Chaïm Soutine

On Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943)

By Christian Kile

‘The main reason I bought so many of the paintings was that they were a surprise, if not a shock, and I wanted to find out how he got that way.  Besides, I felt he was making creative use of certain traits of the work of Bosch, Tintoretto, Van Gogh, Daumier and Cézanne, and was getting new effects with colour’

Albert C. Barnes, Art Collector 1950

‘Houses’ (1920-21) – a group of twisting, contorted buildings pinioned between land and sky – is one of the surviving Céret landscapes painted by Chaïm Soutine. This painting, now in the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, shows the subjects linked and interdependent, yet, at the same time, individually competing for their space in the landscape.

“This would be unbearable on acid”, said one of my friends on his first visit to the museum’s Soutine rooms.  And his work does have a hallucinogenic quality.

Soutine is an artist who destroyed to create, willing to slash and burn his paintings to ashes, keeping only the versions he liked, a process that has resulted in infusing them with an unsettling intensity.

houses

‘Houses’, 1920-21, oil on canvas, Musée de l’Orangerie

But consciously or not, this painter of swooping churning anguish reigned himself in and probably saved his sanity with the use of restraining external influences.  He played Bach, the most ordered mathematically precise composer, when he painted; he adapted his primal social behaviour in the company of his highly-cultured patrons, the Castaings, and throughout his career he reworked the old masters, respectful and always mindful of their discipline.

Soutine was stirred by the work of Rembrandt whom he revered, and was particularly fascinated by his idol’s depiction of flesh, returning to an interpretation of the Louvre meat carcass more than once.  His one-time neighbour, the writer Henry Miller described his preoccupation with flesh as an obsession.

The way in which many of Soutine’s images produce an effect of life in death, notably the poultry and bulkier carcasses – mouths, beaks and eyes open wide – make us feel we have just missed the slaughter and that only moments ago these were living creatures.

Indeed, Soutine’s carcasses seem more alive than many painters’ live subjects. Adjust the canvas by 90 degrees and his ‘Hare Against Green Shutter’ (1925-26) would be seen to be loping along!

Soutine worked in spates, not painting for days, weeks or even months, and then would set to with a ferocious intensity, often for many hours at a time.  The decomposing animal carcasses sometimes had to be infused with formaldehyde to dull their stench.

It was testing for his sitters, even verging on cruelty.  Determined to see through their surface appearance, Soutine subjected them to long days and weeks of concentrated and sustained looking followed by furious action. One of his models tells of being made to pose for so long that it verged on a hallucinatory experience for both of them.

While no group claimed him, Soutine is classed as an Expressionist. Essentially though, his art is his direct response to confronting nature, and his trademark intensity is probably due to his working in isolation in France, away from the influence of the Expressionist group of artists based in Berlin, Munich or Vienna.

Soutine was not one for words.  He neither kept diaries nor written correspondence about his work, and whether he made preparatory drawings remains contested.  If he did, then like many of his canvasses, he probably destroyed them.  What remains is a small collection of photos taken throughout his life and the paintings.

still life

‘Still Life with a Pheasant, circa 1924, oil on canvas, Musée de l’Orangerie

Soutine grew up in the small, poverty-stricken Jewish village of Smilovitchi, Belarus.  His father, a strict disciplinarian and devout Jew, discouraged him from pursuing his interest in art for which he had shown a marked talent from an early age.

Despite much opposition, he eventually moved to Minsk and embarked on a drawing course, followed by three years at the Vilna Academy of Art in Lithuania. Afterwards in 1913 Soutine moved to Paris to further his career.  He was alone for much of the time and poor but he allowed nothing to get in the way of painting.

Here, through the artist Jacques Lipchitz, he met Amedeo Modigliani. Theirs was a close if tempestuous friendship – aggravated by heavy drinking – despite their radically different temperaments and work styles.

They were a familiar sight on the town.  Modigliani drew out Soutine socially; he complimented him and encouraged him in his work, and his premature death deeply affected Soutine.  Alcohol was blamed and from then on Soutine limited his drinking.

