s “Old Master pathos and naturalism” invite the spectator to a deeper level of involvement than pure decorative unity can afford.

Soutine’s people, landscapes, and food are rendered with varying degrees of turbulence—to our eyes today a restrained turbulence, as if in deliberate respect for the integrity of the object depicted. Yet Soutine does trespass the conventions of ordinary representation, and, more crucially, of Cubist representation, in his insistence that what is signified can never entirely be reduced to a sign. Paint as matter becomes for Soutine a symbol of the resistance of the thing being depicted to its depiction—its “conventionalization.” For Soutine “pathos” exists not in the subject matter, but in the painterliness that makes its independent “nature” articulate. If we take him seriously as an illustrator we see that what he illustrates is the power latent in matter, not this or that “expression.” None of his figures really have a nameable mood, and there is not even Van Gogh’s desire to give them a “supernatural” effect. The “poignancy” of Soutine’s pictures, if such it be, comes not from a grappling with the effect of transcendence that comes from concentration on nature’s mysterious color, but with the sense of indwelling power embedded in its material sedimentations.

At the same time, the subject matter shows a stunning sense of latent psychological reality, and above all of psychological unity—consistency of mood, as it were. This is a direct effect of the artist’s empathic involvement, a persistent, attentive involvement, with his subject as matter, generating a sense of it as a realm of latent “feelings” about to be “expressed.” Looked at carefully, Soutine’s pictures aren’t subjectively “expressive,” but dwell so intently on matter that it seems latent with meaning about to become manifest. One sees strict attention to materiality rather than pure subjective fluidity; fluidity is not superimposed by the artist’s desire to dominate his subject matter, but comes from strict observation of it as raw material. Such “naturalism” is the most authentic source of “pathos,” of the effect of indwelling feeling.

A note: many of the works here had a gray, overcast tonality. Should they be cleaned, or is that the way they were painted? Probably the former, since there is cracking in many of them. Of course, such delicate grayness goes well with what one of the catalogue essays—all quite superb—calls Soutine’s “predilection” for the still life genre, his “passionate attraction to all that is . . . dead.” In that state matter is most itself, as it were, its power most naked, if most stilled. Greenberg’s ideology of purity as usual made him shortsighted. Soutine showed that the deepest artistic unity came from “caring” for what was fundamental in life, not simply from ordinary artistic decorative or everyday emotional concerns.

Donald Kuspit