New York

Chaim Soutine

The popular press has been filled with curmudgeonly harrumphings about the overtly conceptual framework Kenneth Silver and Norman Kleeblatt have imposed on their exposition of Chaim Soutine’s work. Rather than mount a show that traverses his oeuvre chronologically or even thematically, the two curators have structured their presentation of the artist’s career by focusing on its reception. Soutine was first understood, they claim, as a sort of primitive who had lifted himself from the depths of a Lithuanian shtetl and a culture that dishonored imagemaking to express himself on canvas by sheer will and native talent. Later his supporters began to sec him as the last hope for a specifically French painting culture, a tradition-minded successor to Chardin and Courbet who, in the teeth of Cubism, abstraction, and Dada, had refused intellectual schematization and espoused conventional genres of portrait, landscape, and still life. (That both views were often proposed in succession by the same critics may be a reminder of how intertwined a feeling for the primal quality of peasant life once was with the French sense of urbanity.) Posthumously, Soutine was taken as a precursor of Abstract Expressionism, an artist whose concern to make the entirety of each canvas pulsate with painterly intensity had pushed representational imagery to the brink of disappearance.

If all that sounds like grist for an art-history seminar, it turns out to have actually been a good idea for an exhibition, though it probably would have been unworkable with a sampling much larger than the fifty-odd paintings included here (some 10 percent of Soutine’s relatively scarce surviving oeuvre, and about as many as Albert Barnes snapped up in a single spree in 1922, but significantly fewer than were included in MoMA’s 1950 retrospective). The reason their approach succeeds is that it corresponds to tendencies internal to the art. The struggle over critical interpretation is deeply related to the way Soutine could only have struggled to fathom his own position as an artist. Although he was hardly untrained when he arrived in Paris in 1913, having studied at the art academy in Vilna, the stark and uningratiating quality of his paintings ofthe late ’10s—a real contrast with the sensual style of his great friend of the early Paris years, Amadeo Modigliani—suggests that not only the painter but his painterly cuisine had been fed a starvation diet. By the early ’20s the more exuberantly aggressive paint-heavy manner we now associate with Soutine was in place—canvases that exhibit an unmistakable volupté in their writhing, tortuous substance, but at the price of mésure, particularly in the Southern landscapes of Céret and Cagnes (towns he grew to detest). He had somehow grasped Cézanne’s rapt openness to the violent intensity of sensations without any of the implacable determination to channel them into a solid structure—the part of Cézanne’s project the Cubists passed on to mainstream Modernism.

In the catalogue, Kleeblatt and Silver correctly see Soutine “firmly ensconced in the history of twentieth-century art, but tangential to a canonical modernist reading.” That’s because, by definition, nothing can become canonical until it is made to give a rule, to teach a lesson—in Modernism above all, because the twentieth-century way of pursuing the nineteenth-century revolt against the academy was to formulate the bases for a new one, of which the Bauhaus would only be the most obvious example. In general, Modernism desires “innovations that lent themselves clearly to logical analysis and reconstruction,” as Jack Tworkov noted in his review of Soutine’s 1950 retrospective. But Soutine is perhaps the most important modern artist whose work is of no pedagogical use whatsoever. What other painter has given permission to so much adolescent wallowing in undisciplined “expressiveness”?

Soutine did have a passionate relation to tradition, but it was one summed up in Wittgenstein’s observation that “someone lacking a tradition who would like to have one is like a man unhappily in love.” As the ’20s passed into the ’30s, Soutine, refusing to just reproduce the pictorial tumults of his initial successes, valiantly tried to impose an orderly architecture on them (literally so in Chartres Cathedral, ca. 1933) and often quoted more directly than before (Woman Entering the Water, ca. 1931, and The Siesta, ca. 1934, cite Rembrandt and Courbet, respectively), but mostly to enfeebling effect.

Does that mean that Soutine was a primitive all along, that in haunting the museums he sold off the authenticity that was his birthright? Hardly. He was plagued by the same midcareer doldrums that trouble most painters. Those who work through them go deeper than those who simply push a formula (even an apparently iconoclastic one). Return from School After the Storm, ca. 1939, the last painting here, is not only one of Soutine’s greatest, but it possesses a mysteriously quiet power present nowhere else. It whispers that, had the artist’s bad health not conspired with Nazi occupation to deny him his full maturity (the constant fear imposed on a foreign-born Jew must have aggravated the ulcer that killed him in 1943), he might have attained a tragic serenity that would have cast what came before in a different light.

So it may be a historically determined injustice to remember Soutine as a sort of hunger artist—one whose scrawny carrots and herrings or, later, nourishing hares and turkeys speak less to the eye and more to the stomach than those of any other still-life painter. Yet, to the extent that the cliche is true, it registers not a Kafkaesque urge toward self-diminution but an unmistakable aggressiveness in his stance toward his subjects. Like Caravaggio, he refused to draw, working directly from the motif, but only in what a Hegelian might call its determinate negation. The legend that he starved himself for days before painting a side of beef is at least this true: the artist’s hunger for reality and its promise of nourishment is not to preserve but to devour.

Barry Schwabsky contributes frequently to Artforum.