Through Modigliani Soutine was introduced to art dealer Leopold Zborowski, who represented him from 1917 to his death in 1932.  He also benefited financially from the arrival of Dr. Albert Barnes, an American businessman, in Paris in 1922.

A discerning collector, intent on buying paintings for his Philadelphia Art Foundation, Barnes swiftly saw the quality of Soutine’s works: delighted by the painting of pastry cook Rémy Zocchetto, he bought the series of below stairs hotel and kitchen staff portraits* by the artist.  Barnes acquired some 52 paintings, maybe more, that have contributed substantially to Soutine’s posthumous success and recognition.

The artist’s fortunes continued to look up when he met Marcellin and Madeleine Castaing in the late 1920s.  Two of the most influential figures in his career, they became his patrons and supported him for the rest of his life.  For ten years Soutine was invited to stay and work at their pastoral retreat at Lèves.

Madeleine was a successful interior designer and her circle included cultured members of the French establishment, bringing Soutine into contact with leading lights such as Cocteau and Satie, and art historian Elie Faure, who became an enthusiastic champion of his work.

If he personally seemed one step away from self-destruct, many of his paintings were not spared.  We are lucky that any of his Céret landscapes survive.  Faure said of them: “In his studio, he lacerates them with rage.”

An impoverished Soutine spent time in Céret, a town in the Pyrenees, between 1919-1922, where he was unable to get on with other artists and locals.

Nonetheless, this period resulted in a series of his most distinctive and bacchanalian paintings.  Here, figures, landscapes and buildings are compressed, distorted and thrust towards the viewer on claustrophobic canvasses.

Madeleine Castaing recalls: “While he was painting, everyone … had to disappear.  We always waited in fear of that sinister noise.  If he didn’t like the painting, he’d take a knife and slash it…Then he had to like the painting when it was finished…He would call us to come and see it…If he saw the smallest trace of disappointment, he would grab the gasoline which he had next to him and a sponge…”

photo

Soutine and Madeleine Castaing during the mid 1930s

Perhaps Soutine believed that his later work surpassed the Céret paintings that might have signalled a dead end – that is, he felt he could go no further in this artistic direction without straying too far into abstraction.  Or, perhaps, they were simply a reminder of a difficult period he would prefer to forget.

Soutine’s late period is generally considered to be from the mid-1930s to 1943. Some critics and writers have dismissed these works as regressive. He is accused of needlessly reining himself in and being so enthralled by past masters that it reduced the urgency and potency found in the earlier paintings.

Regardless of the reduced pictorial aggression—allowing the faces in his portraits to be averted, ridding them of their dramatic confrontational stares found in the earlier works, and producing landscapes that are more classically formal in structure—Soutine’s vision, energies and painting process in these late works remain consistent.

The images– landscapes, portraits, still-lives – are a natural progression from the artist’s earlier ones and reflect the artist’s dedication, throughout his career, to achieve ever-increasing clarity and concentrated expression.

Unfortunately, assessment of Soutine’s late paintings is hampered by the lack of them on public show (many are in private collections) and that they are disproportionately few in comparison with his earlier works; 100 paintings are known dating from the 1930s onwards, compared to 400 painted in the preceding 15 years. And that does not include the early paintings he destroyed!

During this latter part of his life and despite his notorious unsociability Soutine sustained close relationships with women.  He met Gerda Michaelis, a Jew from a prosperous family, who had fled Nazi Germany to live in Paris, where she was working as a house cleaner.  Gerda kept his studio and apartment clean and orderly, and helped him seek treatment for his crippling stomach pains.  They separated in 1940 at the onset of the Second World War.  Gerda survived but never saw Soutine again.

In November 1940 Soutine met Marie-Berthe Aurenche, recently divorced from the Surrealist Max Ernst.  With the Nazi threat looming she and her friends helped Soutine escape from Paris and he took refuge near Richelieu.

But the constant worry of living as a fugitive aggravated his stomach illness, and he was forced to return to Paris for urgent treatment.  After a treacherous journey into the city Soutine underwent an operation for his ulcer but he died soon afterwards on August 9th 1943.

Soutine was buried at Montparnasse Cemetery, the service attended by a small group of artists and friends, including Aurenche, Picasso and Cocteau.

