“Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented”: Chaim Soutine at the Jewish Museum
Chaim Soutine: Flesh at the The Jewish Museu
May 4 – September 16, 2018
1109 Fifth Avenue, at 92nd Street,
New York City, thejewishmuseum.org
In 1950, a Chaim Soutine exhibition at MoMA attracted a serious response from the New York art world. Willem de Kooning expressed great admiration for Soutine, arguing that “[he] builds up a surface that looks like a material, like a substance.” Indeed, three years later de Kooning’s own figurative works responded to that show. Subtitling this year’s small exhibition of thirty-some Soutine still lifes “Flesh,” the Jewish Museum subtly (perhaps unconsciously) alludes to de Kooning’s famous statement, “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented”?
In our very different contemporary art world, this show will surely fascinate figurative and abstract painters alike. (I would be surprised, for instance, if Bill Jensen is anything but riveted by it.) Soutine appeals to our present sensibility in ways that his once more famous near-contemporaries, Picasso or Mondrian, do not. Where Cubism, Surrealism and modernist abstraction are now of essentially historical curiosity, Soutine’s painterly manner remains a live option. That is surprising, for he wanted to work within the old master and early modernist museum-based tradition – he expressed great admiration for Chardin, Courbet and Rembrandt. But the way he radicalized that tradition remains galvanizing.
Soutine is a surprisingly varied artist. Still Life with Artichoke (1916) sets a dinner on a tilted table in a traditional still life format while Still Life with Fish (1921) lines up the fish in an opened up dish. He paints a number of hanging fowls, Chicken Hanging before a Brick Wall (1927) being one. He does great sides of beef and, inspired by Courbet, The Fish (1933). And near the end of his life, he painted the very strange Sheep behind a Fence (1940), which isn’t a still life. All of these works (except for the first and last of these I have named) set his subject, which is painted in his expressive style, on a flat, relatively neutral close up background. To speak, then, as I do, of Soutine as an expressionist is to identify the way that his technique always draws attention to the pigment per se. Seeing his luscious intense browns, yellows and reds, we are aware at the same time of the subject that they depict. Of course, all figurative art calls for this dual-awareness. But Soutine, more than the old masters he admired, focuses attention on the physicality of pigment. In his review of a Jewish Museum show of twenty years ago, Arthur Danto offered a challenging argument, which is relevant to our present inquiry. Soutine, he argues, is an artist who could only be properly (or fully) understood after the development of Abstract Expressionism, for his goal was “to paint recognizable subjects abstractly, that is to say, without the isomorphism between the image and the subject’s visual form as traditionally sought.” In thus inspiring de Kooning, Soutine showed us how to understand his own works – and demonstrated why today they remain so challenging.
Contemplating Paul Cézanne’s still lives, you become aware of how he manipulates the table and bowls supporting his apples and other still life objects, fashioning a visually precarious, spatial harmony. Cubism, we see, is in the wings. Here, in very different paintings, Soutine’s subjects are the armatures, the pretext if you will, for his exercises in pure painting. A great colorist, he uses intense, generally dark pigments, which almost always remain luminous. His art is touching in the double sense of that word: it is intensely expressive because you feel that he has created from mere pigment, as it were, the objects which he depicts; and it is touching because it holds your attention. Some old master still life painters show precious or rare foodstuffs and artifacts, luxury goods. Soutine’s banal subjects don’t call attention to themselves. And yet, once I attend momentarily to any one of them, I can hardly tear my eyes away.
Arthur Danto’s “Abstracting Soutine” is republished in his The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World (New York, 2000).