Louis Soutter

Württembergischer Kunstverein

The Swiss artist Louis Soutter (1871–1942) is with good reason being reexamined today in the context of neo-Expressionist, or “uninhibited,” painting. This exhibition of nearly 300 works (many literally dug out of private collections) documented an obsessive productivity, the high point of which was reached after his early confinement in an old people’s home, where he lived from 1923 until his death. Soutter, who was professionally trained as an artist, had always been sickly and mentally unstable. Indeed, what permeates the whole of his work is the determinate expressive mania of an artist who struggled fiercely with pain, violent lust, and deformation, and who viewed adaptation to accepted norms as the greatest of all evils. In labeling him an ”outsider" one goes well beyond the current, more casual use of that term.

Organized by the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, this exhibition of Soutter’s largely undated work was divided somewhat arbitrarily into three discrete chronological sections: his early Phase der Hefte (Notebook phase), begun with his confinement in 1923 and marked by the compulsive population of every sort of notebook with the figures of his interiorized world; his “mannerist” period, during which he reverted to copying other artists’ work; and the late finger paintings. The latter, which from a formal standpoint so vehemently call to mind the work of A. R. Penck, take one’s breath away These densely populated stick-figure drawings, for the most part rendered in black ink on paper, condense into an image of the traumatic world of merciless violence that, for Soutter, constituted reality Although the figurative vocabularies of Penck and Soutter are unquestionably similar (both recall the reduced sign paintings of primitive cultures), Penck is concerned with communicating, on an intellectual and an intuitive level, a utopian vision, whereas Soutter was concerned with the explosion of pain. (It is obvious that he did not hit upon finger painting by a process of artistic deliberation but rather as a result of his physical deterioration—sclerosis in his wrists, and partial blindness—in the late ’30s.)

One is easily tempted to interpret Soutter’s work as the expression of psychosis; although there is undeniable evidence to support such an interpretation, it must be emphatically stated that his work clearly emanated from an artistic will to form in the truest sense of the phrase. His professional training is not the only indication for this; through his cousin, the architect Le Corbusier, he maintained contact and exchanged ideas with contemporary artists. In the manner of his transformation of the intellectual world he reminds us of James Ensor, which would suggest that his roots lie in Symbolism; but his formal intent, which is most evident in his “mannerist” drawings, was subverted by his conception of reality as a conflux of pain and violence. To give this terrible reality visual form, he martyred the paper to the point that the surface became scarred, the picture plane burdened with a tensile network of figures and cross-hatchings that seemed boundless.

Upon entering the museum gallery, one saw a harmless still life that barely hinted at Soutter’s later development. From this innocuous beginning, the exhibition (which was accompanied by an excellent, comprehensive catalogue) became an adventure that ultimately revealed his overpowering contemporaneity.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.