Although Soutine cannot be described as an under appreciated artist internationally, he certainly has been overlooked in the UK.  Fashion and poor critical opinion have seen to this.  So this is a rare opportunity to see a collection of his portraiture.

portrait

The Pastry Chef (Baker Boy) (Le Pâtissier), c. 1919, oil on canvas, The Barnes Foundation

The upcoming exhibition, Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys*, is at The Courtauld Gallery (October 19th 2017- January 21st 2018)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jean-Michel Basquiat

by Christian Kile

‘Following the fashionable lead of his time (epitomized by the Prince of Wales) he dissipated his talents and his life (1763-1804). Debts forced up his output – during the last eight years of his life he produced at least 100 canvasses a year; whilst drink and false stimulation of every sort made his work even more automatic and repetitive than it might otherwise have been.’

The above is quoted from John Berger’s essay on the Georgian artist George Morland, renowned for his prolific output and problems with dealers, and it could well be applied to the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

More often than not, when I hear Basquiat’s name mentioned it is in relation to the sensational aspects of his life rather than his work: his relations with Andy Warhol and Madonna, the exorbitant praise from dealers and hangers on, the brief period of success, followed by the collapse into drug addiction and death. He personified the excesses of the 1980s New York art scene. Which makes Basquiat all the more appealing to dealers and the star struck. And today his prices continue to soar.

It has been almost 30 years since his death and the hype shows no signs of abating. He first gained attention in the downtown New York scene of the late 70s and early 80s with graffiti that was markedly different from his contemporaries. It involved more than tagging a name; more singular, Basquiat’s graffiti was littered with witty words or symbols – and there were plenty of them – that later found their way into his drawings and paintings.

During my last visit to the Whitney Museum, his work, ‘Hollywood Africans’ attracted crowds of visitors, dominated by those in their late teens and 20s, who appeared fascinated by his life and times and 1980s fashion, and full of admiration for his work that clearly struck a chord.

He achieved success quickly in his career and his output was sizeable. His early and late styles concertinaed within a decade and by 27 he was dead. He worked intuitively, drawing from a vast pool of stimulus: such as Dubuffet, Twombly; Picasso and Rauschenberg without the eroticism; television and radio; his experience as a young black man, and eclectic musical influences, including classical and jazz.

This is the first time a substantial Basquiat show has been held in the UK. Perhaps even now insufficient time has passed to override those critics determined to view his work as a symbol for the degradation of art history and the triumph of the art market over works of quality.

However, he is original enough to figure in the canon of art history, and for good reason. He was able to spell out and successfully communicate to us what he, young and black, perceived in the world around him and within himself through his work.

It seems to me that he is one of the last significant 20th century artists capable of creating good paintings, which hang in major museums and galleries, and will continue to do so. I do not find a Basquiat painting in New York’s Museum of Modern Art out of place.

Nonetheless, it is clear that much of his popularity is down to fashion and the market. That he emerged from a graffiti background is significant – it helped him to attract and connect with his public, whom he later secured in his transition to painting.

It could also legitimately be argued that in some quarters his contribution is overestimated, particularly if we compare him to another 20th century artist who too died early: Egon Schiele far and away surpassed him as draughtsman and painter, and his work possessed great psychological depth.

But while Basquiat may not be the genius some claim, it is also true that the financial success he enjoyed in his lifetime and excessive commercialism surrounding his work should not be used to discredit and dismiss his artistic achievements. If exploitative dealers, hangers on and drugs had not dragged him down, there is every chance his work would have continued to develop well and matured.

For now we can count ourselves fortunate to see such a comprehensive exhibition of his works in this country – it’s been a long time coming.

Glenn

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Glenn 1984/5

 

Basquiat: Boom for Real 

The Barbican, London (21 September 2017 – 28 January 2018)

First blog post

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

For the past few years I have been reading and writing a great deal on art – particularly paintings.  I’m surprised at the lack of illuminating and stimulating writing being produced today, and that those writers who have best expressed or interpreted art are now dead or old.  Which is why I have begun this blog: to present ways of seeing art from a youthful perspective.

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